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Affluenza the All-Consuming Epidemic Book Review
(ISBN-10: 1576753573, 2005) by John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, is a book that started as a PBS Documentary about American consumerism. This 288-page book reads in an entertaining and witty, and sometimes biting style, but provokes strong reactions, and offers much food for thought. Affluenza, The All-Consuming Epidemic
Using disease as their metaphor, the authors of Affluenza describe America's obsession with keeping up with the Joneses, and its deleterious effects on society.
In section one, Symptoms, authors describe the day after Thanksgiving, where Americans feverishly shop for bigger, more expensive gifts at gigantic mega-malls, amassing mountains of debt. But this example is just a familiar and easy-to-recognize touchstone. The symptoms of Affluenza reach far beyond the shopping mall and into the homes of American families, who have too much stuff, too much debt, and too little time, because we are devoting our lives to working to pay for all that stuff.
We are building and buying bigger houses to store the stuff. One particular passage made me gulp. The authors describe the evolution of American home ownership in the 20th century, from 750 square foot bungalows to 4000 square foot McMansions with double cheese. Do you want fries with that? And as American family's car purchases have increased, so have the need for garages. The median sized home has increased to a 2300 square foot house with a three-car garage. Now ask me how big is the house I just bought?
The authors describe Affluenza as "n. A painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."
The human costs of affluenza are just as high as the financial ones. The authors describe people who are out of touch with their communities, and a whole generation of people whose motivations are neither moral or social, but financial.
Affluenza is divided into three sections: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment.
Affluenza doesn't read as a holier-than-thou diatribe against consumerism. Though the book does a fabulous job of showing the human and social costs of "the dogged pursuit of more." Instead, the writers of this book lay the blame at the feet of the American Advertising industry, suggesting that advertisers and big corporations have manipulated the social environment by misleading consumers and preying on and promoting American greed to encourage sales. The authors suggest that the American economy is functioning on the assumption that Americans must continue to buy, build, and consume more, more, and yet more in order to achieve a viable standard of living. But this model is unsustainable, because resources aren't in endless supply. And that is why this book radically changed my thinking.
The stylized political cartoons of Pullitzer-Prize wiinning illustrator David Horsey add visual interest and ironic humor to an already well-written book.
As I read this book, I couldn't help but recall one the 1979 movie The Jerk, starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. In this rags to riches to rags movie, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters suddenly find themselves filthy rich, and almost as suddenly, they find themselves in the poorhouse once more. As Martin's character tries to console Peters, she says,I don't care about losing all the money. It's losing all the stuff. On one level. that movie was well ahead of its time.
The Solution is Simplicity
I am a parent of three children, and the dogged pursuit of more isn't
the legacy I want to leave for my family. I was struck by the complexity of the social issues presented in this book, but encouraged by some of the solutions the authors suggest. Among these solutions are the voluntary simplicity movement, which encourages people to live simply on less, and more radical social and political changes, like shortening the work week. These solutions offer more of a vision for a different future than focusing in on the nuts and bolts of right living. However, the author's vision of a simpler, better future include a greater connection to the natural world, and growing one's own food.
I think that the "cure" section of Affluenza isn't as well-presented as the previous two sections, but the book offers a good overview of the social problems created by consumerism and overspending, while trying to offer a different and better vision for the future. I would strongly encourage this book as recommended reading or a high school or college-level civics class, or as excellent selection for any book club.