For awhile in the late 90s and early 00s the term affluenza was fashionable, used to describe the rapidly spreading devotion to conspicuous consumption. It was the name of a 1996 PBS documentary, which was later turned into the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by the series producer John De Graaf, in collaboration with David Wann and Thomas Naylor. It wasn’t nearly the book I hoped it would be, but I found it useful in a number of ways, and someone less steeped in this topic than I am would probably learn quite a bit from reading it.
The book never really breaks free from its origins as a TV documentary, which is a big weakness but also adds some small strengths. Like most documentaries, it is shallow, episodic, and peppered with anecdotes which are entertaining but don’t really advance the argument or deepen the reader’s understanding of a point. The first and longest part of the book is a parade of anecdotes and factoids, easy and engaging reading that is designed to elicit a “Gee, really?” response. A bit more thoughtfulness and a lot more background information would have produced something very edifying. Still, it does make for an absorbing survey of a broad landscape which the average reader, while inhabiting it, has probably not spent much time pondering. As such, it makes for a good first encounter with the topic.
To give you a feel for the ground covered, here are brief summaries of the first fourteen chapters of the book, each about eight pages long:
- The centrality of shopping in the average person’s life
- Extreme amounts of personal debt
- Upwardly spiraling desire for material goods
- The massive accumulation of personal property
- The stress of earning enough money to acquire these goods
- The effects of overspending on family life
- How children are trained to be consumers
- How the consumer economy destroys community
- How materialistic lives become empty lives
- The growing disparity between rich and poor
- The strain that spiraling consumption puts on limited natural resources
- The damage that consumer-centered industry does to the world
- How shopping becomes an addiction
- How business depends on a perpetually dissatisfied consumer
If any of those ideas never occurred to you, the corresponding chapter has plenty of material to get you started thinking about it.
The middle section surprised me, being six chapters (forty pages) of history describing how the American went from its fairly simple, self-sufficient beginnings to an end that is in total thrall to conspicuous consumption. Not heavy reading at all, yet accurate and comprehensive, an excellent short course in the several wrong turns we’ve taken over the past three hundred years.
The final section, nine chapters in seventy pages, consist of the writers’ ideas as to how the situation can be improved, and as such is pretty worthless. I say that with some confidence because the book is now ten years old, and each of the rays of hope that it draws attention to (voluntary simplicity, downshifting, cohousing, and more) are ideas which may have seemed fresh at the time but have not gone anywhere in the ten years since. This does not make the chapters themselves worthless, though. Each movement, though it never took off, embodied a possible response to some aspect of the problem, and by looking for the good in them, and also by thinking about why they failed to take off, much can be learned about that aspect.
Although in the end it’s not important, I have to point out that the execution of this book suffers greatly from making “affluenza” the glue that holds the parts together. Much is made of the disease-like nature of conspicuous consumption—how it is transmitted, the various symptoms and stages, the cure—but unfortunately the phenomenon is not disease-like at all, e.g. it isn’t contagious and doesn’t behave like an epidemic. A more accurate metaphor would be public delusion, e.g. the emperor’s new clothes; escape lies more in breaking free from a spell than in recovering from an illness.
I also need to note that there is another book called Affluenza, written in 2005 by an Australian named Clive Hamilton and focusing specifically on Australian culture. I skimmed it and did not find anything that isn’t more engagingly presented by the book reviewed here.