Affluenza, by De Graaf, Wann, and Naylor

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.

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5 thoughts on “Affluenza, by De Graaf, Wann, and Naylor

  1. From reading I’ll Take My Stand, and a load of Wendell Berry, I think I have a pretty good idea of how we got here, but it would be interesting to read your summary of the middle section of the book — or better, your idea of how we got the way we are.

  2. Kelly,

    I’ll be writing soon about my own thoughts on the wrong turns we made to get here, but here is a sketchy summary of the middle section of the book. Again, it’s baby stuff, but accurate and thought-provoking, a good starting point for anyone who hasn’t thought these thoughts before.

    Is an extreme hunger for material things simply a basic human quality? No. There are premodern cultures still in existence whose patterns of life allow them to meet their needs in a relatively short time (four to eight hours a day); the effort is undemanding, and when their needs are met they spend their time doing something else, not accumulating more.

    Western cultures in the past have also had a strong sense of “enough”. Medieval labor averaged nine hours per day, the pace of work was slow, and up to half the days of the calendar were religious holidays where no one worked.

    The American Revolution was in part a reaction to the “affluenza” of the British.

    Benjamin Franklin estimated that, with the new tools provided by the industrial revolution, it should be possible to meet one’s needs with about three to four hours labor per day. Instead, the average laborer’s working hours were soon doubled.

    At the beginning of the industrial revolution, extra pay did not serve as an incentive to work. Once workers had earned enough, they would not work further if they had a choice, or would not show up for work otherwise.

    Towards the end of the nineteenth century many spoke out against the shift towards a consumer society, not as if looking back at and moaning over something that had already happened, but as a dangerous possibility ahead. The simple life was seen as something that had been stolen from many, that some others still had, and which could be reclaimed by refusing to participate in the shift.

    The union movement was largely a response to the insatiable demands by business for more and longer working hours.

    In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, business leaders were quite blunt about the fact that it was necessary to create an insatiable demand for goods in the citizenry, in order to sell the increasing amount of goods being produced by the factories—lower production, lower profits for them. Advertising was the tool used to create the necessary discontent.

    A.K. Kellogg was one of the few who thought that shorter hours and a better working environment would make his workers more productive. He proved it by cutting their forty-hour week to thirty hours, without cutting their pay. Productivity went up.

    In the 50s, consumption levels were driven up further by jettisoning the idea of quality entailing durability, and planned obsolescence took its place. Goods were designed to have a very short lifespan, either because they wore out or because fashions dictated that they needed to be replaced before their useful life was over.

    The advent of television was largely an advertising revolution, subjecting citizens to vastly higher levels of industrial propaganda.

    With the advent of malls, shopping became entertainment.

    Beginning in the 80s, advertisers exploited the power of cool, i.e. the merging of products and lifestyles in such a way that consumers saw their purchases as a central part of who they were as people. Brands became fashion statements, brand loyalty went beyond mere personal preference.

  3. Good stuff Rick. I am visiting family in southern Ca. at the moment. A friend of mine is about to leave his present job (he currently earns about 120K a year + benefits) in order to start his own company. He has his first customer lined up. He has a home, currently valued around 500-600K I guess which is probably worth a lot less than when he bought it. His wife stays home. Two small kids are in (or will be in) private school. so 120K is pretty much just enough to get by. He does real estate on the weekends on top of his full time job. He wants to grow his company to 20M and try to sell for 60M. I figure he won’t sleep much the next couple years but knowing him he has a 50/50 shot at making it work. I can’t tell you how much this sort of thing would have appealed to me in the past but quite a bit has changed. Our plan is to move in the spring closer to your neck of the woods and rent for up to a year as we look for home/property. I am currently working full time but have permission to work 100% remote, many of those hours are flexible. Our goal is to continue with current job as we figure out how to live on a lot less. I figure if I get laid off I would like to be able to live on just a few months of work a year if need be.

    Allow me to change topic and make a few economic observations. This is my second trip to CA this year along I10, one back in Aug and one now. Border Patrol still drive a lot of new vehicles and each checkpoint always had at least one car pulled over being searched (I am sure there was probable cause in all cases…) There were fewer checkpoints this time, probably too many workers on vacation over the holidays. In Aug there were a ton of empty rail cars all along the way, very noticeable, mile after mile. Didn’t see so many this time. Rail traffic resuming? Perhaps. We went to Disneyland yesterday. 80,000 people did not know the economy was in such a mess. Anyone thinking of doing the same should look for a day when daily attendance is under 40,000 or you are insane. There appears to be whole bunch more commercial real estate available in DFW area than there is here in San Diego. I do see some for rent signs here, I see a few businesses moving into larger spaces as they become available but just from the looks of it you would think DFW is worse off. I work for a pretty big company and we have not had any large layoffs of late, layoffs have also scaled back (but continue) for a number of other well know large companies which friends work for. Just a few observations, I don’t think we are really on the rebound but perhaps we have leveled out for a while. I will be keeping my eye on the treasury auctions. I appreciate Black Swan’s observations but I don’t think they really point to any overarching trend any more than mine do.

  4. Ethan,

    Contact me when you’re ready to find a rental place. Not because I’m a realtor in the area, but I do keep my ear close to the ground for other people lI know who are looking to buy/rent around here in south central Kentucky.

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