Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: Affluenza - The All-Consuming Epidemic

I've been continuing my anti-consumerism/eco reading extravaganza, this time with Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2nd edition) by John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor.

I almost didn't pick up this book because I was less-than-impressed with the documentary with the same name that I watched on Netflix streaming. While the message of the documentar y is just as good, it's dated 1997 wrapping and kitsch was a bit too much for me to enjoy. The book however, is an entirely different story.

See, not long ago, I could barely make myself begin a nonfiction book, let alone find one that capture my interest long enough that I actually finish it. Affluenza is not one of those books. In fact, I'd put it just behind The Story of Stuff in being a rare nonfiction book that tells what could easily be a dry story in a very entertaining way. Far from being unable to finish the book, I hardly wanted to put it down.

Affluenza, as the authors define it, is "a painful, contagious socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."

The book examines America's consumer-oriented society and its many downsides. It also reminds us that our lives weren't always this way. The authors tell how Americans went from working to live, to living to work, and give strategies of how we can--and must, for the sake of the planet and our own happiness--transition back to a more sustainable way of life. Other countries, like Europe, are already leading the way to do just that, the authors point out, and their citizens are consistently ranked happier and healthier because of it.

The book includes a lot of eye-opening stats about just how large, and quickly, our consumer obsession has grown and its negative effects on our lives, such as
  • In 1981...the United States ranked thirteenth among 22 leading industrial nations in income equality. But today we're dead last.

  • 90% of the waste we generate never even makes it into the products or services but remains at the point of extraction or manufacture.....Of the materials that do become products, 80% are thrown away after a single use.

  • Americans spend nearly seven times as much time shopping as we do playing with our kids

  • The rate of clinical depression in the US today is ten times what it was in 1945.

  • American college students now spend nearly $6 billion a year on booze, more than they spend on all other beverages and their books combined.

But while the causes and pervasiveness of affluenza are enlightening, I'm more concerned with how to stop it. The book offers some suggestions, many of which you've probably heard elsewhere. Still, repetition is helpful, afterall studies have shown we need to hear a message seven times before we act on it. Some of the tips suggested include:
  • The YMOYL Solution. The book talks a lot about the solutions promoted in Your Money or Your Life, such as (1) calculate how much money you've made in your lifetime and what you have to show for it (net worth). (2) Calculate your real hourly income by adding hours spent in commuting and other work activities and subtracting money spent on things needed for work. (3) Track income and spending for a month. (4) Evaluate whether the life energy spent was worth the value received.

  • Downshifting/Voluntary simplicity: To me these terms are rather interchangeable, though the authors discuss them separately. The basic idea is to slow down, cut back your consumption and reassess.

  • Spend more time learning about and experiencing nature.

  • Eat less meat

  • Drive less

  • Use energy efficient appliances

But, while individual action helps us feel involved and is worthwhile, group action is critical. We need new laws and tax systems that make it hard to impossible not to make the right individual choices. We need industry to produce more efficient, repairable, longer lasting products. Industry should be made accountable for the entire lifecycle of products. Redirect government subsidies from actions and organizations that harm the earth to better ones. We need to redefine our concept of work to set it at more sustainable levels which could mean less production and less pay. We need to educate our children--both at home and in schools--about advertising's effects and the difference between needs and wants.

Mostly importantly, we need to redefine what constitutes success, for the nation and ourselves.

I highly recommend Affluenza and give it a 5/5.


  1. I liked that one to... I actually thought the documentary was cute, but I did see it when it first came out, so I supposed maybe it was only cute then.

    You know, when I first got interested in this stuff, it was like a revelation to discover that there actually were other people out there trying to do the same thing that I was, so I literally read everything I could get my hands on that had to do with the voluntary simplicity movement. Along the way I discovered that people had VERY different ideas about what was "simple". There was one woman who seemed like to her, "simple" meant selling the second Lexux, buying all black socks and all rose colored sheets. Then there was the guy raising and slaughtering pigs in his backyard. Oh my!

    Anyhow, one book that I really enjoyed was called The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs. I'm sure it's a bit dated now as well, but while YMOLY really gave me a "how to" roadmap, she talked a lot more about her own journey, and also profiled a bunch of people who were living "the life." It, more than any other book, was the one that gave me the feeling that it wasn't a pie in the sky dream, but something that was really doable. Anyhow, I highly recommend it.

  2. I meant to say, I liked it TOO

    Damn, this digital age is making my grammar go completely to hell! :)

  3. Thanks for the review, it's going on my list!

  4. Sounds like a great book. If you had to choose one, would you read The Story of Stuff or Affluenza first?

  5. ECL - thanks for the recommendation! I'll put it on my hold list at the library.

    Martha - Cool. I hope these reviews are more helpful than boring! :)

    Christine - Great question. I would go with the Story of Stuff first, because it was more enlightening for me and I really didn't want to put it down. But it really depends on what interests you most.

    Affluenza examines more of the personal effect of our increasingly insatiable consumption and the factors that led to it, such as the rise of advertising, etc. It reminds us that our lives weren't always this way and discusses how relatively quickly our consumer appetites have grown. It's very American-centric, because let's face it, no one consumes like us.

    The Story of Stuff closely examines the entire lifecycle of products, from manufacturing, to distribution to consumption and finally, disposal. By exploring the details of each of these steps, the books really illustrates just how thoroughly we are trashing the planet and shows the true cost of each product which is so much higher than the money we pay for it.

  6. I ordered this from the library on your suggestion and I can't wait to read it! Thanks for the review.


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