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.