Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic

Book Review: Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John DeGraaf, David Wann , and Thomas H. Naylor (Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2001, 2002)

This is a good book about consumerism and commercialism seen metaphorically as a social disease. It came after a few PBS TV specials with the same title in the late 1990’s. The popularity of affluence seems to have peaked around this time of multinational and corporate growth. Here they define affluenza as: “a painful contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” Quite obviously, human consumption is affecting the planet as more people consume more, making more waste. The late 90’s did birth the move toward “simplifying” one’s life among the hipsters by being frugal and not promoting affluence.

Frenzied shopping ala “Black Friday” is a rather obvious affluenza trend, although the “super malls” of the 90’s are now not so much a thing. Now we have online shopping to make it even easier to own more. Shopping has seemingly become therapeutic to many but is it as we shop till we drop? I think it is more the social experience of seeing things with and around other people that attracts (distracts?) us but I really don’t know. 

Bankruptcies from credit card debt seemed to peak in the 90’s but living beyond one’s financial means is still problematic and mortgage fraud due to both givers and takers of bad deals was a key trigger of the 2008 financial crisis. Big houses, fancy cars, and the latest gadgetry are still fads among the afflicted. Our possessions clutter our houses and lives yet we still want more. Even space is cluttered with orbiting satellites and other assorted space junk. The oceans are cluttered with zones of floating plastic and trash. Our trash clutters the earth in landfills. Stuff also causes us stress since we need to pay for it, maintain and repair it, accessorize it, and often too soon – upgrade it. Futuristic predictions used to predict more leisure time but many of us have less free time due to excessive work hours. Many are overworked. Many choose stuff over time. Busy-ness tends to increase anxiety as does stuff as noted above. This stress over stuff and time affects families, usually negatively. The authors give some case histories where market values have eroded family values. Manipulative marketing to children is another problem that seems to have peaked in the late 90’s and now many are suspicious so it is less prevalent but still around. 

The authors suggest that a lack of community spirit exacerbates affluenza, oddly, as strangers compete against one another. We seem to have less opportunity for social interaction. Even in families we now tend to isolate ourselves with our individual technological devices. James Kuntsler suggested that as consumers we have no responsibilities but as citizens we do, that we need to get back to being citizens rather than mere consumers. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has devoted his career to studying “social capital,” defined here as “the connections among people that bind a community together.” He advocates for more face-to-face connections among people to foster trust. The authors suggest that as the big chain stores and big box stores like Walmart and Office Max put town stores out of business it makes for less social cohesion. However, one could also say that it can break up local social and economic monopolies on local policy as well as bring cheaper prices and higher local tax revenues. The huge retailers are more efficient even though they have eroded some small town niceties and contribute much to urban sprawl. The American phenomenon of gated communities also contributes to the phobia of social contact. People tend to feel safer in suburbia they say. People walk less and children play less in neighborhoods they deem dangerous. There are social costs to prosperity.

The loss of public works like the depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) where many young people took pride in the camaraderie of building American infrastructure is consonant with a loss of fellowship in sharing a common goal. The authors note the work of conservative economist Wilhelm Ropke in the late 1950’s. His book A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market would likely not find favor among today’s conservatives but back then even free market advocates hailed public works. Later in the 1980’s and beyond the separation between private enterprise and public works grew larger. Ropke spoke of the potential dangers of greed, prosperity, and rampant commercialism. He pointed out that free market capitalists bear a special responsibility for morality as they are the ones in the best position to enrich themselves at the expense of others. What has happened since then is that the rich got richer and the poor either stayed the same or got poorer. CEO pay has gone through the roof while worker pay has barely budged. Increasing minimum wages recently is a positive sign. Certainly the Occupy Movement brought income disparity to the forefront and I think that is their most useful legacy. Income disparity should be seen as a failure of unchecked free market capitalism but a boon to affluenza. Conservative philosopher Ernest van den Haag also noted that industrialization standardized and de-individualized people as worker-consumers in repetitive and non-challenging yet tough jobs, so that they craved meaning beyond such toil. We are lucky in that our technological society offers more free exploratory time to engage in more meaningful things. The authors note that while we consider America to be a classless society, in terms of economics it can be quite segregated into “haves” and “have-nots.” We may live in an age of billionaires but it is still an age of poverty, famine, and slavery in some pockets. This is clearly an imbalance. The poor are not immune to affluenza and in fact are taunted by calls to be or at least act affluent and buy things they can’t afford. Brand prestige was a common malady in the late 90’s. Desire for the latest gadget seems to affect all, rich or poor. Again the unsustainable loans offered by predatory lenders that powered the economic downturn of 2008 come to mind. Another problem is that people around the world want to emulate the American lifestyle and corporate systems. Energy usage and carbon emissions are climbing as a result. Europe manages to use far less energy per capita than the U.S. The reasons for that are manifold but one is that Americans do not feel the need to conserve as they should in a world where excess energy use can lead to environmental degradation and speed up climate change. 

Resource exhaustion is an important issue that needs to be continually addressed. Excess uses everything faster. Disposability renders it useless afterward. The potential hidden costs of our “stuff” can be staggering. Accelerated species extinction has accompanied resource exhaustion, sprawl, industrialization, and population growth. 

Pesticides and chemicals and their byproducts in nature have now long been a part of our food and water supplies. They are pervasive in the environment in small amounts. Some GMOs have escaped their plots and contaminated non-GMO crops. While toxicology is often dependent on dose and time of exposure, many chemicals have unknown toxicity levels and there are no long-term studies of their effects and cumulative effects. While poisons have been a part of people’s environments forever we are especially inundated with small quantities of low-level poisons. Pesticides, building products, cleaning and hygiene products, and many other concoctions can make us sick. In this age of factory farms, chemical sanitation, and household chemical solutions to problems, we can find any number of these in our water.

The authors suggest we have become addicted to affluence. It is great getting there but our happiness fades as it becomes routine. Shopping, fast food, and plugging into the latest gadget have become cures, fixes for our addictions. 

 We all know by now that material wealth does not equate to happiness yet we strive for it, perhaps for some of us to ward off any worry associated with poverty. Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow came to the conclusion that wealth is a social construct. Maslow concluded that we have “higher” needs than mere material wealth as he noted in his famous “hierarchy of needs.” It may be more complicated than that nowadays but often our desire for wealth masks desires for other “higher” social needs. 

Next we come to a history of human material needs. Throughout most of our existence we were hunter-gatherers, with a need to be very mobile as we depleted local food resources. There were many dangers. However, as studies of modern hunter-gatherers show, there was also more leisure time as needs could often be met in short time periods. Such people are nor burdened with possessions and can take life slowly. Hebrew prophets and Ancient Greeks, especially Stoics and Cynics, preached against affluenza, wealth seeking, and excess. Live simply and cultivate character and intelligence was the prescription. Even in the New Testament, Christ warns about Mammon and the power of money. The Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull was said to have noted of the white Euro-Americans: “The love of possession is a disease with them.”

The Industrial Revolution and capitalism sanctioned inequality even more as workers worked for their lords and bosses. Injustices toward workers led to worker’s movements, socialism, and the Communist Manifesto. Of course, Marx believed in the power of mass production. He also believed that it would eventually lead to the liberty of the individual. However, the unchecked power of the state and the lack of rights of the individual became the main issue with his system in practice. Thoreau spoke out against affluenza in his Life Without Principle which advocated sufficient leisure time to explore and be creative as necessary to the health of people. After that there was often a debate between choosing time or money. In later times (the 1980’s and on) the choice became money for many. In America especially, an insane work ethic (in terms of time on the job) is seen as noble while in places like France and other parts of Europe it is not and indeed work hours can be restricted. Shorter hours were required during the Depression and there were various movements to shorten work hours before the age of mandatory overtime. Cereal tycoon A.K Kellogg led a movement toward a six hour workday but it did not take hold. During WWII there was rationing and reduction of waste. There was a sense of duty and community in the direness of fighting a common enemy. This led to efficiency sand new discoveries in science and technology. However, after the war, economic demand soared and so did credit in the form of bank loans. The Age of Planned Obsolescence was about to begin in the post-war Utopian period. Television brought brand ads to all and accelerated the quest toward affluence. 

Environmentalists in the 1970’s warned that endless growth was not sustainable and we are still dealing with this today. Jimmy Carter’s famous speech to conserve energy likely cost him the next election and the Age of Reagan with his relaxation of environmental and business regulations led to a full embrace of the philosophy of unregulated free market capitalism. This paved the way for an acceleration of affluenza that would peak in the Clinton and Bush years amidst the dot com and housing bubbles. Reagonomics (supply-side economics) also increased demand and the Yuppy was born, or rather, made. “Consume and flaunt it” became the mantra. One way to create demand was to flood the world with ads. Billboards, bus ads, signs, paper ads, endless mail ads, flyers, newspaper ads, TV and radio ads, etc. etc. seemed to pervade the world and brainwash us. Internet ads are all over these days. This hyper-commercialism tended to spread to places of the world that didn’t need it. Junk mail seemed to peak in the late 90’s and early this millennium.

Excessive waste is a consequence of this hyper-commercialism. As it became known that certain industries were producing excessive waste and not dealing with it effectively, a need for public relations sprang up. PR can be seen as a form of advertising as well as advocating directly for the benefits of various industries. It is of course a doubled edged sword. PR experts know that familiarity leads to acceptance. PR leads to the development of “front groups” where they secretly try to make things familiar and thus acceptable even though their products may be hazardous. PR experts are the spin doctors of the business world. Dealers of products like tobacco, leaded gasoline, artificial sweeteners, super sweet sodas, biotech, factory farms, chemical manufacturers, and fossil fuel all have a need to promote their products as safe – but also products unnecessary to regulate, since that would cost them (and you) money. Journalists may also be implicated in putting spins on the values of things. The handful of media conglomerates were most powerful just before the internet took off. Now we have media competition. Unfortunately that can work both ways as conspiracy and propaganda media is often able to slip in their often warped viewpoints. Biased journalists are often in cahoots with PR machines, consciously or unconsciously.

Information came to overload levels with the internet and now every phenomenon is viewed in alternative ways according to one’s bias. Global Warming alarmists, including several prominent scientists, give apocalyptic scenarios. Global Warming deniers make ridiculous pseudo-scientific assessments that a CO2 saturated atmosphere will lead to improvements and better conditions.  

The treatments for affluenza are actually fairly obvious: disengage, relax, be frugal, be efficient, recycle, track expenses, budget, work with others to support one another, and embrace simplicity. Other suggestions include spending time on education and reconnecting with nature, especially the nature around where you live. There are also many small things we can do to reduce waste and green our lives. We can also practice more citizenship, getting involved in social and community issues, community service, and volunteering. Environmental and socially responsible investing is an option. They mention a subversive group called Adbusters that went around promoting fake ads like the one of Joe Chemo instead of Joe Camel as a deflection of manipulative ads. Enlightening fact ads and memes that reject some mainstream and PR-oriented views have had some success on the internet, especially in social media. Promotion of media literacy in schools and anywhere else is another means of countering gullibility to predatory advertisements. We need to get used to picking it out quickly and routinely so as to root it out.

Sustainability in the form of sensible waste-reduction, investments in sustainable infrastructure, corporate reform, responsibility for entire product cycles (cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle strategies), and campaign finance reform are needed – I think most would agree. Work reduction, flexible working hours, and working from home save resources. They can also save money for businesses. The concept of gradual retirement is an interesting one. People do seem to want to work less as they get older – at least on their day to day toiling jobs. Older workers could stay longer with shorter hours to mentor younger workers who could find positions and not be in competition with them.

Becoming educated and keeping up to date is very important. There are sustainability indicators for every city and place. The authors mention another indicator of the health of a society, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which was formulated by a group called Redefining Progress. The GPI formulators showed that bigger is not always better. Their analysis indicates that as the GNP per capita and GDP per capita rose steadily over the last 50 years, the GPI stayed flat, even dropping a little bit. A list of GPI expenses includes: crime, family breakdowns, loss of free time, unemployment, commuting, pollution, loss of habitat, resource depletion, and other environmental damage. Acknowledging and reducing our ecological footprint is important. Seeing our world and relationships within it as a system is recommended by thinkers like Joanna Macy. Systems intelligence (SysQ) is becoming more recognized. Systems are affected by feedbacks. The climate and ecosystems are key examples. Macy advocates admitting that our culture is ill and needs care. Seeing this in a negative light some say people are calling for sacrifice and austerity. Seeing it in a more pragmatic light we can see it is an opportunity to be smart, frugal, and innovative. We need to reveal and admit to the hidden costs of our consuming ways of life – all of us. However, developing condescending greener-than-thou attitudes is counter-productive. It would be better to lure one another with logic rather than try to force our views on others.

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