Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Affluenza book discussion (chapters 15 - 18)

Affluenza: The All-Consuming EpidemicHere is the discussion post for the fourth installment of the Affluenza, The All-Consuming Epidemic book club. This post begins Part Two: Causes.

Chapter 15. Original Sin - In this chapter, the authors argue that affluenza isn't a part of human nature. That, in studying hunter-gatherers or more "primitive" cultures, the individuals and communities rely on very few possessions and are quite happy without amassing huge quantities of stuff.

But their lifestyle, moving from place to place as food and water sources warrant, really prevents them from acquiring too many things. What do you think? Are humans innately wired for possessing tons of things they don't need? Are the groups mentioned in the book merely not affected by affluenza because it's impractical and, given the ability to stay rooted in one place (with no other changes) would they hoard materials just like the rest of us?

Chapter 16. An Ounce of Prevention - Early Americans came to the New World in search of a Christian commonwealth based on simple living. Over the years, this idealism crumbled as delineations in wealth grew between the Americans and the British. By the time of the industrial revolution, the push for automation under the guise of higher production in less work time resulted in longer workdays rather than shorter ones as employers, greedy for more, exploited their employees.

Indeed, the concept of "more through exploitation" is accomplished by exposing consumers to affluenza. Modern advertising creates "imaginary appetites", using sex to sell as well as appealing to one's depravities. Karl Marx had suggested that too many goods results in too many useless people. And Thoreau stated that the luxuries and comforts of life are not only indispensable but also a hindrance to the elevation of mankind.

So, if the intention of many individuals and philosophers was a focus on the simple life, how did we become such out-of-control consumers? Did the influence of a few really affect the rest? Or were they preying on some deep-rooted desire for not just more stuff, but more stuff acquired through just the right approach and advertising?

Chapter 17. The Road Not Taken - The factory systems of the late 1800s pushed Americans to a crossroads. With all this efficiency came the choice of what to do with all that extra time? On one hand, you could make more stuff and on the other, you could work less. Luxury or simplicity. Money or time.

If given the choice of living a more simple life and working less, which would you (or do you) choose?

Chapter 18. An Emerging Epidemic - During World War II, Americans knuckled under and accepted rationing and deprivation, limiting their consumption and driving and growing their own food with victory gardens. After the war, an economic boom erupted, fueled by low-interest government loans and pent-up economic demand.

An era of consumption had begun and along with it was the increase in production of products created with "planned obsolescence" in mind. In other words, products were manufactured to last only a short time so that they would have to be replaced frequently. Products were continually upgraded, more so in style rather than quality.

And, how did Americans finance all this stuff? With consumer loans, providing tremendous purchasing power that theoretically resulted in a higher standard of living. Or so the story goes. Next up came shopping malls and televisions in every home. With advertising, manufacturers were convincing consumers through creative ads that their product was not only necessary, but better, convenient and disposable.

John Kenneth Galbraith suggested that our emphasis on private opulence led to public squalor with declining transit systems, schools, parks, libraries and air and water quality. Is it possible to have both individual wealth and public wealth? Are the two mutually exclusive or is this something that society can achieve?


DC said...

"Is it possible to have both individual wealth and public wealth? Are the two mutually exclusive or is this something that society can achieve?

I think it is possible, but not with a Ronald Reagan style capitalist economy that doesn't encourage limits on consumption and doesn't guarantee a basic minimum standard of living (food, housing, health care, quality education, etc.) for everyone.

There are social democracies in Europe where there are many wealthy people but individual wealth isn't put on a pedestal above all else. People pay higher taxes for the greater good. In Sweden, for example, there is tax-funded childcare and parental leave, tax-funded education (all levels, including university), tax-funded dental care, partially tax-funded sick leave and a ceiling on individual health care costs. Sweden's economy is strong, and it has one of the highest standards of living in the world.

In the United States, we wear the "freedom" badge, but how many people are really free? Fifty million people have no health insurance. Higher education is completely out of reach for many. The gap between the rich and poor is higher than it's ever been and continues to grow at an alarming rate. Nearly one percent of the population is in prison. We aren't coordinated enough to get people out of the way of devastating hurricanes. We've spent trillions of dollars on war to protect this so called freedom but can't find enough spare change to provide quality medical care to our soldiers wounded in battle.

Greed is not working so well. We need a new religion. Anyone who wants to is welcome to join my church -- no monthly payments required.

e4 said...

"Here is the discussion post for the fourth installment of the Affluenza, The All-Consuming Epidemic book club."

Cool, I didn't know a book club could become an all-consuming epidemic!

Anonymous said...

chapter 15. I agree that humans are NOT inately wired to have affluenza. In fact, I have thought, ever since I was a kid, that we clutch at "things" to give ourselves a feeling of safety and permanence and stability -- but if we have a tribe or family who give us that feeling, we won't need "things."

Chapter 16. There are "things" and then there are luxuries. I suspect the slippery slope started with an understandable desire to have more luxuries -- a warmer coat, a softer mattress, extra food. Stuff that wasn't really necessar but wasn't completely useless ether. But then, thanks to marketing, we lost out ability to tell the difference between a luxury and a pointless knick knack. If one warmer coat is good, try having a new coat every season! If extra food made your life more comfortable, try eating twice as much as you need!

So while I still maintain that happy, emotionally secure people don't need "things", I think that everyone sometimes wants a little luxury.

Also, I think there may be an issue with our still-wired-like-hunter-gatherer brains not being able to cope with the modern big-city life. Our brains expect us to live in small tribes where everyone's material status is equal. But now, we live in big communities where some people are poor and some people are rich. Our primitive brains think, "If a member of my tribe is prosperous, I should be prosperous, too. Why am I not? It isn't fair!" And so we run up credit card debts to make ourselves feel equal.

Chapter 17. I have already chosen to live more simply and work less. I still have the ability to work more and earn more, if some big expense comes along (big giant vet bills, for example), but as soon as I pay off the huge expense, I go back to my simpler life.

Chapter 18. I have a feeling that there is only so much wealth to go around, so if we want public wealth we have to balance it with our private wealth. I don't think it has to be all or nothing, I just think we need to readjust our ideas of what we need. Spending public money on public works doesn't mean we will all be privately impoverished, just a little less affluent. If everybody took the bus one day a week instead of driving, how much money would the bus system earn, and how many improvements could they then afford? And if those improvement were made, would more people want to ride the bus? I wonder.

Anonymous said...

"We've spent trillions of dollars on war to protect this so called freedom but can't find enough spare change to provide quality medical care to our soldiers wounded in battle."

Amen, dc!

Anonymous said...

I think humans ARE hardwired to have things. How long ago did we start creating jewelry? How long ago did we start making perfume? How long ago did we start making beautiful baskets and other handicrafts that went beyond the utilitarian and more into art? I'm not saying a lot of things, but I know that I have irrational attachment to some items.

When you move often, you sometimes have items that make home seem like home. I moved into a new family when I was 7 and my new grandma gave me an alarm clock and a cheesy little halmark plaque for my bathroom. I've had that alarm clock in every bedroom and plaque in every bathroom I've lived in for 24 years, and I would be extremely sad if they ever got lost or broken. With that said, I've never bought another alarm clock, and I've never bought any other bathroom decorations. So perhaps having attachment to some things makes us care for them more and content to not shop for replacements.

Anonymous said...

In chapter 15 it mentions the whole idea of people having more time off of work equaling more satisfaction with that time. If you have more down time, there is less pressure to make every single minute of it count. I totally see that in my house. I am home with my kids all day and although we do our fair share of museums, zoos and play dates, we also spend a lot of time hanging out, reading, painting, telling stories, and just snuggling. When my husband is home all day on the weekend he wants me to turn into a cruise director and pack in as much activity as humanly possible. I try to explain to him that they just want to BE with him; not every moment needs to be the most exciting memory ever. It is so hard to switch back and forth from corporate world to family pace.

I agree with perilousknits that there is a balance between wanting nice things and just wanting too much pointless stuff. It doesn't have to be one extreme or the other.