Affluenza Video
by John De Graaf

(and material from P. Wenz, “Personal Choices, Consumerism and Human Nature,” Env. Ethics Today)


        What is affluenza?

                 Disease of consumerism/affluence

                 Greed and materialism: “The good life is the goods life”

                   -        Present Carter: Too many of us worship self indulgence and consumption

                 Throwaway society: Throw away rather than repair (e.g., swivel chairs, bike light)

                   -        Convenience/disposable

                 Planned obsolescence; out of style even if perfectly functional

                 Represented by the huge amounts of trash we generate: Our trash would fill a convey of garbage trucks ½ way to the moon.

                   -        7 million cars a year thrown away


        Can the earth take this level of consumption?

                 Massive increase in consumption since 1950: Since 1950, we Americans have used more resources than all the people that ever lived before 1950

                   -        Size of homes (Today’s garages are as big as homes in 1950s)

                   -        Fly 25 times as much as in 1950 (fly to shop!)

                 Pollution, resource degradation, species extinction, all tied to overconsumption

                 Earth can’t absorb our waste or replenish resources at this rate.

                 Consumption x Technology x # of people = affect on env.

        Not all people on the earth could consume at the level of Americans

                 If every Chinese family had two cars.....

                 Our ecological footprint would require several planets

        Harmful and impossibility to bring high consumption economy to 3rd world

                 Assumption is that progress is higher consumption

                   -        True in some dimensions (medical), not in others

                 Attempt to bring entire world into consumer society

                 Destroys culture, impoverishes them, and destroys environment

                 But they seem to want the high consumption economy!

                 This is a key objection to “globalization”


        Are we happier at this level of consumption? Are we better off? Is this progress?

                 Percentage of Americans who say they are happy peaked in 1957

                 Spending more and enjoying less

                 Materialistic life is not a meaningful life

                 Live stressful lives keeping up with all our things: possession overload; “Everything I own owns me”

                 Rushing, rushing, rushing

                 “Work and spend treadmill”

                   -        Work more and save less to consume more

                 People going bankrupt

                   -        1996 (86?) more than 1 million declared bankruptcy (more than graduated from college)

                   -        Credit card dept in 80s tripled

                   -        We save 4%, Japanese 60%


        Strong dimension of relative comparison in judgments of well being

                 In so far as judgments of well-being are relative (we judge how well off we are by comparison with what others have) that we have more doesn’t make us better off (because others have more too): Our relative position is the same.

                 “Keeping up with the Jones”


        Consumption as a way of life is impoverished; value of a life of simplicity

                 We’d be better off with less

                 With fewer goods, we’d have more time as don’t have to work to buy things or take care of them

        But isn’t some consumption is good?

                 What about consumer goods that simplify and enrich our lives?

                 Examples? Dishwashers?


        Economic growth is assumed to be good;

                 Deep faith in this

                 No politician can challenge this

                 But is growth necessarily good? Is bigger better?

        GNP growth is a lousy indicator of increases in well-being

                 GNP has been growing, but it’s a lousy measure of increases in well being

                 Bad things increase GNP: Increases in cancer, oil spills, forests cutting, divorce (2 households instead of one) all increase GNP

                 Alternative indicator--GPI (=genuine progress indicator) falling since 1973

                   -        Includes 24 aspects of our economic lives (that GNP ignores): Housework, volunteerism are added; cost of accidents, crimes, family breakdowns subtracted

        Is economic growth necessary for jobs and for the poor?

                 Rich/poor gap in U.S. widest of any industrial country and been growing with economic growth

                 Lots of examples of countries with smaller economies where poor are better off than in countries with huge economies

                 Equality is more important than growth in helping the poor

        Job sharing as a response to technological unemployment and productivity gains

                 Objection: But if we cut consumption, we will loose jobs.

                 Reply: Share the work. We would be better off with more free time.

                 Taken all our gains in productivity as income to buy more stuff

                 Economy of U.S. doubled in 50 years; we could be working 20 weeks if hadn’t increased our consumption

                 Productive technology should give us more free time, not more goods (humans wants insatiable)


        Rich/Poor Gap: Consumerism by the rich is wrong given the incredible disparity between rich and poor

                 1/5 the world lives in abject poverty (dying of hunger/disease)

                 We consume 5 times as much as person in Mexico, 10 times as much as Chinese person, and 30 times as much as a citizen of India

                 Gap rich/poor in U.S. greatest of any industrialized nation

                 Look at how people live in poor countries and how poor live in our country

                 Sense of deprivation in the poor communities

                   -        An issue of inequity/unfairness; why should some have so much when we have so little?

                   -        Don’t feel like their lives worth anything unless have latest consumer item

                   -        A reason for crime? For hatred of U.S.?

                 We (wealthy) need to give more


        Advertising and TV fuels consumption by encouraging discontent

                 Average American spend a full year of his/her life watching TV commercials

                 Sees a million ads by age of 20

                 1 billion a year on billboards

                 Ads try to get us to fulfil nonmaterial needs with material means

                 Message is discontent; we are not good enough unless buy that product

                 Try to meet nonmaterial needs via material means

        Wrongness of aggressive advertising to kids

                 60% say their kids are very materialistic

                 Ads target kids to “brand them” and “own them”

                 1 Billion spend on ads directed at kids

                   -        “Anti-social behavior in pursuit of a product is a good thing”

                 “Children a cash crop to be harvested”

                 Ads in schools (one of the few relatively ad free places)

                   -        Ads on channel one; on busses, for unhealthy snack foods

                 Research into kids marketing


        Are these consumption choices free?

                 Competitive consumption

                 “Forced” to keep up with the Jones?

                 Consuming because others consume


        Consumerism undermines family and community

                 On average we shop 6 hours a week and play with our children 40 minutes

                 70% attend the mall each weak, more than go to churches/synagogues

                 Shopping malls the new community

                 There are now more malls than high schools

                 Participation/volunteering in civic/community activities way down (declining past 20 years)

                   -        Rat race means we have not time to participate in community

                 Citizens been replaced by consumers


        Conservative Christians worried about consumerism’s negative affect on family and community

                 Focus on family; free enterprise conservatives who worry about markets’ affect on your family

                 People--like things--are viewed as disposable

                   -        Materialism carries over into our relations with people

                 Market hostile to family values

                   -        Market needs to bring in new consumers, expand itself

                   -        Go for a sale pitting child against parent

                 “Everyone is connected to something outside home”

                 “Give me neither poverty nor riches” (Proverb)

                 “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content”

                   -        Message of our society is discontent

                 Easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man into heaven

                 For another 1000 square feet, one loses relation with wife, not participate in child growing up



        Simple living; voluntary simplicity

                 Cut spending

                 Is what you buy worth the extra hours you will have to work to pay for it?


                 5-15% of baby boomers practicing voluntary simplicity


        Buy nothing day

        Adbusters: Magazine, filled with anti-ads

                 Television un-commercials

Some related books and websites:


Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John De Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor, Redefining Progress 2001 Berrett-Koehler ; ISBN: 1576751511

Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living by Jerome M. Segal, © 1999 by Jerome M. Segal. Published by Henry Holt and Company LLC.


Robert Franks, Winner Take All Society

Mark Sagoff, “Do we consume too much?” Atlantic Monthly and reply by Paul Ehrlich et al.n I have the Sagoff in Westra/Werhand, The business of consumption. He argues that it is a fallacy to think we are running out of resources–lots of stats and facts supporting, but too much not much analysis; same old economics doesn’t address env. issue here, but moral reasons support claim consume too much.

Ehrilich’s reply is at (and I have) http

Laura Westra and Patricia Werhane, The Business of Consumption: Environmental Ethics and the Global Economy Rowman and Littlefield Sept 1998.

A.L. Hammond, ‟Limits to Consumption and Economic Growth: The Middle Ground,” Philosophy and Public Policy, 15,4 (1995): 9-12.

"The Ethics of Consumption," Report from the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy (QQ) 15, 4. I have.

David Crocker and Toby Linden, The Ethics of Consumption Rowman and Littlefield, 1997 (564 pages).

David Shy (Furman president) The Simple Life

Juliet Schor, The Simple Life

Our money our life

Your money or your life

Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity

Marketing madness

Richard Swenson, Margin

Giving Kids the Business Alex Molar

David Shi

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Theodore Roosevelt advocate of simple living