Affluenza Video by John De Graaf

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


1.      What is affluenza?

         a.      Disease of consumerism/affluence

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

                   i.       Present Carter: “Too many of us worship self indulgence and consumption”

         c.      Throwaway society: Throw away rather than repair (e.g., bike lights)

                   i.       Convenience/disposable

         d.      Planned obsolescence: out of style even if perfectly functional

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

                   i.       7 million cars a year thrown away

                   ii.      20 tons of resources a year per American


2.      Can the earth take this level of consumption?

         a.      Massive increase in consumption since 1950:

                   i.       Since 1950, we Americans have used more resources than all the people that ever lived before 1950

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

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

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

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

         d.      Consumption times Technology times Number of people = affect on environment


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

         a.      If every Chinese family had two cars, big houses

         b.      Our ecological footprint already requires several planets more than this one

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

         a.      This is a key objection to “globalization”

         b.      Assumption is that progress gained via higher consumption

                   i.       True in some dimensions (medical), not in others (consumer toys)

         c.      Attempt to bring entire world into consumer society

         d.      Destroys culture, impoverishes them, and destroys environment

         e.      But many in the developing world seem to want the high consumption economy!


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

         a.      Percentage of Americans who say they are happy peaked in 1957

         b.      Spending more and enjoying less

         c.      Materialistic life is not a meaningful life

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

         e.      Rushing, rushing, rushing

         f.       “Work and spend treadmill”

                   i.       Work more and save less to consume more

         g.      People going bankrupt

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

                   ii.      Credit card dept in 80s tripled

                   iii.     We save 4%, Japanese 60%


6.      Strong dimension of relative comparison in judgments of well being

         a.      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.

         b.      “Keeping up with the Jones”


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

         a.      We’d be better off with less

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

8.      But isn’t some consumption good?

         a.      What about consumer goods that simplify and enrich our lives?

         b.      Examples? Dishwashers?


9.      Economic growth is assumed to be good

         a.      Deep faith in this

         b.      No politician can challenge this

         c.      But is growth necessarily good? Is bigger better?

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

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

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

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

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


11.    Is economic growth necessary for jobs and for the poor?

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

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

         c.      Equality is more important than growth in helping the poor

12.    Job sharing as a response to technological unemployment and productivity gains

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

         b.      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

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

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

         e.      Sense of deprivation in the poor communities

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

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

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

         f.       We (wealthy) need to give more


14.    Advertising and TV fuels consumption by encouraging discontent

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

         b.      Sees a million ads by age of 20

         c.      1 billion a year on billboards

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

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

         f.       Try to meet nonmaterial needs via material means

15.    Wrongness of aggressive advertising to kids

         a.      60% say their kids are very materialistic

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

         c.      1 Billion spend on ads directed at kids

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

         d.      “Children a cash crop to be harvested”

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

                   i.       Ads on channel one; on busses, for unhealthy snack foods

         f.       Research into kids marketing


16.    Are these consumption choices free?

         a.      Competitive consumption

         b.      “Forced” to keep up with the Jones?

         c.      Consuming because others consume


17.    Consumerism undermines family and community

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

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

         c.      Shopping malls the new community

         d.      There are now more malls than high schools

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

                   i.       Rat race means we have not time to participate in community

         f.       Citizens been replaced by consumers


18.    Conservative Christians (and others) worried about consumerism’s negative affect on family and community

         a.      Focus on family: free enterprise conservatives who worry about markets’ affect on your family

         b.      People--like things--are viewed as disposable

                   i.       Materialism carries over into our relations with people

         c.      Market hostile to family values

                   i.       Market needs to bring in new consumers, expand itself

                   ii.      Go for a sale pitting child against parent

         d.      “Everyone is connected to something outside home”

         e.      “Give me neither poverty nor riches” (Proverb)

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

                   i.       Message of our society is discontent

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

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



20.    Simple living; voluntary simplicity

         a.      Cut spending

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

         c.      Co-housing

         d.      5-15% of baby boomers practicing voluntary simplicity


21.    Buy nothing day

22.    Adbusters: Magazine, filled with anti-ads

         a.      Television un-commercials


23.    Juliet Schor’s suggestions in Plenitude

Study questions for Affluenza

Affluenza Film

1.         What is “Affluenza” as described in the film? What are three or four major points made in the film?

2.         Compare our consumption today with earlier levels of consumption.

3.         What are 4 different reasons to be concerned with our current levels of consumption?

4.         What does ecological footprint analysis suggest about our level of consumption today? How many earth’s would it take to live sustainably at the level of consumption we live at now?

5.         Discuss the relation between growth and happiness.

6.         Identify and explain several ways in which growth in GNP does not indicate an improvement in our lives.

7.         What is one suggestion people have given for how to provide for jobs for everyone even as we dramatically decrease the amount of consumption.

8.         Is it morally wrong to be wealthy and wasteful on a planet were 1/5 live in abject poverty?

9.         Is the following true: Conservative Christians are worried about the effects of our culture’s focus on consumption. Explain why or why not. What is the relation between consumerism and family and community?

10.       According to the video, are people happier at our current high level of consumption than we used to be? Explain.

11.       Develop an argument both for and against the idea that it is unfair for Americans to be as rich as we are while so many in the world have virtually nothing.

12.       What is simple living? Describe the voluntary simplicity movement. Is this a desirable alternative lifestyle in your opinion? Why or why not?

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