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de Graaf, John, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2001 (268 pp.). Unlike many books, which go on to spur TV shows or movies, this book began as a PBS series on consumption, mostly in the United States, by far the world’s most consumerist nation. The television program was well received when it aired in 1997, and there was a follow-up documentary the next year, also on PBS. The producers were later approached to turn their research, most of which could not fit into a television program, into a book. "Affluenza" is a handy made-up word, but the illness connotation is purposeful, as the authors see America’s out-of-control buying habit as a sickness, an illness, that society had better cure soon; otherwise, we won’t leave a planet that anyone wants to, or even can, live in. Of course there are numerous books on how humankind is ruining the environment, how over-consumption spoils families and communities ("money can’t buy happiness"), how television and advertising entice us to buy what we don’t need, how corporate America controls not only the purse strings but the political puppets, too. The value of this book is that it pulls these and many other ailments together into a readable, approachable, and at times whimsical critique of our quest to have more stuff. Using the disease metaphor, affluenza is looked at in the book through several stages: symptoms, causes, treatment. The symptoms are everything from the family in debt up to its eyeballs; to the lack of community (and loss of personal meaning) that defines most mall-dominated suburbs; to chewing up more and more of the earth’s natural resources in order to feed the need for more and bigger. These and many other topics are presented in clear, brief chapters filled with facts and statistics that will make many readers gasp. The authors include material from other simplicity advocates, everyone from Ghandi to Thoreau to Jesus to Marx to Ralph Nader, so anyone looking for a helpful bibliography on the plain living movement will find most of the seminal figures here (as well as lists of organizations and Web sites related to the topic). The "cause" section spends, as it should, significant time discussing the corporate culture that pushes people to want more and work more; there’s interesting history about the work week, as well as comparisons with other countries. Assisting corporations of course is marketing and public relations, the sectors whose job it is to convince us that we need that car or pair of jeans. The chapters dealing with how marketers have shifted much of their focus to children, and the ways in which the world of commercials has invaded spaces like schools, is most alarming. What they could devote more attention to here is the role of the media in general. There’s passing reference to how most television, radio, and newspaper outlets are now owned by a handful of conglomerates, but they could explain why this perpetuates affluenza. In other words, is it really in a newspaper or television station’s best interest to encourage simplicity when, for instance, a huge chunk of their revenue dollars come from the auto industry? The final section examines some of the ways people have said "no" to buy, buy, buy – everything from individuals who chuck it all and move to a farm, to people who start their own simplicity business or nonprofit. The book includes a self-test to see if the reader suffers from affluenza, and then offers something like a 12-step program for individuals (for instance, spend more time in nature). Beyond personal fulfillment, however, the message here is that the world needs citizen participation to force corporations and politicians to make the kind of decisions that need making. The authors provide extremely simple but ultimately effective policies that could be and should be enacted. Affluenza would be a good book for someone who doesn’t really know there’s a problem; it’s not overly technical, it doesn’t depend on too many complicated equations or explanations from economists and environmentalists, and it doesn’t beat the reader over the head with a guilt-laden hammer. An ideal audience for the book, in fact, would be students in high school or those just entering college.


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