Affluenza’s Nothing New: The Disease That Ails America

For those who have too much, less is not just more—it's better.

Sometimes a book is so good it gets made into a movie. This time, the movie—a hit documentary on PBS from 1997—got made into a book. As usual, the book is even better.

Affluenza documents the extent to which we are under assault—and shows us that we are not powerless.

Affluenza, the film, began life on TV as a one-hour guided tour of America's disastrous love affair with shopping. The film was sassy, snappy, and smart. It made you laugh, even as it filled your consciousness with the horrible realization that there was ample data to back up that sneaking intuition that our culture had fallen ill and could croak at any minute.

The trouble? Overconsumption. We work more, to earn more, to spend more, and the spending has reached dangerously gargantuan proportions. We're shopping ourselves to death.

Affluenza, written by John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, is a terrifying tale, something like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” but without any creepy aliens to blame. Many people's waking hours are almost wholly dedicated to getting and spending, as though the Sale of the Century had become the meaning of life. And we're increasingly impoverished by this obsession with wealth.

Oddly, reading such horror stories can be a great pleasure. Affluenza lays out the symptoms, the causes, and (gratefully) the cure. With wit, intelligence, and pizzazz, this trio of authors has brought together a complete guide to the disease that most ails America. Proof of having read the book should be a requirement for opening a charge account, applying for a boat loan, or running a large corporation.

Make no mistake, this is a subversive text. If it becomes wildly popular, it might bring down the stock market. The nation's economic security, we are told, depends on us consumers going out there and racking up more debt on our credit cards (thereby expressing our “consumer confidence” to Wall Street)—even when our three-car garages are stuffed with four-cars-worth of stuff and our lives are so crammed full of mediated pseudo-experiences that we have forgotten what humans used to do for pleasure and self-development in the dark ages before entertainment became a 24-7 universal human right.

Affluenza documents the extent to which we are under assault—and shows us that we are not powerless. We need not be in thrall to the creative geniuses trying to “brand” our children's brains by beaming 200 TV commercials into them every single day. We can, and indeed should, recoil in shock and horror from the growth in that one trend alone (the authors report that spending on children's advertising in the US went from $100 million a year to $150 billion between 1980 and 1997. Faced with such news, reactions of amazement, followed by disgust, followed by anger, followed by a hearty and determined resolve to heal ourselves, our neighbors, and our nation are entirely appropriate.

The good news is you can, in fact, liberate yourself. And for those who have too much, less is not just more—it's better. Restoring Nature can restore the soul. Getting out of debt may be the most revolutionary act a modern person can perform. Once you Escape from Affluenza—the title of the movie's sequel and the subject of this book's excellent closing chapters—you will recover a treasure that you didn't even realize you had lost, a very limited and precious resource, the only thing you really have in this world: your time.

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