Monday, April 11, 2005


For my book club I’m reading Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. According to the authors affluenza is “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” In short, it’s all about how Americans buy too much crap and consume way too many resources and, for the most part, don’t think twice about it.

Although the book is lighthearted in tone, attempting to stop the madness through humor and gentle persuasion, every page presents some absolutely appalling fact. For example, 60 percent of American families have so little savings that they can only sustain their lifestyles for about a month if they lose their jobs. Or 90 percent of teenage girls in the U.S. rank shopping as their favorite activity. Or a contemporary three-car garage is about the size of a typical 1950s house.

Well, I’m allergic to shopping and haven’t been in a mall since last July and even then I only went in to use the restroom,* so no wonder I find these stats mind-boggling. As I read, I was feeling pretty certain that I was not infected with affluenza. I skipped ahead and found a rather comprehensive test the authors have compiled for diagnosing affluenza. I wish I could reproduce it here, but it consists of 50 questions, so I’m not going to type it out.** If you want to take an abridged, less serious 15-question version of the test, click here.***

Both the abridged and unabridged tests indicated that I have almost no symptoms**** of affluenza. I wasn’t surprised. I just don’t buy stuff, apart from food (and drink) and garden plants. I drive a 16-year-old car. I've got many articles of clothing that date back to the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush. There just aren’t a lot of things I want. Even as a kid, I often had trouble coming up with a Christmas list. At the moment, the only thing I want is a small compost tumbler, but who knows if I’ll ever make the purchase. I’ve been mulling it over since last year.

However, there is one question in the comprehensive test that I didn’t really know how to answer: “Do you routinely compare the appearance of your lawn and/or home with others in your neighborhood?” I do. Sometimes I’m just enjoying people’s gardens and landscaping, but there is a definite covetous component to it more often than not. I’ve always kind of wished our house was bigger, even though there is plenty of room for B and I here in our 1900 sq ft (including basement) house.

There are many good reasons--economic, social, political, and especially environmental--for not owning a really mammoth house. And yet, when B and I take walks around the neighborhood, I am always seeing houses that I think I like better than ours. They are always larger. What I really want is a house with an upstairs, a second floor, where I could have my office. But there’s more to it than that that I can't quite pinpoint. You see, I could move my office up out of the basement right now. Even though we’ve only got two bedrooms, one of them isn’t being used. Sure we’d have to do some fiddling to get an Internet connection in that room, but it’s hardly an insurmountable problem, and it surely would be cheaper and a lot less complicated than taking on a mortgage for a more expensive house. So why haven’t I moved my office up to that spare room? I think mainly because I like having the main floor of the house free of all traces of my job.

But if we had a larger house....

Perhaps I need to finish Affluenza. The last section apparently has tips about how to get over wanting more than you need.

*I did, however, impulse-buy one of those mall pretzels that contain about a pound of cheeze and are dunked in butteroid substance just for good measure.
**I also don’t want to get myself in trouble with the copyright police.
***Before it was a book, Affluenza was a documentary on PBS. The test comes from the Web site for the TV show and is therefore less substantial--in keeping with the nature of television.
***This will be the last time I will use the disease metaphor. The authors of the book use it constantly, and it gets very tiresome.


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