A Dose of Affluenza

July 17, 1998

By Michael Jessen

Many Americans spent the week after their national holiday declaring independence -- from stuff!

July 4th is the day Americans celebrate independence from Britain, but July 7th and beyond were days to Escape From Affluenza, the name coined for the prevalence of rampant consumerism and materialism ailing Americans and Canadians alike.

Escape From Affluenza is a one-hour sequel to last fall's special on PBS Television, Affluenza, which introduced the epidemic of the same name. Its symptoms include record levels of personal debt and bankruptcy, fractured families, chronic stress and overwork

The sequel tells the stories of a number of people who have called a halt to keeping up with the Joneses and abandoning the consumer chase. It offers viewers a variety of ways to cut consumption, debt and waste and save the environment, while also saving bundles of money. In addition, the program explores how living more simply can mean enjoying a better quality of life -- with more time for family and friends, and less time working, shopping and going deeper into debt.

Why all this interest in and publicity about materialism? According to a new poll from the Center for a New American Dream, 55 percent of Americans say they'd by willing to reduce material possessions and earnings either "some" or "a lot" in order to gain time with family and experience less stress. Additionally, 33 percent reported buying 50 to 100 percent more stuff than really needed.

The Index of Social Health has found that during the last 20 years, as our per capita consumption has risen 45 percent, our quality of life has gone down 52 percent.

The North American lifestyle of overconsumption, a goal for most of the world, is a recipe for global environmental and social catastrophe. Four planet Earths would be needed to provide the entire world with the North American level of consumption, says Seattle researcher Alan Durning, author of the influential book How Much Is Enough?

"Our devotion to growth endangers the planet, by exhausting resources and accelerating pollution and driving other species to extinction; it upsets community, by swelling the scale of institutions and settlements byond reach of our understanding; and it harms the individual, by encouraging a scramble for possessions and a nagging discontent even in the midst of plenty." So says Scott Russell Sanders in an eloquent article entitled Simplicity in the August issue of Audubon magazine.

Trend-watcher Gerald Celente says voluntary simplicity is one of the top 10 trends of the 1990s. He says about 15 percent of the North American population will have adopted some form of voluntary simplicity by the year 2000.

Winnipeg author Mark Burch, whose book Simplicity contains exercises to help individuals and groups make the important transition from a consumptive lifestyle to simplicity, sees the movement as a natural outgrowth of our current efforts to reduce waste. "Waste reduction stresses efficiency while leaving the goals unquestioned," he says.

Reducing consumption involves "a review of basic life goals, how we spend our time, talents and treasure, and the role accorded to material consumption as a means to pleasure, health, self-esteem or public reputation. To choose simplicity is to choose to care not only for the natural world, but in caring for it, to care for ourselves."

It's not too late to declare independence and climb on this bandwagon.

TRASH TIP: The size of the average North American house has almost doubled since 1949, although the number of residents in each house has decreased during the same time by 25 percent. However, since 1970 the number of commercial self-storage facilities has increased 2,500 percent.

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