Spending Ourselves to Death

An epidemic of stuff, and our obsession with having it all, is making America very ill.

Published September 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in the late 1950s, at one of the peaks of post-World War II affluence in Britain, Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan campaigned on the memorable phrase "You've Never Had it So Good." Much the same can be said for the United States in the late '90s. The economy appears to be going from strength to strength, along with the stock market. Analysts keep warning darkly of inflation around the corner but it never appears. The land is awash in expensive, gas-hogging sports utility vehicles, satellite dishes, theater-sized TV consoles and various other paraphernalia of good times.

Some would call it overconsumption, or as a documentary that airs Monday night on public television calls it, "Affluenza." Partly tongue-in-cheek, partly serious, the documentary looks at what it sees as an epidemic of consumption -- "Too much stuff, too little time" -- a near-addiction that may have unanticipated social, personal and environmental consequences.

Salon spoke with the John de Graaf, co-producer of the one-hour documentary. De Graaf, producer of the 1994 PBS show "Running out of Time," has won numerous national and international awards for his documentaries.

How did you come up with the term "affluenza" and what does it mean?

We came across it in an article written by Vicki Robin, co-author of the book "Your Money or Your Life." As soon as I saw it I thought it was a great name for the program. She was also the person who strongly encouraged us to do a program on overconsumption. Affluenza is a whole set of symptoms, from never realizing that one has enough to the kind of continual pursuit of more. We pointedly call a it a virus of overconsumption.

What are the main symptoms of this virus?

One we call "swollen expectations," the drive that every generation has to have more than the previous generation. Another is "shopping fever," the fact that adults spend more hours a week shopping than playing with their kids.

And more Americans visit shopping malls in a week than go to church or synagogue.

Right. Then there is the rash of bankruptcies; this past year more Americans -- 1 million in total -- declared personal bankruptcy than graduated from college. We also talk about resource exhaustion, and the social scars, like fractured families. We wanted to look at it tongue-in-cheek, but there is an element of disease to it, an element of addiction.

You're saying this epidemic of stress, overwork, shopping and debt comes from the dogged pursuit of the American dream.

Yeah, the American dream has been defined as essentially consumerism, increasingly since World War II. Having the right to more stuff than previous generations, instead of the old ideas of democratic participation, freedom and even frugality.

In the documentary, Theodore Roosevelt equates overconsumption with a corrupt civilization.

Yes. Throughout our history there have been these expressions of concern and there's always been an undercurrent of voluntary simplicity and frugality as well. What's telling these days is that Pepsi-Cola can run an advertising campaign in which they just say, "Drink Pepsi, Get Stuff." It's undifferentiated. The assumption is, if it uses resources and it takes up space, we're going to want it. This word "stuff" is so very telling. Since the 1980s it's really come into the American dialogue. Whoever dies with the most toys wins. We've so much stuff, our homes are so much larger ...

Nearly double the size they were in the '50s.

Yet the average family size is smaller than it was. And we have all this garage space, and at the same time the number of commercial self-storage facilities in the United States has leaped 25-fold since the 1970s. To me that's phenomenal. This is where people store all this "stuff" and leave it there for years on end.

In the documentary, you touch on another trend, toward huge, gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles. I once saw an advertisement for one vehicle that had, I think, enough holders for 14 drinks.

Right, the "suburban assault vehicles." In terms of size, Chevy had the lead with the Suburban, which is 18 feet long, and now Ford wants to make one that's 19 feet long. They're immense vehicles. Over 80 percent of the people who buy them never leave paved roads, but they want a four-wheel drive, most of which get about 11 to 14 miles to the gallon.

So you see this as more conspicuous consumption than anything else?

The sports utility craze has become the most obvious recent manifestation of affluenza. It's stunning how many you see. In Seattle, every third or fourth vehicle is an SUV, with one person in it, commuting on the freeway. I did an interview recently on a commercial station in Seattle and afterwards the fellow who interviewed me said that he had thought about it and would be getting rid of it. He realized he never really takes it anywhere, it's big and bulky and it's costing him a lot of money each month that he could use for something else.

It was also shocking to learn just how many advertisements are used in schools. You have an amazing example of one book that wants kids to learn about World War II by learning about Tootsie Rolls.

It's outrageous just how cynical some of the people are who are marketing to children. You see ads in the schools that say things like, "M&Ms are better than straight A's."

You had one man at a workshop on "marketing to children" saying that antisocial behavior in pursuit of a product is good. That was after his comment on "branding" children -- as in brand names -- and "owning" them. Like you're talking about cattle.

Yes, capturing, owning, branding. That's the language that's used in children's marketing. As a parent with a 3-year-old, I find it frightening. I think people of all political stripes who think about this fear for their children.

On the other hand, you also have a trend-watcher saying he's never seen such a strong trend as "voluntary simplicity."

What he meant was that this is not a fast-breaking trend that everybody all of a sudden jumps onto, like the Hula Hoop or even sport utility vehicles. It's one of the trends that has legs and he thinks will continue, towards finding a new "balance" in life, not going back to the Stone Age but getting away from mindless consumerism. There is this undercurrent, at the same time that the assault of mass marketing is only getting worse. It's hard to say which trend will win. We made "Affluenza" because we feel it's time for a dialogue: "What is the American dream and what should it be?"

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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