September 13, 1997 in Features

Addicted To Stuff Pbs Program Examines Affluenza, A Problem That Captures The Essence Of Out Materialistic Society

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Next weekend, a good friend will begin treatment for a serious ailment that afflicts millions of Americans.

The disorder goes by a number of names, but a program airing Monday at 9 p.m. on PBS coins a new one that captures the essence of our materialistic society: affluenza.

The cause of affluenza is our culture’s insatiable appetite for products, from the latest sport utility rigs and personal computers to celebrity-endorsed footwear and sunglasses.

Symptoms range from swollen expectations and fractured families to chronic stress and a rash of bankruptcies.

“Our passion for ‘stuff’ is the addiction nobody talks about,” says “Affluenza” co-producer John de Graaf, “but it’s at the root of many of our social, personal and environmental problems.”

My friend could be affluenza’s “poster child.” A single woman in her mid-40s, she always worked hard for a modest salary. Gradually she saved enough to buy a cozy, two-bedroom fixer-upper, where she lives with an assortment of pets.

When a relative died several years ago and left her an inheritance, she suddenly had enough to pay off the house and open an investment account.

She was set.

But like most Americans, she was uncomfortable letting her money “just sit there.” She imagined all the things she could buy with her windfall - things advertisers promised would make her happy.

She began pouring cash into backyard landscaping projects. When a co-worker invited her to stop by a furniture store on the way home one night, she impulsively bought a $2,500 canopy bed. New outfits began filling racks in her spare bedroom.

As the investment account shrank and credit-card bills grew, she took out home-equity loans worth more than twice what her house originally cost her, and the spending spree continued.

Eventually, my friend maxed out her cards and her home-equity credit line, and bills overwhelmed her paycheck. Frantically, she began applying for evening and weekend work at local fast-food restaurants. She even tried cleaning pottery “greenware” for minimum wage. Under more stress than ever, she continued spending, and her bills mounted.

Surprisingly, she never considered declaring personal bankruptcy. “I like to think I’m ethical,” she explained, “and I didn’t get this deep in debt raising children. Everything I bought was frivolous. Not one bit of it was necessary.”

She did seriously consider selling her house. But a little number-crunching convinced her that once she paid off her debts, she’d have nothing left but her pets, her clothes and her elegant furnishings.

So next weekend, she’ll hold a private “silent auction” of her possessions - the canopy bed, the clothes, the antiques, the concrete statuary, potted plants - “pretty much everything I own.”

As the big day approaches, her mood is genuinely upbeat. Besides paying off her credit-card debt, she says she’s looking forward to “freedom from sleeplessness, constant worry, physical and mental exhaustion, depression, fear of unanticipated home and car repairs, medical or veterinarian expenses….” Her list goes on and on.

Like a convert at a tent revival, my friend isn’t shy about telling neighbors and co-workers why she’s having to sell everything. But instead of learning a lesson from her plight, most of them can hardly wait to get first crack at her treasures - more stuff for them, and at bargain prices!

The irony fits right in with Monday night’s “Affluenza” documentary, which traces the historic evolution of American consumption, explores the marketing ploys that drive it, and examines its impact on our society and environment. The program also offers advice for curing this expensive disease.

“Affluenza” exposes the forces that, it says, “in just 50 years, have dramatically transformed us into the ultimate consumer society.” The program points out how young people in particular are targeted by advertisers - even during the school day - in a relentless effort to create more demand for products.

But the show also suggests that the American dream is being redefined.

“In our 17 years of trend tracking,” reports demographer Gerald Celente, “never have I seen an issue that is gaining such global acceptance as voluntary simplicity.”

“Affluenza is one malady we can cure by spending less money, not more,” points out de Graaf and co-producer Vivia Boe.

Among those featured in the program are Vicki Robin and the late Joe Dominguez, co-authors of the best-seller “Your Money or Your Life.”

Public television is encouraging people to plan “viewing parties” Monday night and to discuss possible solutions following the onehour broadcast.

Viewer and teacher’s guides, suggested readings and additional information will be available on the Web starting Monday at www.pbs.org/affluenza.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Bridget Sawicki

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “Affluenza” facts:

Since 1950, Americans have used more resources than all humans who lived before them.

On average, Americans shop six hours a week and spend only 40 minutes playing with their children.

In 1996, 1.1 million Americans declared personal bankruptcy - more than graduated from college.

By the age of 20, the average American has seen 1 million commercials. Advertising accounts for two-thirds of the space in newspapers and 40 percent of our mail.

In 90 percent of divorce cases, arguments about money play a prominent role.

The gap between rich and poor is wider in the United States than in any other industrial country.

2. Before buying, ask yourself: Do I really need it? Can I afford it?

Could I borrow one from a friend or neighbor?

Do I have one already that could be fixed up or repaired?

How long will it last? Am I prepared to maintain it?

What are all the costs over its lifetime?

How many hours or months will I have to work to pay for it? Is it worth that?

Are the resources that go into it renewable? Is it recyclable?

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Affluenza” facts: Since 1950, Americans have used more resources than all humans who lived before them. On average, Americans shop six hours a week and spend only 40 minutes playing with their children. In 1996, 1.1 million Americans declared personal bankruptcy - more than graduated from college. By the age of 20, the average American has seen 1 million commercials. Advertising accounts for two-thirds of the space in newspapers and 40 percent of our mail. In 90 percent of divorce cases, arguments about money play a prominent role. The gap between rich and poor is wider in the United States than in any other industrial country.

2. Before buying, ask yourself: Do I really need it? Can I afford it? Could I borrow one from a friend or neighbor? Do I have one already that could be fixed up or repaired? How long will it last? Am I prepared to maintain it? What are all the costs over its lifetime? How many hours or months will I have to work to pay for it? Is it worth that? Are the resources that go into it renewable? Is it recyclable?


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