Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic


Based on two highly acclaimed PBS documentaries watched by 10 million viewers, "Affluenza uses the whimsical metaphor of a disease to tackle a very serious subject: the damage done -- to our health, our families, our communities, and our environment -- by the obsessive quest for material gain. In cleverly titled chapters like "Swollen Expectations" and "A Rash of Bankruptcies," the authors examine the origins, evolution, and symptoms of the affluenza epidemic. Yet they also explore cures and suggest strategies ...
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Based on two highly acclaimed PBS documentaries watched by 10 million viewers, "Affluenza uses the whimsical metaphor of a disease to tackle a very serious subject: the damage done -- to our health, our families, our communities, and our environment -- by the obsessive quest for material gain. In cleverly titled chapters like "Swollen Expectations" and "A Rash of Bankruptcies," the authors examine the origins, evolution, and symptoms of the affluenza epidemic. Yet they also explore cures and suggest strategies for rebuilding families and communities and for restoring and respecting the earth.
Demonstrating that now, more than ever, Americans need ways of fighting the affliction, this edition includes a new introduction and updated figures, adds information on the impacts of stress and overwork, and provides an in-depth look at various campaigns and movements offering solutions for today's problems. Engaging, fast-paced, and accessible, it reexamines a serious, far-reaching issue for a wide audience.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
De Graaf, producer of the PBS documentaries Affluenza (1996) and Escape from Affluenza (1998); David Wann, a former EPA staffer and expert on sustainable lifestyles; and Thomas H. Naylor, professor emeritus in economics at Duke, have assembled an updated and more in-depth look at the epidemic of overconsumption sweeping the United States and the rest of the world, based on de Graaf's documentaries. They define "affluenza" as "a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more" and examine the spiraling cycle of overconsumption, spending, stress, and broken relationships caused by America's obsession with uncontrolled economic growth at any cost. This witty yet hard-hitting book provides evidence of the social problems caused by the American obsession with acquiring "stuff" and proposes solutions for living more sustainably. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Mark Bay, Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Lib., Indianapolis Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781576753576
  • Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/9/2005
  • Series: BK Currents Series
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.66 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

de Graaf is a documentary television producer. He lives in Seattle.

David Wann is a master gardener and holds a Master's degree in environmental science. He is the author of Deep Design and a co-author of the acclaimed Affluenza. He has written for Colorado Country Life magazine as well as several newspapers.

Thomas Naylor is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University. During the 1970s he was president of a major software firm. He's written the New York Times and other major publications and thirty books, including the recent, much-discussed "Affluenza." In 2003 he founded The Second Vermont Republic. Naylor lives outside Burlington Vermont.

David Horsey has published several collections of his work, including The Fall of Man and One Man Show. He lives in Seattle.

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Read an Excerpt


The All-Consuming Epidemic
By John de Graaf David Wann Thomas H. Naylor

Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Copyright © 2005 John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor
All right reserved.


In his office, a doctor offers his diagnosis to an attractive, expensively dressed female patient. "There's nothing physically wrong with you," he says. His patient is incredulous. "Then why do I feel so awful?" she asks. "So bloated and sluggish. I've got a big new house, a brand-new car, a new wardrobe. And I just got a big raise at work. Why am I so miserable, doctor? Isn't there some pill you can give me?" The doctor shakes his head. "I'm afraid not," he replies. "There's no pill for what's wrong with you." "What is it, doctor?" she asks, alarmed. "Affluenza," he answers gravely. "It's the new epidemic. It's extremely contagious. It can be cured, but not easily."

Of course, the scene is an imaginary one, but the epidemic is real. A powerful virus has infected American society, threatening our wallets, our friendships, our families, our communities, and our environment. We call the virus affluenza. And because the United States has become the economic model for most of the world, the virus is now loose on every continent.

Affluenza's costs and consequences are immense, though often concealed. Untreated, the disease can cause permanent discontent. Were you to find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition might be something like the following:

affluenza,n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.


Quietly, like some sort of unseen mind-snatcher, the virus has consumed the American political dialogue. Consider Al Gore. In 1992, while still a senator, he wrote a popular book called Earth in the Balance. America, Gore noted then,

is holding ever more tightly to its habit of consuming larger and larger quantities every year of coal, oil, fresh air and water, trees, topsoil, and the thousand other substances we rip from the crust of the earth, transforming them into not just the sustenance and shelter we need but much more that we don't need.... The accumulation of material goods is at an all-time high, but so is the number of people who feel an emptiness in their lives.

Americans, Gore suggested, had become addicted to stuff. Our civilization, he wrote, promises happiness through "the consumption of an endless stream of shiny new products.... But the promise is always false." A year later, Al Gore was inaugurated as vice president of the United States. During the ceremony, a soprano sang the beautiful old Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts" ('Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free ...). During the song, Gore nodded in agreement. Then, in the next couple of years, something happened. The mind-snatcher came and took Al Gore.

In the 1996 vice presidential debate, Gore's opponent, Jack Kemp, vowed to "double the size of the U.S. economy in the next fifteen years." Gore never questioned whether it would be a good thing for Americans to consume twice as much. By the 2000 election, the transformation of Al Gore into an agent of affluenza was complete. In a presidential debate, he vowed to increase the size of the U.S. economy by 30 percent in ten years. And what happened to Al Gore seems to be happening to all of us.

"Who wants to be a millionaire?" asks the ABC show. Apparently, nearly everyone.

Of course, there's a downside to this obsession, and in our hearts most of us know it. Pollster Richard Harwood found that out back in 1995, when he conducted a survey for the Merck Family Fund about American attitudes concerning consumption. "People are saying that we spend and buy far more than we need. That our children are becoming very materialistic and that we're spending for what we want today at the expense of future generations and our own future," Harwood explains. "It crosses religious lines, age lines, race, income, and education. There is a universal feeling in this nation that we've become too materialistic, too greedy, too self-absorbed, too selfish, and that we need to bring back into balance the enduring values that have guided this country over generations: values of faith, family, responsibility, generosity, friendship."


In our view, the affluenza epidemic is rooted in the obsessive, almost religious quest for economic expansion that has become the core principle of what is called the American dream. It's rooted in the fact that the supreme measure of national progress is that quarterly ring of the cash register called the gross domestic product. It's rooted in the idea that every generation will be materially wealthier than its predecessor and that, somehow, each of us can pursue that single-minded end without damaging the countless other things we hold dear.

It doesn't work that way. The contention of this book is that if we don't begin to reject our culture's incessant demands to "buy now," we will "pay later" in ways we can scarcely imagine. The bill is already coming due. At its most extreme, affluenza threatens to exhaust the earth itself. "We human beings have been producing and consuming at a rate that far exceeds the ability of the planet to absorb our pollution or replenish the stock," says corporate critic Jeremy Rifkin. Scientists say we'd need several more planets if everyone on earth were to suddenly adopt the American standard of living.


Consider the following scenario, as reported in a 1998 article in Parade magazine:

The US economy defied experts' predictions and stayed healthy despite a global financial crisis and the threat of presidential impeachment, thanks to the resilience and stamina of the American consumer.... There was plenty of bad news.... Much of the nation's weather was awful. Torrential rains in California, a devastating flood on the Ohio River, weeks of triple-digit heat in Texas, lethal ice storms in Virginia and the worst Atlantic hurricane season in 200 years. The 1997 poverty rate was still higher than in the early '70s. And although the federal deficit is gone, Americans are deeper in debt than ever.... But nothing distracted us from the good news: high employment, low inflation, real wage increases and the best mortgage rates and gasoline prices in decades.... Consumer spending remained strong throughout the year, guaranteeing continued economic growth.

The best gasoline prices, awful weather; continued economic growth, persistent poverty; consumer confidence, spiraling debt. Are they all somehow connected? We think so.

In each of the past eight years more Americans have declared personal bankruptcy than graduated from college. Our annual production of solid waste would fill a convoy of garbage trucks stretching halfway to the moon. We have twice as many shopping centers as high schools. We now work more hours each year than do the citizens of any other industrial country, including Japan. Though we constitute only 4.7 percent of the earth's people, we account for 25 percent of its global-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Ninety-five percent of our workers say they wish they could spend more time with their families. Forty percent of our lakes and streams are too polluted for swimming or fishing. A CEO now earns 475 times as much as the average worker, a tenfold increase since 1980. Since 1950, we Americans have used up more resources than everyone who ever lived on earth before then.

However unrelated they may seem, all of these facts-the diverse symptoms of affluenza-are also connected. Much of this book focuses on the United States because its citizens are the world's most profligate consumers. But what is happening in the United States is clearly beginning to happen elsewhere as the American lifestyle becomes the model for nearly all of the rest of the world. But other countries may have more choice than the United States does. Those in countries where affluenza is not so full-blown an epidemic can keep themselves from greater infection and preserve more balanced lifestyles. We believe there are lessons for every country and every person, rich and poor, to be found in America's mistakes. The global economy means that all of us are in this together and need to understand and control this disease.


We have divided the book into three sections. The first explores many of the symptoms of affluenza, each-only half whimsically-compared to a real flu symptom. Think of how you feel when you've got a bug. You're likely to be running a temperature. You're congested. Your body is achy. You may have chills. Your stomach is upset. You're weak. You might have swollen glands, even a rash.

In the Age of Affluenza, America as a society shows all of these symptoms, metaphorically at least. We present each as a chapter. We start with individual symptoms, then move to the social conditions, and finally turn to the environmental impacts of affluenza.

Some chapters may greet you with the shock of self-recognition-"Honey, that's me!" You might have noticed the conditions discussed in other chapters taking hold of your friends. You might find some symptoms more troubling than others, because you worry more about your children than about your Mother Earth. You might be well off materially but feel continually stressed out or as though your life lacks purpose or meaning. Or you might be poor, and angry at your inability to give your children what marketers say they "gotta have" to fit in. You might have just felt the sting of insults from another driver, red-faced with road rage. Or watched bulldozers destroy the only open space left around your community-to make room for row upon row of identical tract homes with three-car garages. If you're elderly, you may have noticed your children's inability to balance their checkbooks, and you may worry for their children. If you're young, you may be anxious about your own future.

Wherever you're coming from, we believe you'll clearly recognize that at least some of the symptoms of affluenza affect you. Then, as you read on, you'll begin to see how they're connected to others less obvious from your vantage point.


In part 2 of this book, we look beneath the symptoms to search for causes. Is affluenza simply human nature, as some would suggest? What was the genesis of this powerful virus? How has it mutated through history and when did it begin to reach epidemic proportions? What choices did we make as a society (between free time and "stuff," for example) that deepened our infection? We look carefully at warnings from across time and cultures, and at early efforts to eradicate the disease with controls and quarantines.

Then we discover how the spread of the disease has become not only socially acceptable, but encouraged by all the powerful electronic carriers our technological civilization keeps perfecting. We suggest that affluenza promises to meet our needs in inefficient and destructive ways. And we contend that an entire industry of pseudo-physicians, handsomely rewarded by those with a huge stake in the perpetuation of affluenza, conspires to keep the diagnosis of the disease and the extent of its symptoms from reaching the general public.


But far be it from our intent to leave you permanently depressed. Affluenza can be treated, and millions of ordinary Americans are already taking steps in that direction. A 2004 poll by the Center for a New American Dream ( found that 48 percent of Americans claim to have cut back on their spending.

The same poll also revealed that 85 percent of Americans think our priorities as a society are out of whack. Of the respondents, 93 percent feel Americans are too focused on working and making money, 91 percent believe we buy and consume far more than we need, 81 percent think we'll need to make major changes in the way we live to protect the environment, more than half say they have too much debt, and 87 percent feel our current consumer culture makes it hard to instill positive values in our children. The poll conducted by Widmeyer Communications, a national polling firm, surveyed nearly 1,300 American adults and had a margin of error of 3 percent.

Our increasingly harried lifestyles continue to produce rat-race refugees. Enough to make corporate marketers salivate over millions of potential new customers. Hence, companies urge us to "simplify" our lives by buying their products, and new publications, like Time Warner's Real Simple (it would be more aptly called Real Cynical, as most of it is devoted to ads for expensive products), build an audience of 400,000 subscribers before printing their first issue.

What that says to us is that a lot of people are looking for answers to affluenza. Part 3 of this book is devoted to offering some answers we've found.

As with symptoms, we look at treatments starting with the personal and advancing to the social and political. Our treatments, too, employ the medical metaphor. We start as you do when you've got the flu, with bed rest, aspirin, and chicken soup-individual prescriptions popularized by the "new frugality" and "voluntary simplicity" movements.

We encourage a restored interest in the natural world outdoors, with its remarkable healing powers. We agree with futurist Gerald Celente, the author of Trends, 2000. "There's this commercial out," he says, "and it shows this middle-aged man walking through the woods pumping his arms, and all of a sudden in the next cut, there he is on the back porch, woods in the background, walking on this treadmill that must have cost a fortune. It doesn't make sense. It was so much nicer walking through the woods and it cost nothing at all."

We suggest strategies for rebuilding families and communities and for respecting and restoring the earth and its biological rules. We offer "political prescriptions," with the belief that some well-considered legislation-like that suggested by the Take Back Your Time campaign ( to allow us to choose time instead of more money-can help create a less affluenza-friendly social environment and make it easier for individuals to get well and stay that way.

We also present preventive approaches, including vaccines and vitamins, to strengthen our personal and social immune systems. And we suggest an annual checkup. Ours comes in three phases:

1. You can test how you're doing personally in staying well.

2. You can help your community assess its own true health, using indices of sustainability developed by several American cities.

3. And finally, as a people, Americans can find a truly useful substitute for the current outmoded measure of national health, the gross domestic product (GDP).

We recommend an index called the genuine progress indicator (GPI), being fine-tuned by Redefining Progress, an Oakland, California, think tank. Using multiple indices to discover how Americans are doing, the GPI paints a different picture of our real success as a society. While GDP has risen steadily throughout history, the GPI has been falling since 1973.

Then, for fun, we've added a new measure in this edition of the book-a fever thermometer that measures whether the collective illness is getting worse or better.


Little in this book is truly new information, yet the issue in this "information age" isn't more information. It's how to make sense of what we already know. We offer a way of understanding seemingly disconnected personal, social, and environmental problems that makes sense to us-as symptoms of a perilous epidemic that threatens your future and that of generations to come. We don't expect you to agree with everything in these chapters, nor do we even expect to immediately convince you that affluenza is a real disease. Our intention is to encourage a national dialogue about the American consumer dream so that whatever choices you make about consumption are made with a clearer understanding of their possible consequences.


Excerpted from Affluenza by John de Graaf David Wann Thomas H. Naylor Copyright © 2005 by John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Symptoms 9
1 Shopping fever 11
2 A rash of bankruptcies 18
3 Swollen expectations 23
4 Chronic congestion 31
5 The stress of excess 38
6 Family convulsions 47
7 Dilated pupils 54
8 Community chills 63
9 An ache for meaning 72
10 Social scars 81
11 Resource exhaustion 89
12 Industrial diarrhea 100
13 The addictive virus 109
14 Dissatisfaction guaranteed 114
Pt. 2 Causes 125
15 Original sin 127
16 An ounce of prevention 133
17 The road not taken 139
18 An emerging epidemic 146
19 The age of affluenza 153
20 Is there a (real) doctor in the house? 160
Pt. 3 Treatment 171
21 The road to recovery 173
22 Bed rest 177
23 Aspirin and chicken soup 182
24 Fresh air 188
25 The right medicine 197
26 Back to work 206
27 Vaccinations and vitamins 214
28 Political prescriptions 221
29 Annual check-ups 234
30 Healthy again 242
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2001

    The Right Book at the Right Time

    Sure, I've heard about the disappearing rainforests and the many species of animals and plants becoming endangered or extinct, but that doesn't really have anything to do with me, I live in America, the most affluent country in the history of the world. Yes, there are some problems with industrial pollution and other environmental issues but not in my community and besides that's the concern of all those 'environmentalists.' I can go to the mall to buy anything I want as long as I have a credit card, and life is good. Not so fast! It's time to stop and think about what is really happening to us. How many Americans are working in jobs that don't energize them? How many spend hours every week shopping and commuting, but only minutes with their kids or their friends? How many feel 'used up' by a glitzy, gaudy American Dream? The book Affluenza is common ground for many victims who toss and turn, trying to wake up from a value system in which people are too often treated like machines, and machines are too often treated like people. If a million Americans read this book, we may have a shot at moving beyond the short-term illusion many call 'success.' The book offers welcome news that the Joneses have surrendered! Standing on their front porch, they plead, 'Please don't try to keep up with us anymore!' What a concept - that we might be able to cooperate with the Joneses, rather than compete with them¿ Beating affluenza is not about 'giving up' the good life, but getting it back. The strength of this book is that it successfully presents critical information on the anthropology and psychology of America without stripping the reader of hope. Yes, affluenza undermines our personal health, our family life, our communities, and our environment, but the authors offer us a way out. Affluenza has a three-step strategy: to present the symptoms of a disease that often feels deceptively pleasant, like an addiction; to trace the epidemic back to its historical sources; and then to offer dozens of concrete ways to Beat the Bug. The strategy works! The humor, the great satirical cartoons, and the well-researched presentation helped open my mind up and evaluate what's important for me individually, and also what needs to be done throughout our society. This is a great book for book clubs, church discussion groups, high school and college classrooms. Get it, read it, and tell your friends about it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Thinly Disguised Political Agenda in Print

    I picked up this book because a local book club planned to discuss it. I was actually quite excited to read it because I have been concerned by the sense of entitlement I've personally been feeling. The writing style was okay and the political cartoons were quite funny. Unfortunately, it became clear by the end of the book that the authors have a very strong liberal bias. Most of the research cited was seriously skewed toward the authors' viewpoint. The discussion would have been much stronger had they also included some of the opposing arguments. I also struggled with the moralistic tone of the book. This could have been so much better than it was. I ended up disappointed and felt like I had spent 250 pages watching a liberal campaign ad. I would also have appreciated some concrete steps the average reader could begin to take to address the issues raised. Simply highlighting a perceived problem without offering some real solutions is less about solving the problem than whining about it. I guess I'll have to look to something written from a conservative viewpoint to see if they can do any better.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2006


    We had to use this book as our text for my ENG 111 class and honestly not a single one of us enjoyed it. This is a 277 page book that is 275 pages TOO LONG!!!!! This would have been a better pamphlet than a book. Some of it is interesting but the book as a whole is awful.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2006

    A book with the wrong title

    This is without a doubt the worst book I ever read. Even the writing is poor to say nothing of the subject being discussed. In various places the book repeats much the same information. There is reminding a person and then there is drilling it into their skull.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2002

    Highly Recommended!

    Sure, Affluenza is a polemic, but it¿s a powerful one. Sure, some of the book¿s more startling factual assertions are, on closer examination, somewhat distorted. But this is a call to arms, not a scholarly dissection. By depicting our consumer culture as a deadly epidemic, the authors provide a metaphor that simply and intuitively captures the fears and concerns of millions of people worldwide. While some conservative readers might scoff at a book that breathlessly states that life was better before the industrial revolution, we from getAbstract recommend this book as a valuable peek into the intellectual world of the anti-globalization left.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2002

    I'm Not Alone!

    For years I have felt like a fish swimming upstream against the constant pressures of rampant commercialism in our society. I have tried to teach my children by example that less is more, even going so far as to write them a novel, A PARTING GIFT (Warner Books), as a way to impress my thoughts to them. All this time I thought I was standing virtually alone in our spend, spend, spend culture, but now that I have read AFFLUENZA, I realize that there are thousands of others out there who feel the same way I do. I plan to give this book to both my children in the hopes that the hard cold facts and statistics presented here will have as much impact on them as the philosophical truths I tried to express in my novel.

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    Posted January 28, 2011

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    Posted November 30, 2008

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