Curing 'affluenza' needs to become a cultural priority

CC BY 2.0 Hernán Piñera

We need to train ourselves not to love buying new stuff so much.

Consumerism and materialism are not the same thing, according to Richard Denniss. The author of "Curing Affluenza: How to buy less stuff and save the world" argues that, if consumerism is about the love of buying things, then materialism is the love of things themselves.

The two words are often used interchangeably, which is problematic; because, when taken literally, Denniss points out that they're actually polar opposites. A true materialist would take pleasure in what he or she owned, not feeling a constant urge to buy new:

"If you really loved your car, the thought of replacing it with a new one would be painful. Similarly, if you really loved your kitchen, your shoes, your belt or your couch, then your materialism would prevent you rushing out and buying a new one."

Consumerism, on the other hand, is a relatively new cultural shift that has proven to be highly addictive -- and dangerous. From an environmental perspective, it's absurd to be using precious resources to generate products that are only used temporarily. (Think water bottles, Styrofoam takeout containers, umbrellas for emergency downpours, single-night outfits.) From a financial perspective, it's an enormous waste of money to be shopping constantly and a straight shot to debt. Psychologically, it is unnatural to override humankind's natural and historic inclination toward thriftiness, not to mention mentally exhausting always to be craving the next thing.

Denniss' real concern is the planet. If we hope to salvage our planet from further devastation, whether it's excessive resource extraction or widespread plastic pollution, we need to end consumer culture as we know it:

"Put simply, if we want to reduce the impact on the natural environment of all of the stuff we buy, then we have to hang on to our stuff for a lot longer. We have to maintain it, repair it when it breaks, and find a new home for it when we don’t need it any longer. If we want to cure affluenza, we have to get more satisfaction from the things we already own, more satisfaction from services, more satisfaction from leisure time, and less satisfaction from the process of buying new things."

Note that Denniss' description does not stop just at appreciating the things we own. It goes beyond that, to embracing non-material items and prioritizing leisure, non-shopping-related activities, and presumably investing in human relationships.

Denniss wrote in The Guardian:

"While no one is in charge of culture, there is no doubt that some people, companies and countries put far more effort into shaping it than others."

That's also known as advertising and branding, and that is precisely where people (not consumers -- we should stop calling ourselves that) need to fight back. We have to shift the culture, questioning what we buy and why, in order to de-normalize destructive consumerist behaviors. In doing so, there is potential to slow habitat destruction, to stem the tide of plastic into our oceans, to reduce the amount of household trash we haul to the curb each week. Anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist should make this a priority:

"Those who want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, reduce deforestation or increase the ability of people to spend quality time with their friends, families and communities will need to spend as much time thinking about the cultural drivers of the problems they seek to solve as developing policy solutions to them."

These are words we should all take to heart.

Curing 'affluenza' needs to become a cultural priority
We need to train ourselves not to love buying new stuff so much.

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