August 26, 1997
With apologies to Robert Palmer, a lyric has been rolling around in my head for some years now:
Your lights are on, but you’re not home
Your mind is not your own
Your wallet throbs, your body shakes
Going shopping is what it takes…
It’s brought to mind by an intriguing notice on the Public Broadcasting System web site this week:
“Leading experts have positively identified a virulent virus known as Affluenza that is stealthily sweeping the nation. This illness can have lasting, harmful effects, and cannot, we repeat cannot, be cured by a trip to the mall. For relief of this purse-pilfering disease, four out of five doctors recommend …”
“Affluenza,” a one hour special that will air throughout the US September 15, 1997 (check local stations for exact schedule); sorry, non-US readers, you won’t be able to see it but what you’ll read below is pertinent to you too. For the pun-impaired, “affluenza” = “affluence” + “influenza.”
“Affluenza” tells the tale of our modern addiction to “stuff,” the material goods, possession accreting, good life keeping up with the Jonses, whoever dies with the most toys wins, material girl, economic growth uber alles toward the nirvana of accumulation history of the twentieth century.
Not to say there aren’t plenty of people whose lives would seriously benefit with some key additional possessions, but the fact is that millions live surrounded by plenty with gaping holes at the heart of their lives. Affluenza addresses the emptiness even more than the ecological.
Gerald Celente of the Trends Research Institute is quoted as saying, “We hear the same refrain all the time…’I have no life….I get home at night, there’s laundry, bills to pay….I’m exhausted, I go to sleep, I wake up; and the routine begins the next day all over again.”
Despite the booming 80s and a stock market that apparently won’t quit, the average American family’s purchasing power has allegedly remained flat over the past 25 years or so. More and more families need to have both parents working to “make ends meet,” and all too often those ends still don’t meet–since one end is finite income (and a rising mountain of debt) and the other end is seemingly limitless needs for designer running shoes and sport utility vehicles. We run faster and faster, and we increasingly seem to wonder where we’re getting to, with all the running.
You can’t sleep, you can’t eat
There’s no peace, you’re in deep
Your budget’s tight, you can’t breathe
Another purchase is all you need…
In a surprising juxtaposition, “Affluenza” presents a number of politically conservative, traditional pro-corporate Christian activists, deeply questioning the impact of an endlessly acquisitive society on “family values.” One muses about how the TV dinner broke the hold of the family dinner table, cost us some of the cohesiveness of family, and freed everyone to pursue their own thing. And inevitably we use things to fill the hole left by lack of connection and meaning–that Leopold Kohr tellingly called “remedial consumption.”
Alan Watts noted more than 20 years ago, in the essay “The Philosophy of Nature” (in Out of the Trap), “…contrary to popular belief, Americans are not materialists. We are not people who love material, but our culture is by and large, devoted to the transformation of material into junk, as rapidly as possible….” This was long before Robert Ayres calculated that 93% of the physical throughput of the US economy–generally thought to be one of the most efficient in the world–was “waste,” (and 80% of the seven percent “product output” would be waste too within six months)!
“Affluenza” is painfully funny, and occasionally bold, if fairly depressing. It even confronts the absolute inability of Clinton and Gore during their relatively–for US politics–pro-environment 1992 campaign to confront the God of Growth, taking every discussion of sustainability up to that point but no further.
And therein lies the business dilemma that this space periodically alludes to: if a prosperous economy depends on economic transactions, which usually involve an exchange of stuff, which has to be “produced,” which is done by applying energy to transform matter, which inevitably results in more junk…if stuff lust drives the cycle ever faster into debt, ecological fragility and social emptiness…if we all (in our personal if not business lives) care about this…how shall businesses design ways of doing business that step out of these cycles into products, processes and transactions that actually add value while minimizing rather than maximizing the flow of stuff around the surface of the earth?
Whoa, you like to think that you’re not
stuck in a rut, oh yeah
It’s closer to the truth to say
you can’t get enough
You know you’re gonna have to face it,
You’re addicted to stuff!