Richard Denniss doesn’t mind pissing people off. He’s good at it. His entertaining and punchy book Curing Affluenza will, with luck, kickstart a conversation about mindless consumerism and what we do about it.
Denniss needs little introduction to followers of the Australian policy scene – has been an strategy advisor to Bob Brown, chief of staff of Natasha Stott-Despoja, a former chief executive and now chief economist at The Australia Institute. He’s been sticking his hand in hornets’ nests for a while, whether on climate policy, taxation, the (ab)uses of economic modelling or pretty much anything.
Denniss co-authored an earlier book with Clive Hamilton called Affluenza, which obviously covered some of the same territory. Affluenza, to cure your suspense, is “that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know”.
Ironically enough, there is already a towering pile of published books covering the economic, environmental and psychological costs of consumerism, as well as the pursuit of loneliness, the culture of narcissism, whether the path to happiness is to have or to be, and the collision course our species is on. (I could probably spark joy by decluttering my own shelves of these and other volumes.)
Denniss’ book, which he has been plugging on the radio, is a bit lighter (in both positive and negative ways) than some of these weighty tomes, striking a tone more akin to the 2007 documentary Story of Stuff.
Denniss writes with passion and wit, peppering his argument with memorable metaphors and acerbic questions. The book seeks to show that affluenza is “economically inefficient, the root cause of environmental destruction and that it worsens global inequality”, and to “broaden the menu from which choices can be made – by individuals, communities and countries”.
Denniss distinguishes between consumerism – a love of buying things – and materialism – the love of things themselves. The latter may be beneficial, as long as you care for your things, make sure that they can be repaired, and ensure they are made to last.
He deals well with the “the market won’t stand for it” argument, explaining that “what that really means is ‘rich people who own a lot of shares would react angrily’”. He also perceptively observes that “the process of making things people don’t need and then recycling them into other things they don’t need is now called ‘wealth creation’ or ‘job creation’. More accurate descriptions would be ‘resource destruction’ and ‘waste creation’.”
He’s also good on the relationship between technology and culture, arguing that it’s not that “technology will fix everything, but that technology and culture can and will change everything. The pace and direction of that change, like rope in a tug-of-war, will be determined by the relative strength of forces pulling on it.” But he could have written more on the fact that states are now crucial actors in the innovation game.
And this touches on the book’s biggest weakness: it identifies the problem and asks what is to be done, but largely fails to consider who should do it. Chapters 7 and 8 do contain a series of policy proposals around “banning some or all forms of advertising, banning corporate donations to politicians, preventing former politicians from working as lobbyists”, as well as proposing a ban on new coal mines. But Dennis, curiously, does not propose a universal basic income, which might have some rather interesting effects in getting consumers off the hedonic treadmill.
It’s not always clear who Denniss thinks will get this done, and how they are not going to be fobbed off, demonised, co-opted or demoralised. For my money (actually, I was sent a review copy) I think Denniss underestimates how hard it is for people to take the “voluntary simplicity” route (social status is a powerful driver of consumption), and he could have done more to name and shame companies that are trying to foster psychological insecurity to create consumers for life (covert marketing at children? I mean, seriously?)
Denniss could also have introduced a few more economic concepts (such as positional goods, which decline in value as more people obtain them) and some more case studies, such as the classic example of the Ford Model T, which won the usefulness/cheapness/reliability battle but was defeated by competing car companies that made annual minor cosmetic changes.
Who won’t like this book?
You can’t please everyone. The book will doubtless get a kicking from the following groups:
So-called conservatives such as the Minerals Council of Australia, which cops several serves for its lobbying and modelling
Hardcore anti-capitalists (the word capitalism doesn’t appear until page 192, and Denniss somewhat sidesteps the discussion) and economic degrowthers, who think the scale of the problem goes beyond voluntary simplicity
Marxists who will ask who is this “we” in sentences like “we have built a culture where buying things is increasingly unrelated to using things” and wince at the assumption that readers will have “five cashed-up friends”
But Denniss, I am pretty sure, has not written this book for any of those groups of baked-in enemies, malcontents and despairers. I think he’s written it for Joe and Jane Public, who worry about their kids’ future. And there are enough good metaphors, clear thinking and provocation here to get a good conversation going. So in that sense, mission accomplished.