Over-consumption, Social disintegration, and Environmental degradation: Social diseases of today's affluent American society
Today's American society's affluence is unparalleled: with the success of a capitalist economy, America is able to provide the essential needs of the society, and at a quantity more than what all of America needs. Food, clothing, cars, housing, and even home appliances range from the cheap to the expensive, in various sizes, color, and form. All these material needs and wants are available to every American. An observer would have considered that indeed, American life is the ideal life to live.
John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor thought otherwise. Critically looking into the seemingly affluent and ideal social order of American society in the book, "Affluenza," the authors presented an insightful interpretation of the 'social diseases' that plague America. Collectively categorized under the epidemic termed as "affluenza," the authors discussed how affluent American society was far from perfect: it has 'social diseases' that were created from indulging in too much material accumulation, which were over-consumption, social disintegration, and environmental degradation. Centering on these social diseases, "Affluenza" brought into fore the detrimental effects that capitalism and its comforts had on American society.
Prior to discussing the three main themes (over-consumption, social disintegration, and environmental degradation) discussed in Part I of the book, the authors defined first the nature of the epidemic. They defined the term "affluenza" as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from dogged pursuit of more" (2). Evidently, affluenza is a social problem that emerged from the success of capitalism and modernism in America.
In illustrating how the epidemic spread and developed to give rise to the concept of "affluenza," the authors first illustrated how over-consumption had become one of its 'symptoms,' -- that is, Americans are now experiencing the need to accumulate more material wealth, in an effort to win the race towards achieving affluence. This was explicated in chapter 5, "The stress of excess." In it, the authors discussed the emergence of "possession overload" and "time famine," concepts which were interrelated and effectively illustrated how Americans learned to buy more than what they need in the soonest time possible.
Over-consumption was the American psyche that reflected how people considered excessive consumption as the immediate 'solution' in dealing with the stress that come with everyday life. Ironically, what the authors imparted in the book was that Americans worked very hard in order to financially support the lifestyle that they cannot maintain, much less enjoy (40). This realization showed that Americans were not living life as they aspired it to be: the comfort available to them only caused stress and bankruptcy. Bankruptcy resulted from over-spending and not being able to pay for these excessive purchases, while stress was caused by the need to alleviate one's sudden feelings of emotional instability and the pressure to keep up with other people's apparent ascent towards 'affluence.'
Over-consumption was the over-all detrimental effect of affluenza to the individual. Through this first 'symptom' and effect of affluenza, readers were able to relate to the nature of the social epidemic itself. It is by associating one's self that the authors were able to let their readers comprehend the complexity of this social problem. This was because, more than the American individual, affluenza had detrimentally caused disorder in the society, specifically the social order of its important institutions, such as the strength and integration of people together in a family and community.
The second symptom and effect of affluenza illustrated this social disorder, identified as the disintegration of the American family and community. The authors considered "socially sanctioned addiction" as the cause of disintegration within the family and community. This phenomenon, socially sanctioned addiction, was characterized as " ... trying to acquire as many things as possible ... A real addictive cycle that families get into where they go out and spend money in order to feel good about themselves ... when there's no more money left ... they start feeling stress and tension in their relationship" (47).
Socially sanctioned addiction reflected the money-centric American family, wherein unity was determined on the amount of money that it has in order to spend on "bonding activities" and other preoccupations that the family thinks would lead to a stronger family relationship. Thus, a strong and good family relationship, as reflected in the book, was determined through the family's capability to spend money which the family members thought would be beneficial to their relationship. Lack of money as a result of over-spending, in effect, had grave effects that threatened the American family simply because they were exposed to the belief that the key towards living a better life was to live it comfortably, which will only become possible if people have money to spend on these 'materials of comfort.'
Another example of family disintegration illustrated in the book was the threat of moral degeneration, wherein children exposed to popular culture, bombarded with advertisements and TV programs, showed increased discontentment in their personality and lifestyle. Aspiring to become one of the famous TV personalities, children resort to the media as their 'barometer' of what are the ideal personalities and lifestyles that they should adapt in order to "fit in" with their peer group and become "cool." Moral degeneration happens when children, and people, generally, learn to cultivate a psyche of discontent, wherein this negative feeling would only be alleviated by buying materials that would make them feel or look better. "Fitting in" and becoming "cool" were, according to the authors, "anti-social" attitudes that cultivate the belief that people should learn to differentiate themselves from others (55). That is, aspiring to become unique and different led people to consume products that aid in achieving this 'differentiation.' Not being different or unique enough leads to the belief that one is not part of the society; whether the individual is unique or not, the ultimate end is aspire for distinction, which in effect results to isolation in the society.
Isolation also results when the youth are exposed to too much multimedia technologies. Those who became 'addicted' to playing video and/computer games or surfing and socializing through the Internet were cited as examples of people who gradually isolate themselves from the society. Disintegration to society, and eventually, isolation, happens when the individual becomes involved in activities that only require man-machine interactions, and not so much on real, face-to-face, human interactions. American society was characterized as a society that is not just money-centric, but primarily, material-centric; after all, it was material wealth people were after. A life governed by machines such computer and Internet technologies lacks human interaction, leaving the individual isolated and finding comfort not with people, but with machines instead.
Social disintegration does not only mean the loosening of human relations and interaction. More importantly, American society was reflected to be evolving into becoming a "standard" society, where people became "standardized." Americans are in a period where everything is and can be made possible; however, these opportunities were wasted when American failed to cultivate and improve their personality and individuality. As discussed in the book, standardization occurred because " ... mass production, which makes the universal consumer lifestyle possible, drives large numbers of people out of more varied occupations ... Their work offers neither variety nor control" (75). Standardization hampered social and intellectual progress, leading to a stagnation of American society. Americans had experienced too much comfort and had been given limited opportunities to improve their lives socially, they were now crippled to having a life according to the American ideal, or standard. Disintegration, in this respect, meant the gradual descent of society towards stagnation, and possibly (though unfortunately), regression.
Another important effect that affluenza had on American society was the blatant disregard for the physical environment…
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