Curing Affluenza by Richard Denniss book review

Those who would like to see less money spent on stuff that’s thrown away, and more spent on education, health and creativity, need to get better at making friends and influencing people.

No point in getting angry and shouting, economist Richard Denniss seems to say. His cheerful, pleasant, informative approach will give hope and encouragement to those who want political and social policy to change.

Curing Affluenza (Black Inc) is an elegant little book. It will not only provide you with useful information to counter the bilge-media in which we are wallowing, but also will remind you that it is worth trying to make things better.

Denniss’s definition of affluenza 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.”

What he underlines, over and over again, is that our desires are so often culture-created. His favourite example is bottled water, and he’s not suggesting we all go without drinking. He’s not even saying asceticism is what’s required. Denniss, who is chief economist at the Australia Institute, takes the idea of “materialism” and opposes it not to any of the worthy –isms (environmentalism, say, or socialism) but to consumerism.

The book includes ideas for change, which all seem both sensible and achievable.

“If we are to cure affluenza,” he writes, “we must convince people that they can actually have a much higher material standard of living, and a much less stressful personal life, if they eschew the pursuit of symbolic consumerism and embrace materialism instead.”

Children are susceptible to symbolic consumerism, the desire to have more and to keep up with all the other kids. A grown-up person is, you’d hope, more alert and able to resist the pervasive siren-message that stuff will make you popular and happy.

Denniss is very good with examples of how culture is constructed so that acceptance is widespread. Smoking, drink-driving, sexist bullying – all perfectly acceptable not too long ago. It takes determination to counter the enormous campaigns driven by those who profit from certain kinds of status quo behaviours.

Richard Denniss

It takes, too, optimism, a sense of humour, and even joy, which is where Denniss is so good. For an economist, he has a lovely, easy style, and a penchant for metaphor. The quotes he plucks from John Maynard Keynes remind us non-economists that economic theory without social philosophy is like a boat without a rudder.

It’s absurd that po-faced commentators make sententious acronymic pronouncements about the state of the nation. Denniss gives us a quick run-down about what GDP actually measures, and wonders why politicians are so attached to its false significance.

According to Denniss, it’s not markets that create economies, it’s culture, creating patterns of behaviour that appear to be embedded in “human nature”, until sufficient momentum builds to bring about a shift.

There’s no point “chiding” people for behaviour that is culturally acceptable but personally and socially damaging: “Those who want to stop the spread of affluenza need to focus on creating smarter, more attractive patterns of behaviour.”

The book includes ideas for change, which all seem both sensible and achievable. His discussion about doing things, rather than buying things, gave me a nice boost: as a person who started up a writers festival in Bendigo, because it seemed such a good thing to do, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up the enthusiasm. I know how deeply thrilling it is to see what happens on festival weekend, to feel part of an event that literally generates optimism, but that bilge I mentioned at the start can sometimes feel like it’s piling up to smother social and ethical optimism.

It’s also tempting to allow a kind of “market-driven” approach to take over the program; tourism wants to see visitors, the theatres and council want the numbers to show it’s financially successful, publishers and authors want to sell books.

Denniss reminds me of where it started, and what has sustained this festival over the years: it’s never perfect and it’s often surprising, but I think writers festivals are a community asset because they value discussion and face-to-face thinking out loud. Spending money on that is very sensible.

Denniss’s final chapter in Curing Affluenza is titled, “So what’s stopping you?”. He wants us to feel that everything we do can challenge a “culture that gives higher priority to the opinions and desires of some citizens [for example, the very rich] than others”, and to get better at talking about what kind of culture we want.

PS: Where’s the “John Maynard Keynes” movie? Now there’s a subject for some brilliant film-maker to get their teeth into.

Curing Affluenza x


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