Book Reviews 2018 - #4 Curing Affluenza

Curing Affluenza: How to buy less stuff and save the world - Richard Denniss 2017

This review was written for The Mint Magazine (to which I am an irregular contributor) and is available - alongside some terrific articles - in Issue #4.

It would be cruel to be negative about this book. It is bright, breezy and well written.  It has a broad scope, a big idea, and lots of accessible examples.  It is realistic about the troubles facing the world; and optimistic about what might be done.  What’s not to like?

Perhaps I’m just getting old.  Perhaps I’ve just spent too long reading (and writing) stuff about the terrible mess we’re in and what on earth might be done about it.  Perhaps I’m just suspicious of all the offers in the “popular scholarship” section of the bookshop, where everything has an eye-catching title and hyperbolic endorsements on the cover.

Perhaps – and this, I think, is key – I am just not the target market for this particular book.

But, if not me, who? You? Or someone you know?

The answer starts with the title: Curing Affluenza.  Catchy, yes – but what does it mean?  It means that there’s a disease called affluenza and that it can be cured.  So you probably need to believe that there is indeed a disease called affluenza; and you want to cure it.  Or be cured.

Does that sound like you, or someone you know?

A clearer indication of the target readership appears early in the content. “We need to fundamentally reshape the economy,” Denniss writes in the introduction. It’s all about culture, he explains.  Culture, he says, determines what we really want and it tells us we want bigger cars or smarter phones or bottled water.  Culture specifies the room for political manoeuvre; provides the setting for our individual choices; and comprises the means by which our individual choices as consumers and citizens ceaselessly feed back and forth into one another.

And this ceaselessness extends over time, too, he explains.  Great industries rise and fall, and so too do political ideologies.  Nobody is any good at predicting anything, especially economists.  Change is ceaseless, of that we can be sure: who knows what jobs will exist in a few years’ time?

So Denniss asks: why be depressed? Yes, climate change is terrifying.  Yes, there are evil corporations in the world.  Yes, providing subsidy to big businesses to extract finite fossil fuels from the ground for the purposes of cooking the planet under the veneer of job creation is – as Denniss puts it – “complete bullshit”.  But there are, he asserts, things we can do.

We can consume experiences not goods.  We can repair things rather than buying new ones. We can share the things we have, and demand more leisure.  We can stop worrying about how big the economy is and worry instead about its shape.  We can be the change we want to see in the world.  And because everything always changes, eventually everything will get better if we all do the better things.

Does that sound like you? Or someone you know?

As well as the content – the big picture argument about culture, the nature of this thing we call an economy, the scope for human agency – Denniss’s method is also important.  There are almost no references.  There are no footnotes or sources.  There are no charts and no numbers.  There is almost no evidence.

I open the book at random to support this assertion and find, on page 164, the following:

“The fact that [a substantial increase in human life expectancy and a significant improvement in the physical standard of living for the majority of the population] has also driven high rates of bio-diversity loss around the world and a rapid reduction in the amount of open space per person…is, again, a reflection of the shape of economic growth, not proof that the rate of economic growth has been too slow – or too fast.”

This sweeping remark is typical.  It might well be true, but without any pointers to sources, it’s difficult to be sure. You just have to believe him.  You just have to be the kind of reader that isn’t bothered about such a thing.

Does that sound like you, or someone you know?

I think, in the end, that this is a book for people younger than me, people who have a reasonably well-developed sense that all is not well in the world, who have a feeling that they should be doing something about it and who are looking for ideas about what those somethings might be.

These readers do not want to encounter scary phrases like 'pluralist economics' or 'complex systems' or 'path dependency' or 'positional goods'. They are not that bothered about the theory or the detail of the evidence base or the macro-economics of sustainability. They have not read the academic stuff and they probably never will.

And it’s at this point that my cruel curmudgeonliness is confirmed.  To me, Curing Affluenza felt like some sort of lightweight, self-help book for people who can’t be bothered to do the reading and, on that basis, I don’t like it.

But in reality, an economic transformation of the kind that Denniss advocates – and which I, too, believe is necessary – will require enlightened action by millions of ordinary people.   It’s all about those old-school fundamentals, supply and demand. If everyone starts to demand a more sustainable economy, what choice will the supply side have?

From that perspective, Denniss has done something potentially important, as well as useful: he has written something that might actually be read by a wider audience and who might, just, start to demand real change.  Are you in that audience?  I don’t know.  But I bet that someone you know is.  Buy this for them as a gift – it might just help save the world.


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