Affluence and Affluenza

The film and book, Affluenza, explores the mostly modern condition of relentless consumerism, debt, yearning for more, dissatisfaction and sluggishness, and a treadmill life that leaves people feeling empty and stressed simultaneously. In our recent Summer Institute for teachers, high school English teacher, Mark McGonagle, came up with an activity that explored affluenza through a quiz for students whose score determined whether or not they “suffered” from this condition.

A question arose. Is affluence the same as affluenza? The answer is clearly “no,” yet there is sometimes a subtle (and often a not so subtle) judgment by social justice and environmental activists against those who are affluent. It’s true enough that most who are affluent are bigger consumers than those who aren’t. They have larger houses filled with more stuff, more vehicles (and motorboats and sometimes private jets), travel for leisure more often, and so on, contributing to greater environmental destruction than those who do not have these luxuries. They certainly appear to suffer from affluenza. Yet, it’s critical not to lump affluence with affluenza. Having money can be a phenomenal tool for change, and I know people with money who are profoundly generous, live simply, and create substantial systemic change through their donations to social change organizations. This could and perhaps should be the model for affluence.

Most people want to be more affluent, and most want money to buy more stuff. What if we were to transform the image of affluence? Imagine if money were perceived less as a vehicle for luxury and more as a vehicle for the power to create positive change. If we identified those affluent people who have eschewed personal luxury in favor of a deep and abiding commitment to use their wealth for systemic good, we would have models for “compassionate consumerism” that went beyond fair trade, eco-friendly, cruelty-free products and that embraced thrift and simplicity coupled with generosity and philanthropy for a better world for all.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"

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