Picture two rooms, both in the inner city, both groaning with stuff. One is lined with shelves sagging under the weight of books and CDs. There are paintings, sketches, engravings and photographs, none of them particularly valuable but all, one way or another, unique. The desk and sideboard are crowded with curios and trinkets that tell of a life well travelled. The sofa and chairs are mismatched, fraying, even a little lumpy.
Then imagine the open-plan sitting room of a newly renovated or rebuilt house. On one wall is a 110-inch home cinema with Dolby Vision, surround sound and LCD smart features. Along another wall are docking stations for iPods, iPhones, laptops, even a 3D home printer, and in the corner a rowing machine. Through the archway is a 12-seater dining table with a Scandi modern influence.
Both rooms scream wealth, status, even pretension, but according to the principles laid out in Richard Denniss’s new book, Curing Affluenza, room No. 1 probably has the greater claim on virtue.
It’s not about taste. Denniss wouldn’t judge the aesthetics of one lifestyle over another. “My purpose is not to announce what the right choices are,” he writes, “but to broaden the menu from which choices can be made – by individuals, communities and countries.”
Far from writing a jeremiad against materialism, Denniss says we need a more authentic form of materialism, where we value stuff so much that we will keep it, care for it, repair it, then bequeath, sell or donate it in good working order.
His grievance is with consumerism. “While consumerism and materialism are often used interchangeably, taken literally they are polar opposites. If you really loved your car, the thought of replacing it with a new one would be painful. Similarly, if you really loved your kitchen, your belt or your couch, then your materialism would prevent you rushing out and buying a new one.”
This is an utterly refreshing take on the debate over sustainability. Denniss would have been wise to build on this critique, rather than spend the middle section of the book meandering through an important but unoriginal argument about renewable energy.
Far more interesting is to reflect on how many of us have crammed carpets, lamps and ceramics into suitcases and backpacks and lugged them onto trains and buses across continents, while styling ourselves as preservers of culture rather than mere materialists. But Denniss says this is okay – we’re mostly likely to cherish those items not just for their aesthetic quality but the memory of the journey and the encounter by which we acquired them. We’re unlikely to tire of such possessions.
Consumerism, by contrast, is a momentary thrill gained from the purchase itself. But what if we quickly tire of the product or – more infuriatingly today – find our purchase is redundant within a year? An iPhone bought in 2012 is now an antique in Apple years and that’s how the company wants it. Planned obsolescence – where a manufacturer knows it will release an updated model within a year or two – has shifted not only our tastes but our culture and economy.
Who gets a television repaired when the manufacturers refuse to make spare parts? Can you even open a smartphone to replace a battery, and where might you find one? And if electronics are replaced rather than repaired, what happens to the skills of the technician? All these problems and we haven’t even dealt with the obvious questions of where we dump the obsolete product and what must we extract from the earth to make an entirely new replacement.
Denniss’s book will register immediately with anyone who has helped – or nudged – an ageing parent towards downsizing. As you sort through drawers and cupboards, the photograph, locket or beanie that causes you to stop and reminisce for an hour is the thing you should keep. But that first-generation digital camera, still in the box because the instruction manual was too daunting, is a symptom of a bigger problem. Recycling or regifting it won’t make up for the wasted resources used to make it. We need an urgent change of culture.
Denniss doesn’t want to shrink the economy, although he challenges conventional ideas of economic growth. He wants to reshape it. Consume fewer products but more services. There will be services of necessity, such as healthcare and aged care, but also golf lessons, cooking classes or sessions with a personal trainer.
It is not about a hairshirt asceticism and the loss of jobs that might come with it. “If owning something will make you and your family very happy for a long time, and if you can afford it, you should probably go and buy it,” he writes. Think of those families in the ’50s who saved up and bought a home movie camera that captured great memories that lasted a lifetime.
“But,” Denniss warns, “if it is the act of buying that you hope will temporarily cheer you or your kids up, then you should think again … A society that is tackling affluenza doesn’t have to deny itself any pleasure except the dubious thrill of the purchase and its brief afterglow.”
But ultimately, there is also a mental leap we need to make if we are to replace consumerism with a more meaningful materialism. We need to stop defining ourselves through products. How many exercise bikes are used to dry clothes because we convinced ourselves we were fat as a result of lacking the right equipment rather than the willpower?
A society with more physical therapists, childcare workers, electronics repairmen and renewable energy will probably have fewer coalminers and loggers. Some displaced workers will be retrained, others not.
This is the most difficult problem of all. Denniss argues these workers deserve a dignified safety net, a genuine early retirement in which they are free to dote on grandchildren, coach sports teams, volunteer and travel.
The cure for affluenza need not be painful. PT
Black Inc, 288pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "Richard Denniss, Curing Affluenza". Subscribe here.