Severe affluenza

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am

For the people of Calcutta or Kabul, it probably would not sound like a very terrible illness to endure. But the inhabitants of Sydney have been told that, increasingly, they suffer from 'affluenza' - they simply have too much stuff.

In an annual statement on social justice, Australia's Catholic bishops decried a culture of waste and the relentless pursuit of material wealth. 'If Australians were to undergo a health check, we could well be diagnosed as suffering from the ravages of the disease of affluence,' they wrote.

Their concern followed a study by the Australia Institute think-tank, which claimed that A$10 billion ($59.8 billion) a year is wasted on goods and services that no one uses, from food rotting in the fridge to electronic gadgets that are swiftly abandoned. Sydney has a particularly severe case of 'affluenza'.

You can see it in the monstrous four-wheel-drive vehicles that clog the roads, and the crowds surging through the shiny new shopping complex built at Bondi Junction, up the hill from the famous beach. Credit card debt is at a record high, and yet the latest mobile phone models are snapped up and cripplingly expensive widescreen TVs are all the rage. The director of the Australia Institute, Clive Hamilton, believes Australians are working longer hours to earn more money to buy things that they do not really want.

Although the current generation has never been wealthier, nearly two-thirds of Australians believe they cannot afford to buy everything they need. Among the wealthiest 20 per cent of households, the discontent was even sharper: nearly half said they were unable to buy everything they needed. In a book titled Affluenza, Dr Hamilton says Australians have been seduced by the power of marketing and advertising to the point of over-consumption.

Things that were considered luxuries just a few years ago are now regarded as necessities. He points to the example of the humble Aussie barbecue. In the 1980s, the average 'barbie' consisted of a few bricks thrown together with a metal grill. Now Australians are spending up to A$7,000 on the 'Grand Turbo gourmet outdoor entertainment system', complete with infrared rotisserie, multi-spark ignition and glass-window roasting hood.

'The barbie has traditionally served as the symbol of Australian egalitarianism,' Dr Hamilton writes. 'Unpretentious, convivial, reflective, in a quiet way the barbecue was where Australians celebrated their culture.' Not any more. These days, it seems, too much is never enough. Once considered the 'Lucky Country', Australians have become casualties of their own good fortune.