In November the Roy Morgan Research Centre together with the Australian Retailers’ Association predicted that Australians would spend $50 Billion over the Christmas trading period. By sector this includes $20.2 Billion on food (including alcohol), $8.7 Billion on household goods, $3.9 Billion on clothing, $3 billion on Department store purchases and $7 Billion on hospitality.
This prediction represents a 2.8% increase on spending in 2016 which left the retailers a little glum as they were hoping for 4-5% increase. This $50 Billion will add to GDP so that makes it good for the economy according to most politicians and economists. More would be better as mainstream economic thinking is all about quantity – quality does not get a look in. Never mind that much of the food will be wasted and most of the gifts will be things not needed and in many cases discarded soon after Christmas.
Our obsession with GDP as the best indicator of a healthy economy means that Christmas is a gift that keeps on giving to politicians and economic planners. This is how it works. Let’s be conservative and estimate that 25% of the stuff purchased ends up in land fill in the next three months. That might cost $20 million to dig the holes and an extra $50 million to collect and bury this discarded stuff which adds a further $70 million to GDP. And it doesn’t stop there – Christmas is the peak season of the year for conflict in families and family breakdown. The legal costs that ensue also add to GDP. And then there are the medical costs of treating victims of traffic accidents over the Christmas break … you guessed it – they also contribute to GDP.
Getting back to the spending projections for Christmas, we might think that this extra spending is justified because all this retail therapy is making people happier, but this is not the case. Economist Richard Denniss reports that most Australians are more than 40% wealthier today in real terms than they were 20 years ago but they feel poorer. So what is happening – how have we got to a situation where we waste so much that the very future of our planet is threatened and yet it is not making us any happier?
According to Richard Dennis, most of us in Australia and the rest of the developed world are suffering from a dangerous disease called affluenza. This is explored by Richard Denniss in his recently released book “Curing Affluenza – how to buy less stuff and save the world”.
Denniss defines affluenza as “… 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…” It is dangerous because most of us by our behaviour would give the impression that happiness comes from accumulating more and more stuff. We feel that we are defined by the fancy car we drive or the expensive clothes we wear. And then all too soon we get rid of this stuff and replace it with more. The energy that we need to make all this stuff is one of the main contributors to the increased levels of carbon dioxide that causes climate change.
Richard Denniss has no problem about people liking good things but asks why we need to keep replacing them all the time. He suggests that a better way is to cherish the things we own – preserve them, repair them, and then gift them or sell them when we no longer need them. Denniss encourages us to foster new ways of thinking and acting that do not squander limited resources, and which support the things we value most: vibrant communities and rich experiences.
Richard Denniss maintains that the only way to cure affluenza is by cultural change. Most of us depend on our possessions to feel good about ourselves. Denniss believes we need to find other ways to feel good about ourselves – such as feeling good about ourselves when we are not so selfish. I fear Denniss may underestimate the challenge we face in making the changes needed. The people who are rewarded most in the crazy system that has evolved are the leaders and ambassadors of our consumer society.
In Sydney recently I heard Richard Denniss discuss the ideas in his book with Ross Gittens, the Economics Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Denniss remains optimistic and outlined some of the signs that gave him hope that things can change in time.
One hundred years ago the English writer GK Chesterton wrote: “There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” Western culture has been trying the former way with little success for the past 50 years. It may now be time to try the second way.