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Affluenza

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Have you seen the adorable toy shopping carts we're buying for children? How about the baby scooters designed like cars?

Now think a tad about the implications: We're training our very youngest to disregard any rational usage of any world resource. These cute toys are the assurance that in America's craze to purchase and consume, we start our children off very, very wrong.

In spite of the obvious -- like America's burning of gasoline is forcing our soldiers to fight in parts of the world that still have oil — before our kids can walk, we begin to convince them they should never have to.

And while we complain nonstop about the commercialization of Christmas and the horrors of the selling season, we put the utensil for shopping in front of them the minute they stand on their hind legs.

America is engaged in resource battles around the planet, losing badly to China, which, unfettered by the need to lie to the people, has sucked up long-term contracts for mining oil, iron, uranium, magnesium and copper from Canada, the Sudan and Australia.

Then, unfettered by many environmental restrictions, the Chinese turn those resources into crap for Americans to "need." We, having convinced our very young that the way to happiness is to buy, meanwhile seem strangely unaware that we can't seem to live without products that somehow every single one of our ancestors lived without.

While it's easy to look for someone else to blame — grandparents, friends at the baby shower, advertisers, politicians, salesmen — it's really time we looked in the mirror and, as Peter Whybrow explains in "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough" recognize that we're seeing the real problem.

In one recent poll, for example, 93 percent of teenage girls listed shopping as their favorite activity, with only 5 percent saying "helping others." In 1967 two-thirds of American college students found "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" "very important," while one-third indicated "making a lot of money." Those figures have now reversed.

In 1950, the average new home contained less than 1,000 square feet. Today, it's over 2,300, while the average size of American families has declined by almost a full person. America has so "democratized luxury"— in marketer Michael Silverstein's term — that, like Marie Antoinette and Louis the 16th, we need space to store all the things we don't use.

By the end of this decade, marketing for kids is expected to reach $1 trillion — yes, with a T — after doubling every year in the 1990s. One young singer already provides this uplifting message for preteens: "You gotta believe in your dreams. You gotta stand up for yourself. You gotta be there for your friends. But, hey, first you gotta have something to wear. You gotta have the clothes."

We'd like to think the future is bright, but according to Monitoring the Future, a 30-year research project that looks at attitudes of high school seniors, the rising tide of materialism has led to a "clear decline" in conservation behavior among the young. Today, America's youngsters, the research indicates, think that saving the planet is someone else's job; their job is driving to the mall full speed ahead without a thought that some of their classmates will soon be headed "over there" to secure oil.

The inconvenient truth, the MTF authors conclude, is that today America's teenagers' "willingness to conserve gas, heat and energy has taken a precipitous plunge since the 1980s."

The '80s, of course, are remembered as the days of the "Me" generation and the birth of the catchphrase "Greed is good."

Whybrow, a UCLA psychiatrist and biobehavioral scientist, argues that most of today's stress and emotional trauma grow from a human body that nature designed for periods of scarcity conflicting with a mindset now trained for 24/7 purchasing. Working from hundreds of American survey projects, medical research, human race and location differences and primate laboratory studies, he argues convincingly that "affluenza" is literally killing us, mentally and physically.

"Ironically, we are better tuned physiologically to face the privations and dangers inherent in an unexpected terrorist attack than we are to endure the relentless propositions and stressful abundance of our consumer society," Whybrow writes. "It is in this blind pursuit of material prosperity that Americans have begun to push the boundaries of human adaptation, as is evidenced by rising levels of greed, anxiety, and obesity."

With the season of greed upon us — and starting every year earlier and earlier — let's try to remember that Christmas marketers sell because it's their job. They go after the kiddies because kiddies go after parents and parents, guilt-ridden for our failures to be perfect, go after our credit cards.

Let's make a change this year. Let's listen to our own economic system ("caveat emptor: let the buyer beware") and do our job.

And sometimes our job, to steal another phrase from the 1980s, is to "Just say no." S



Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union and a transportation researcher who now lives in Charlottesville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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