ESSAY- Affluenza: When it's time to stop wanting it all

Lying on the built-in lounger about 10 yards from the swim-up bar at Puerto Vallarta's Grand Velas Resort, the middle-aged bottle blonde was reading, oddly, a softcover textbook.

She splashed a little water at her friend, laughed something in American-accented English, pointed across the infinity pool to Banderas Bay and finished off a frozen bright red something. Instantly, a smiling Hispanic waiter arrived with a replacement drink.

To sip from the Mae West curves of the huge glass, the woman set the personal finance text on the poolside tile. A second later, the breeze flipped the paperback's pages to reveal a green index card with writing in black felt tip pen: "Today, I'm going to become wealthy." 

At this incredible luxury hotel, with the choice of four already-paid-for gourmet restaurants plus a half dozen bars, where the waiters never pause in their rush to satisfy any hint of a desire, where the spa molds bodies into perfection, and where golf, diving, snorkeling, dancing, and night clubbing are around the nearest corner, what more could any human want?

If being a guest at the Grand Velas does not define "wealth," what does?

From the world's viewpoint, Americans already have everything. In the Christian world, we're the rich man whose chances of entering heaven are less than that poor hopeless camel approaching the needle's eye. To Buddhists, we're the founders of the concept "greed is good." In the Moslem world, we're "the great Satan."

Composing only five percent of the world's population, we Americans use 30 percent of the planet's resources. Why, the other 95 percent must ask, aren't we satisfied?

If we die at age 75, on average during those years, each American will have produced 52 tons of garbage, consumed 43 million gallons of water, and burned through 3,375 barrels of oil. 

The amount of energy consumed annually by one of us is equivalent to that used by three Japanese, six Mexicans, 14 Chinese, 38 Indians, and 531 Ethiopians.

 The rise in per capita American consumption over the past two decades, has been 45 percent. 

We use so much today that some wags call us homo consumens. We have, to borrow the words of marketer Michael Silverstein, "democratized luxury."

Is it any wonder that our kids now expect it?

In a recent poll, 93 percent of American teenage girls listed shopping as their favorite activity, and one young singer reminds our pre-teens: "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."

According to Monitoring the Future, a 30-year research project that tracks the attitudes of high school seniors, our rising tide of materialism has led to a "clear decline" in conservation behavior among children. Today's young Americans, the research indicates, think that saving the planet is someone else's job; their job is to drive to the mall full-speed ahead.

According to Peter Whybrow, a UCLA psychiatrist and biobehavioral scientist and author of American Mania, the non-stop striving that made our country great does, indeed, have massive personal, biological, and international drawbacks.

 Working from dozens of American survey projects over many locations, medical research, and primate laboratory studies, Whybrow argues convincingly that "affluenza"– to borrow the PBS term– is literally killing us, mentally and physically. His research illustrates that modern American stress and emotional trauma are the result of the conflict between a human body that nature designed for periods of scarcity and a mindset trained for 24/7 purchasing.

"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," he writes. "It is in this blind pursuit of material prosperity that Americans have begun to push the boundaries of human adaptation, as evidenced by rising levels of greed, anxiety, and obesity."

It's time for us to recognize– for our own good and for the good of our relations with the world's other people– how well off we are. 

We don't need more. We need to stop wanting it. 

Randy Salzman is a former communications professor and now a Charlottesville-based freelance writer.