Somerset Ecovillage - My cure for 'affluenza'

Gerrard Winstanley office at
Thu Feb 15 12:40:31 GMT 2007

"... had plenty of nothing but for whom nothing was plenty..."

>From The Sunday Times
January 14, 2007

My cure for affluenza
by Rachel Johnson 

Last week, as Steve Jobs of Apple was unveiling his newest, most 
pointless yuppie must-have to a rhapsodic audience of MacConsumers, 
and as David Beckham was sealing his obscene mega-deal, and as the 
Bank of England was raising interest rates again to punish this 
property-obsessed nation, your columnist was on a slow train to Yeovil 
with a bag of Millie's Cookies. 

I wanted to test the new theory from the clinical psychologist Dr 
Oliver James that western society has caught a nasty materialist virus 
— well, it was new when Erich Fromm wrote about the "having mode" and 
the "being mode" in 1976, but hey, we're all into recycling now. So 
anyway, this bug, according to James's forthcoming book Affluenza, 
leads us to place a high value on earnings, possessions, appearances 
and celebrity, a low value on relationships, security, autonomy, 
friends and family, and blinds us to what makes us happy as human 

Now as anyone who has ever spent time in the company of the very rich 
and the super-rich will know, I would like to point out that they 
don't — contrary to popular myth — save their tea bags for reuse in 
the Smeg fridge, install payphones for guests in their marbled halls, 
fine their staff for breakages, or really shop at Oxfam; but they do 
talk about money constantly and are always amassing more. 

More capital, more assets, even more debt (in the world of the super-
rich, debt is important for offsetting not long-haul flights, silly, 
but taxes). Billionaires cannot sleep until they have a private jet or 
a yacht (a socio-economic group I call the haves and have-yachts). And 
they still can't sleep until they get a yacht bigger, faster and with 
more toys than everyone else. 

My neighbours in a plush part of London are not content with living in 
£5m houses with staff and gardens and nannies: if one banker puts an 
ozone pool in the basement, or buys the new Maserati, they all seem to 
follow suit, in a never ending upward spiral of competitive earning 
and spending. 

"Making money is a drug," admits Felix Dennis, publisher and author of 
How to Get Rich, who with assets of up to £500m defines himself as one 
of the "filthy" rich. "Not the money itself. The making of the money .
 . . It's pathetic." 

So there I was, en route from London (the capital of Mammon) to Yeovil 
(the capital of nowhere) to spend some time with those who have 
cracked this addiction, who have hopped off what the economists of 
happiness call the "hedonic treadmill", in an eco-village in sleepy 
Somerset. This community, which has banned the internal combustion 
engine and fossil fuels, regards both GDP and the bank statement as 
hopeless measures of welfare. 

At Paddington I called Mary, the single mother of two whom I was 
visiting. Mary lives in a house she built herself out of fir and larch 
and canvas, without a car or a television or white goods, on £20 a 

To put this in context, £20 is the amount of money that Beckham — who 
is moving to Hollywood to earn so much money that it is, like the 
universe, incomprehensibly vast to the common man — is set to make 
every 25 seconds. It is also the amount the average £100,000 mortgage 
is set to rise monthly with the latest rate increase. 

"What can I bring you?" I had asked, as I stood on the vast, 
throbbing, food and shopping concourse. There was a long pause. 
"Goodness," Mary had responded, finally. "Well, I don't have an oven, 
and I do have a sweet tooth . . . so anything baked would be nice." 

On the train, I took James's special quiz to find out whether I had 
affluenza or not. However, having spent much of the previous day 
failing to spend a four-figure sum on a new stair carpet from Roger 
Oates that I didn't actually need (someone with an even worse dose of 
affluenza than me had bought it all up already), I already knew. 

Having answered yes to "I would like to be a very wealthy person" and 
"I want luxury in my life" and "I would like to have people comment on 
how attractive I look", as well as some statements I am too 
embarrassed to associate myself with publicly (to do with the signs of 
ageing, shopping and whether I liked my name being in the papers) I 
knew I had it, and bad. But did I have it so bad that I would want to 
leave the eco-village on the spot, and run screaming back to London, 
to the January sales, to buy yet more things I wanted, and didn't 
need, because I'm worth it? Well, I'll tell you. 

I took a taxi to the eco-village, which is set on a hill and hard-by a 
waterfall where gypsies used to water their horses. As I trudged up 
through the woods on the path to the settlement there was complete 
silence apart from the soughing of the wind through the Douglas firs. 
Complete calm. There was no traffic, no roads, no electric light, no 
mobiles ringing, no horns honking. The only other human being I saw 
was a man gath'ring winter fu-u-el to burn in the communal bathhouse 
or Rayburn in the communal kitchen, who passed me, log over shoulder, 
like yonder peasant. 

At Mary's roomy, hand-built house, I removed my boots before entering 
the carpeted snug. Her baby was looking at a book on the bunk. The 
only light was emitted by one low-energy lightbulb. She took the baby, 
and we went out to see the cookhouse, the bathhouse, the vegetable 
gardens, the steam engine and cider press. 

"They're horsedrawn," Mary told me, of two rosy-cheeked children who 
tagged along. When I looked blank, it turned out they had arrived in a 
gypsy caravan. All the children there were in rude health, very fit, 
bright-eyed, articulate beyond their years, and seemed to enjoy the 
company of adults, especially those who brought cookies. 

Well, I think you might have guessed where all this is heading, but 
here goes anyway. At the eco-village I felt lighter, more cheerful, 
less fluey, after finding people who, like Porgy, had plenty of 
nothing but for whom nothing was plenty. I told myself I would never 
buy anything ever again (even if my vow was made in the same way that 
I groan after Christmas lunch that I will never eat anything ever 

As I put on my boots to leave I asked Mary whether I could send her 
anything as a thank you. I was gazing around her house, with its 
patchwork of carpets laid directly on the packed-earth floor, sans 
central heating, fridge, oven, bathroom. It was getting dark. 

In a few minutes, I knew, Mary would light the woodburner, so that in 
an hour it would be hot enough, just, to cook something for the baby's 

"But I don't need anything," she said, following my gaze.

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