Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness

April 24, 2008

Blubberland is Elizabeth Farrelly's name for the state of mind induced by the excesses of the consumer society. It is also a place, usually sprawling outside cities, of shopping malls, gated communities and large houses adorned by large cars and home entertainment systems.

Do people who live in such circumstances achieve happiness? Farrelly, a lively Australian journalist, concludes that the answer is no. This book explains why. It also examines the cost of what has been called affluenza in social and economic terms, and concludes that we are on track for all kinds of disaster and unhappiness. We need to think and act differently.

In short, this is a polemical statement of a familiar thesis. The introduction and the first and last chapters say almost all of it. The intervening disquisitions on happiness, beauty, architecture, obesity, homemaking, health and the role of women are interesting, with formidable name-dropping on almost every page.

There are some valuable insights, especially on architecture and consumer excesses, but some surprising omissions. For example, there is very little on the effects worldwide of human population increase and migration pressure, of the widening gaps between rich and poor almost everywhere, and of destabilisation of climate with other environmental hazards.

The Australian and other suburban elites may deserve all they get, but the world outside is a bigger and different place from that portrayed in this book. The last chapter, entitled "I have a dream", takes little account of work already done elsewhere to turn dreams into something more practical: from the model city of Curitiba in Brazil and the eco-island of Dongtan in China to the continuing struggles in parts of Europe and the US to limit and regenerate cities and place new value on conservation of the natural environment.

Throughout the book there are many generalisations, and the style wobbles between well-argued prose and tabloid journalism.

The problems of our time go far wider than those of Blubberland and the relative happiness - or not - of its inhabitants. But we should be warned all the same. Among insidious threats other than those identified by Farrelly is that described in Susan Jacoby's new book The Age of American Unreason: this is "a powerful strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism", and includes resentment against those who call for uncomfortable change in patterns of daily life. It has become an unlikely aspect of globalisation as it affects the better-off everywhere.

Certainly we have to think and act differently. The threat of Blubberland as laid out in this book may help us to do so.

Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness

By Elizabeth Farrelly
The MIT Press
219pp
£12.95
ISBN 9780262562362
Published 14 March 2008

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