I cannot visit Costco, with its floor to ceiling plastic-packaged mega-stuff, and not feel that the Brave New World of soul-crushing consumerism that Aldous Huxley envisioned in his 1932 book is upon us. This prescient novel takes us to a future where freedom is replaced with mind-control through consumerism and drugs. The God of Brave New World is Ford for he invented the assembly line, the ability to mass-produce, and the vision that everyone could own a car. Huxley predicted that a world economy based on an endless growth model of disposable consumer goods and disposable energy to run the machines would lead humanity to environmental and existential crisis. Perhaps the drug use, prescribed and illegal, endemic in our modern world, is in reaction to the loss of meaning we encounter in a manufactured reality.
We enter Huxley's Brave New World at first through the eyes of a rare discontent who is aware that he has been brainwashed with consumerist propaganda and anesthetized with drugs. He wishes to visit the savage world of America where humans still exist "in the wild" behind high-voltage fences. There he encounters John, a savage born to a New World woman who was left in the wild years ago. John becomes our moral guide as he visits the New World and reacts to it.
At first, John is bewitched with the technological advances of Huxley's imagined future where everything is controlled in mass production -- even human life is created on an assembly line. Most disease has been eradicated. Humans are conditioned by the government to have consumer wants that are met by mass production. Everyone is happy with their job because they have been conditioned to serve in that capacity. Any unmet needs are soothed with liberal doses of Soma, a happiness drug. John initially reacts with the words of Miranda from Shakespeare's Tempest when she first encounters visitors to her island, "O Brave New World that has such people in 't."
But John is soon able to see that the sacrifices made in this brave new world are far too great for humanity. His soul has been nurtured with the words and ideas of Shakespeare, as his mother taught him to read. But in the new world, reading for pleasure or instruction is frowned upon because "You can't consume much if you sit still and read books." The people of the new world have only the ideas that are fed to them while they sleep in government-produced propaganda that is much like advertising. "Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches" is one of the many government slogans conditioning people to throw away old belongings and buy new ones to keep the factories churning out more.
John is told by a government official, "'We condition the masses to hate the country. But simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time, we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport.'"
Just as conditioning is at odds with freedom, the book posits that nature and consumerism are essentially opposed because, "A love of nature keeps no factories busy." Perhaps the owners of Toys-R-Us and their advertising team have been reading Brave New World because this advertisement mocking nature and encouraging consumerism seems ripped right from Huxley's book.
Do we really get any satisfaction from the items that killed those beautiful creatures in the wild? As Susan Freinkel points out in her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story:
If you can't reuse or repair an item, do you ever really own it? Do you ever really own it? Do you ever develop the sense of pride and proprietorship that comes from maintaining an object in fine working order?
We invest something of ourselves in our material world, which in turn reflects who we are. In the era of disposability that plastic has helped us foster, we have increasingly invested ourselves in objects that have no real meaning in our lives.
The cost of a consumerist culture is not just in nature, but in the quality of our lives:
We know - it has been measured in many experiments -- that children with strong impulse control grow to be better adjusted, more dependable, achieve higher grades in school and college and have more success in their careers than others. Success depends on the ability to delay gratification, which is precisely what a consumerist culture undermines. At every stage, the emphasis is on the instant gratification of instinct. In the words of the pop group Queen, "I want it all and I want it now." A whole culture is being infantilised.
― Jonathan Sacks
Furthermore, lives are lost due to our valuing consumer goods over worker safety as this incredible photograph from the rubble of the Bangladesh factory collapse shows. When we export labor and manufacturing to countries that do it cheaply because they don't value workers or the environment, we are investing in cruelty and the despoliation of our planet. Take a long look at this couple and ask yourself if you need to buy the cheap stuff that killed them.
But is there another way? A truly brave new world where humanity and nature are respected by the economic model we choose? I am a big fan of Annie Leonard who made the wonderful video and book "The Story of Stuff." Check out her answer to how we can move forward to a better world than the one Huxley imagined and the one we have built: From More to Better.