By Donella Meadows
–May 1, 1997–
You don’t expect an unsettling indictment of modern advertising to crop up in a book about the birth of the universe. But there it is, right in the middle of the second chapter of physicist Brian Swimme’s new book “The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos.”
Swimme describes how children have historically learned their place in the world. “For as long as three hundred thousand years, humans have huddled together in the night to ponder and to celebrate the mysteries of the universe…. Around the fire of the African plains, in the caves of the European forests, under the brilliant sky of the Australian land mass, in the long houses of North America. There the people told the sacred stories of how the world came to be, of what the human brings into the universe, and of what it takes to live a noble life.”
Then suddenly we lurch into the present. “Where are we initiated into the universe?… The cave has been replaced with the television room and the chant with the advertisement…. Before a child enters first grade science class, and before entering in any real way into our religious ceremonies, a child will have soaked in thirty thousand advertisements. The time our teenagers spend absorbing ads is more than their total stay in high school. None of us feels very good about this, but for the most part we just ignore it…. We learned to accept it so long ago we hardly ever think about it any more.
“But imagine how different we would feel if we heard about a country that programmed its citizenry … in such a manner. In fact it was just such accounts concerning the leaders of the former Soviet Union that outraged us for decades, the thought that they would take young children and subject them to brainwashing …, removing their natural feelings for their parents or for God or for the truth of history, and replacing these with the assumptions necessary for their dictatorship to continue its oppressive domination.
“Immersed in the religion of consumerism, we are unable to take such comparisons seriously. We tell ourselves soothing clichés, such as the obvious fact that television ads are not put on by any political dictatorship…. The advertisers are not some bad persons with evil designs. They’re just doing their job….
“But at a deeper level … it’s not just that the rushing river of advertisements determines the sorts of shoes our children desire, the sorts of clothes and toys and games and sugar cereals that they must have. It’s not just the unhappiness they are left with whenever they cannot have such commodities…. All of this is of great concern, but the point I wish to focus on here has to do with the question of how we are initiated into a world.”
Reading this, I suddenly knew the reason why the background noise of advertising sets up a grinding resentment in me so profound that I never dare quite look at it.
“Advertisements are where our children receive … their basic grasp of the world’s meaning, which amounts to their primary religious faith, though unrecognized as such…. When one compares the pitiful efforts we employ for moral development with the colossal and frenzied energies we pour into advertising, it is like comparing a high school football game with World War II. Nothing that happens in one hour on the weekend makes the slightest dent in the strategic bombing taking place day and night fifty-two weeks of the year.
“It’s a simple cosmology, told with great effect and delivered a billion times each day: human exist to work at jobs, to earn money, to get stuff…. The ideal is not Jesus or Socrates. Forget all about Rachel Carson or Confucius or Martin Luther King, Jr. and all their suffering and love and wisdom. In the propaganda of the ad the ideal people … are relaxed and carefree — drinking Pepsis around a pool — unencumbered by powerful ideas concerning the nature of goodness, undisturbed by visions of suffering that could be relieved if humans were committed to justice…. The ultimate meaning for human existence is getting all this stuff. And the meaning of the Earth? Premanufactured consumer stuff.
“The fact that consumerism has become the dominant world faith is largely invisible to us, so it is helpful to understand clearly that to hand our children over to the consumer culture is to place them in the care of the planet’s most sophisticated religious preachers. If those bizarre cults we read about in the papers used even one-tenth of one percent of the dazzling deceit of our advertisers, they would be hounded by the federal justice department and thrown into jail straightaway. But … we are so blinded by the all-encompassing propaganda we never think to confront the advertisers and demand they cease. On the contrary, as if cult members ourselves, we pay them lucrative salaries and hand over our children in the bargain.”
Strong words. Strong enough to provoke angry reactions, as attacks on a central culture always do. We make fun of ads, criticize them, complain about them, but we do so at a shallow level. We don’t question the worldview they imbue in us, or their right to do so. We come up with a hundred explanations for our society’s discontent, our failing morality, our children’s attraction to drugs or violence or irresponsible sexuality. We blame everything except the powerful, enticing information stream that bathes us from birth.
Swimme’s book is not about advertising. It is about another story we might tell our children, a story large enough to include both the Big Bang and a magnificent God. If our kids heard it, instead of hundreds of thousands of ads — if we had heard it when we were kids — we would be living in an utterly amazing world.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997