Aldous Huxley Predicts in 1950 What the World Will Look Like in the Year 2000

I’ve been think­ing late­ly about how and why utopi­an fic­tion shades into dystopi­an. Though we some­times imag­ine the two modes as inver­sions of each oth­er, per­haps they lie instead on a con­tin­u­um, one along which all soci­eties slide, from func­tion­al to dys­func­tion­al. The cen­tral prob­lem seems to be this: Utopi­an thought relies on putting the com­pli­ca­tions of human behav­ior on the shelf to make a max­i­mal­ly effi­cient social order—or of find­ing some con­ve­nient way to dis­pense with those com­pli­ca­tions. But it is pre­cise­ly with this lat­ter move that the trou­ble begins. How to make the mass of peo­ple com­pli­ant and pacif­ic? Mass media and con­sumerism? Forced col­lec­tiviza­tion? Drugs?

Read­ers of dystopi­an fic­tion will rec­og­nize these as some of the design flaws in Aldous Huxley’s utopian/dystopian soci­ety of Brave New World, a nov­el that asks us to wres­tle with the philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of whether we can cre­ate a ful­ly func­tion­al soci­ety with­out rob­bing peo­ple of their agency and inde­pen­dence. Doesn’t every utopia, after all, imag­ine a world of strict hier­ar­chies and con­trols? The original—Thomas More’s Utopia—gave us a patri­ar­chal slave soci­ety (as did Plato’s Repub­lic). Huxley’s Brave New World sim­i­lar­ly sit­u­ates human­i­ty in a caste sys­tem, sub­or­di­nat­ed to tech­nol­o­gy and sub­dued with med­ica­tion.

While Huxley’s utopia has erad­i­cat­ed the nuclear fam­i­ly and nat­ur­al human reproduction—thus solv­ing a pop­u­la­tion crisis—it is still a soci­ety ruled by the ideas of found­ing fathers: Hen­ry Ford, H.G. Wells, Freud, Pavlov, Shake­speare, Thomas Robert Malthus. If you want­ed to know, in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, what the future would be like, you’d typ­i­cal­ly ask a famous man of ideas. Red­book mag­a­zine did just that in 1950, writes Matt Novak at Pale­o­fu­ture; they “asked four experts—curiously all men, giv­en that Red­book was and is a mag­a­zine aimed at women—about what the world may look like fifty years hence.”

One of those men was Hux­ley, and in his answers, he draws on at least two of Brave New World’s intel­lec­tu­al founders, Ford and Malthus, in pre­dic­tions about pop­u­la­tion growth and the nature of work. In addi­tion to the ever-present threats of war, Hux­ley first turns to the Malthu­sian prob­lems of over­pop­u­la­tion and scarce resources.

Dur­ing the next fifty years mankind will face three great prob­lems: the prob­lem of avoid­ing war; the prob­lem of feed­ing and cloth­ing a pop­u­la­tion of two and a quar­ter bil­lions which, by 2000 A.D., will have grown to upward of three bil­lions, and the prob­lem of sup­ply­ing these bil­lions with­out ruin­ing the planet’s irre­place­able resources.

As Novak points out, Huxley’s esti­ma­tion is “less than half of the 6.1 bil­lion that would prove to be a real­i­ty by 2000.” In order to address the prob­lem of feed­ing, hous­ing, and cloth­ing all of those peo­ple, Hux­ley must make an “unhap­pi­ly… large assumption—that the nations can agree to live in peace. In this event mankind will be free to devote all its ener­gy and skill to the solu­tion of its oth­er major prob­lems.”

“Huxley’s pre­dic­tions for food pro­duc­tion in the year 2000,” writes Novak, “are large­ly a call for the con­ser­va­tion of resources. He cor­rect­ly points out that meat pro­duc­tion can be far less effi­cient than using agri­cul­tur­al lands for crops.” Hux­ley rec­om­mends sus­tain­able farm­ing meth­ods and the devel­op­ment of “new types of syn­thet­ic build­ing mate­ri­als and new sources for paper” in order to curb the destruc­tion of the world’s forests. What he doesn’t account for is the degree to which the over­whelm­ing greed of a pow­er­ful few would dri­ve the exploita­tion of finite resources and hold back efforts at sus­tain­able design, agri­cul­ture, and energy—a sit­u­a­tion that some might con­sid­er an act of war.

But Hux­ley’s utopi­an pre­dic­tions depend upon putting aside these com­pli­ca­tions. Like many mid-cen­tu­ry futur­ists, he imag­ined a world of increased leisure and greater human ful­fill­ment, but he “sees that poten­tial for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions and increased stan­dards of liv­ing as obtain­able only through a sus­tained peace.” When it comes to work, Hux­ley’s fore­casts are part­ly Fordist: Advances in tech­nol­o­gy are one thing, but “work is work,” he writes, “and what mat­ters to the work­er is nei­ther the prod­uct nor the tech­ni­cal process, but the pay, the hours, the atti­tude of the boss, the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment.”

To most office and fac­to­ry work­ers in 2000 the appli­ca­tion of nuclear fis­sion to indus­try will mean very lit­tle. What they will care about is what their fathers and moth­ers care about today—improvement in the con­di­tions of labor. Giv­en peace, it should be pos­si­ble, with­in the next fifty years, to improve work­ing con­di­tions very con­sid­er­ably. Bet­ter equipped, work­ers will pro­duce more and there­fore earn more.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Novak points out, “per­haps Huxley’s most inac­cu­rate pre­dic­tion is his assump­tion that an increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty will mean an increase in wages for the aver­age work­er.” Despite ris­ing prof­its and effi­cien­cy, this has proven untrue. In a Freudi­an turn, Hux­ley also pre­dicts the decen­tral­iza­tion of indus­try into “small coun­try com­mu­ni­ties, where life is cheap­er, pleas­an­ter and more gen­uine­ly human than in those breed­ing-grounds of mass neu­ro­sis…. Decen­tral­iza­tion may help to check that march toward the asy­lum, which is a threat to our civ­i­liza­tion hard­ly less grave than that of ero­sion and A‑bomb.”

While tech­no­log­i­cal improve­ments in mate­ri­als may not fun­da­men­tal­ly change the con­cerns of work­ers, improve­ments in robot­ics and com­put­er­i­za­tion may abol­ish many of their jobs, leav­ing increas­ing num­bers of peo­ple with­out any means of sub­sis­tence. So we’re told again and again. But this was not yet the press­ing con­cern in 2000 that it is for futur­ists just a few years lat­er. Per­haps one of Huxley’s most pre­scient state­ments takes head-on the issue fac­ing our cur­rent society—an aging pop­u­la­tion in which “there will be more elder­ly peo­ple in the world than at any pre­vi­ous time. In many coun­tries the cit­i­zens of six­ty-five and over will out­num­ber the boys and girls of fif­teen and under.”

Pen­sions and a point­less leisure offer no solu­tion to the prob­lems of an aging pop­u­la­tion. In 2000 the younger read­ers of this arti­cle, who will then be in their sev­en­ties, will prob­a­bly be inhab­it­ing a world in which the old are pro­vid­ed with oppor­tu­ni­ties for using their expe­ri­ence and remain­ing strength in ways sat­is­fac­to­ry to them­selves, and valu­able to the com­mu­ni­ty.

Giv­en the decrease in wages, ris­ing inequal­i­ty, and loss of home val­ues and retire­ment plans, more and more of the peo­ple Hux­ley imag­ined are instead work­ing well into their sev­en­ties. But while Hux­ley failed to fore­see the pro­found­ly destruc­tive force of unchecked greed—and had to assume a per­haps unob­tain­able world peace—he did accu­rate­ly iden­ti­fy many of the most press­ing prob­lems of the 21st cen­tu­ry. Eight years after the Red­book essay, Hux­ley was called on again to pre­dict the future in a tele­vi­sion inter­view with Mike Wal­lace. You can watch it in full at the top of the post.

Wal­lace begins in a McCarthyite vein, ask­ing Hux­ley to name “the ene­mies of free­dom in the Unit­ed States.” Hux­ley instead dis­cuss­es “imper­son­al forces,” return­ing to the prob­lem of over­pop­u­la­tion and oth­er con­cerns he addressed in Brave New World, such as the threat of an over­ly bureau­crat­ic, tech­no­crat­ic soci­ety too heav­i­ly depen­dent on tech­nol­o­gy. Four years after this inter­view, Hux­ley pub­lished his final book, the philo­soph­i­cal nov­el Island, in which, writes Vel­ma Lush, the evils he had warned us about, “over-pop­u­la­tion, coer­cive pol­i­tics, mil­i­tarism, mech­a­niza­tion, the destruc­tion of the envi­ron­ment and the wor­ship of sci­ence will find their oppo­sites in the gen­tle and doomed Utopia of Pala.”

The utopia of IslandHuxley’s wife Lau­ra told Alan Watts—is “pos­si­ble and actu­al… Island is real­ly vision­ary com­mon sense.” But it is also a soci­ety, Hux­ley trag­i­cal­ly rec­og­nized, made frag­ile by its unwill­ing­ness to con­trol human behav­ior and pre­pare for war.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2016.

via Pale­o­fu­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Zen Mas­ter Alan Watts Dis­cov­ers the Secrets of Aldous Hux­ley and His Art of Dying

Hear Aldous Hux­ley Read Brave New World. Plus 84 Clas­sic Radio Dra­mas from CBS Radio Work­shop (1956–57)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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