Our Three Taboos
This essay is my summary of our global situation and why there are no real solutions within the current system, which justifies itself with a series of mythologies and taboos against questioning these mythologies.
In everyday usage, the word taboo refers to cultural rules of conduct that smooth social interactions. For example, in America, it’s taboo to start eating before the host has taken a seat at the table. These behavioral taboos define what’s acceptable (polite) and unacceptable (rude).
The classic definition of taboo is what must be forbidden to maintain the social order. At the top of the list in many cultures is sex.
In the modern era, the economy is the dominant force in society, defining our social relations and our relations to the natural world. As a result, the most powerful taboos are fundamentally economic.
In my analysis, there are three taboos that are so dangerous that we are forbidden from even recognizing them, much less discussing them.
1. The economic system is out of sync with human life and the planet’s biosphere.
2. This system severs the links between work, family, community, the natural world, agency, security, meaning and the moral universe, leaving us unmoored, ill, insecure, anxious and deranged.
3. Forging replacement links requires breaking free of the system. The system is designed to sever the links of human life to benefit itself, and so it’s impossible to forge new links within the system.
The system validates and justifies itself with a mythology that institutionalizes these taboos and demands compliance with the system’s fabrications of how the world works and what’s important.
The system's myths that cannot be questioned are:
1. Progress is having more of everything. The essence of Progress is growth: ever-expanding income to consume more and acquire more wealth and possessions.
2. Prosperity is the limitless expansion of desires satiated by the ceaseless expansion of consumption.
3. Technological advances are the unstoppable engine of Progress. Human ingenuity knows no bounds.
4. Our economic system is the best possible system because it generates the best of all possible worlds. As a result of our economic system, we have the best of everything.
It is taboo to question any of these core mythologies. To question the inevitability of Progress, Prosperity and Technology is to obstruct the advance of civilization, a mortal sin that must be punished.
The beating heart of these mythologies is desire is limitless, for we always desire more comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement, the pleasant-sounding cover-word for addiction. Comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement are code-words for profit, as the desire for more of these powers the endless expansion of profits.
The fabrication at the heart of the system’s mythologies is that earning a profit by satisfying desires is good for everyone. Those reaping the profits are fulfilling our insatiable desire for more comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement.
This happy narrative leaves out the key features of the system, which are 1) the system benefits the few at the expense of the many, and 2) the system severs all the links that are the foundation of a healthy, meaningful human life.
In our economic system, the primary mode of existence is consumption. Consumption is the source of purpose, social roles and identity. The primary activity is transactional, i.e. shopping and making/spending money. Whatever doesn’t serve the expansion of consumption and profits is stripped out as extraneous or an obstacle to the flow of profitable transactions.
The benefits, consequences and costs of this system are asymmetrically distributed, meaning there are winners and losers. The benefits (profits) flow to the few who own the production, marketing and global plumbing delivering goods and services, while the consequences and costs are distributed to the workers and consumers.
The mythologies focus solely on the benefits showered on everyone. The consequences and costs are left out of the happy narrative. Every policy, product and service has costs and consequences. Since these are asymmetrically distributed and often invisible until much later, the mythologies glorify the benefits, which are defined by our desires for more comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement and the profits earned by satiating these desires.
The costs and consequences are hidden, obscured, rationalized or dismissed. To bring up costs and consequences is to question the mythologies, and that is taboo. Those calling attention to the costs and consequences are ridiculed and delegitimized (i.e. you are a Luddite who seeks to deny humanity the benefits of Progress, Prosperity and Technology).
The Carrot and the Snack
Consider a raw carrot. To the system, the most important feature of a raw carrot is its low profitability. There is little that promotion, branding and packaging can do to persuade consumers to pay more for a raw carrot to boost profits.
The most important feature of a raw carrot to the human body is that it is a natural food packed with nutrients and fiber. It is easy to store and transport and can be eaten raw or cooked. It can be eaten alone or mixed into stews, soups, salads and casseroles. A raw carrot is highly beneficial to human health.
None of this overcomes its terrible, unfixable flaw: it doesn’t lend itself to boosting profits, which is the system's Prime Directive.
The system’s solution to this inherent flaw is to process the carrot into a product that can be marketed as a new advance in comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement, attributes the consumer will pay more for.
A few shreds of the carrot are cooked into mush and added to a concoction of starch, sugar and low-quality fat that is dyed with artificial colors to match a carrot’s color and marketed as a "veggie snack" ("contains real carrots!").
The nutritional value of the product is nil and the health consequences of consuming what is basically a greasy confection are entirely negative. The list of chronic (and eventually crippling or fatal) diseases incurred by a diet of processed food devoid of fiber and nutrients, high in sugar and low-quality fat, is long.
This highly processed snack, deceptively marketed as "veggie" to deceive parents into assuming it is a "healthy snack," is immensely profitable, and so the system cheers its soaring sales and copycat products proliferate to grab some of the expanding profits.
The engagement aspect of this carefully engineered product is especially pernicious. The product is specifically designed to hijack the human brain’s pleasure centers much like a powerful drug. Its mouthfeel is designed to be addictive, and the heavy doses of sugar and fat activate our hard-wired predilection for what is scarce in the hunter-gatherer diet, fats and sweets. Bet you can't just have one.
Not only is this manufactured confection devoid of nutrition, it's designed to be addictive. As every dealer knows, there’s nothing more profitable than an addiction that generates a reliably insatiable demand.
This describes not just addictive drugs and processed foods; it describes the whole of consumerism, which is a carefully cultivated and reinforced addiction to consumption as the defining dynamic of selfhood, status and indeed, of life itself: I shop, therefore I am.
Should any consumers lodge a complaint about the deceptively advertised 'veggie snack' with the government agencies tasked with protecting public health, they will find the corporate lawyers and lobbyists have neutered public influence by spending whatever sums of money are needed to buy the compliance of government agencies and elected officials.
The product is declared safe and anyone complaining about the deceptive packaging is told that it's up to consumers to choose which products to buy or not buy: caveat emptor, buyer beware.
This process of boosting profits by masking the costs and consequences is not just entirely rational in the system, it's the only available avenue. Anyone who chooses not to maximize profits and political spoils by any means available is fired for incompetence.
All of this is taboo, of course. Anyone who describes the system as it truly is must be marginalized, first with an accusation of violating the American taboo against negativity. Not finding a silver lining or expressing hope for positive change is an unforgiveable shattering of the taboo everyone understands: you must be relentlessly positive and cheerful under all conditions. There is an entire library of cheery slogans at the ready to ensure the proper dose of positive spirit has been administered, no matter how insincerely. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
So when we move to the next example—the immensely profitable market for pharmaceuticals that partially alleviate the symptoms of the lifestyle diseases caused by consuming processed foods—we find a happy marriage of profitable causation of lifestyle disease and even more profitable alleviation of lifestyle disease symptoms. There are plenty of subsidiary winners in the profit bonanza as well: university departments funded by corporate interests, lobbying firms handsomely paid to spread the good news, politicians harvesting campaign contributions, think-tanks paid to distribute the apologists’ favorite cover-story for the cartels-monopolies-dominated system, "the free market," and so on.
Once we tune in to the siren songs of comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement, we find them everywhere. The smart phone is a wonder of comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement, for what could be more addictive than having shopping, addictive games and the hyper-stimulation of social media (i.e. eight billion channels of Me) at our fingertips? An addictive device enables access to a wealth of other addictions, all in service of our insatiable desire for comfort, convenience, novelty, luxury and engagement.
What’s not to like? Nothing. The smart phone is the epitome of Progress, Prosperity and Technological wonder. Just as the consequences of consuming the “veggie snack” are hidden, so are the costs and consequences of manufacturing and glorifying addictive technologies.
Out of Sync
Let us now return to the three taboos:
1. The economic system is out of sync with human life and the planet’s biosphere.
2. This system severs the links of human life between work, values, family, community, the environment, agency, security, meaning and well-being.
3. Forging replacement links requires breaking free of the system.
An entire book could be written about each one, but let’s attempt a shorthand summary.
Before we explore how the system is out of sync with human life, let’s briefly touch on the system’s decimation of the planet’s biosphere and resources to fuel growth, Progress and Prosperity.
The system deploys denial and deflection to mask the accelerating destruction of ecosystems as it gathers the resources needed to produce and profit from goods and services. As long as the bulldozed forests and toxic waste are in someone else’s country, it’s conveniently out of sight, out of mind.
An endless stream of technological fixes are touted to deflect attention from the unsustainability of the pillage. One example is the highly publicized 1,000-foot-long boom which was deployed to clean up the Texas-sized Great Pacific Garbage Gyre between Hawaii and the West Coast. The absurdity of the tiny boom—or 100 such booms—cleaning up such a vast sea of garbage, much of it beneath the surface, is ignored, as the key message is "there is always a technological solution."
Once we consider the vast scale of the problem generated by the economic-system juggernaut, we realize the puny efforts proposed as “solutions” are nonsense. But stating this arouses instant attack, for questioning the mythology that “there is always a technological solution” is breaking a taboo.
Even if this delusional technological "solution" could be scaled up, who will pay the immense costs of the “solution”? In the mythology of Progress, every new technological advance becomes an affordable product or service that generates billions of dollars in consumer sales and profits: consumers pay for the technological solution. The mythology is not just that there’s always a technological solution; the new technological wonder-solution will also be profitable.
But consumers won’t pay for cleaning up the Texas-sized Garbage Patch, as there is no product or service that advances their comfort, convenience or status. Since there is no product or service, there’s no profit to be reaped. All that’s present are the destructive consequences and monumental cost.
No government will pay for the clean-up, either. The Garbage Patch is in international waters, and most of the plastic originates in developing nations. There’s no pay-off for a government to clean up the Garbage Patch, as there is no politically powerful constituency that will benefit from the clean-up. Rather, those powerful interests make far more compelling claims on limited government funding.
Who pays the price of stripmined seas and ravaged ecosystems? These externalized costs are never included in the corporate production costs or price paid by consumers. Studies have found that if corporations included all these externalized costs, no corporation would be profitable. In other words, the trillions of dollars in “profit” accrued every year are actually the unrecognized value of the natural capital that was extracted and the unpaid costs of the damage left in the wake of the corporate pillage.
Whether the corporation is privately owned or owned by a government, it makes no difference. The system is fatally out of sync with the planet’s biosphere. Sustainability is a marketing ploy, not a reality, because sustainability simply isn’t as profitable as pillage and externalizing the costs and consequences of pillage.
The benefits—profits—are recognized and valued by those accumulating them. The costs and consequences fall on the biosphere and eventually, on humanity as a whole. This is the Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale: profits are private but externalized costs are dumped on a powerless public.
But this isn't the only unsurmountable problem with the system. Even if this wildly impractical fantasy “solution” actually gathered up millions of tons of plastic debris, where would this mountain of plastic be transported to be disposed of? Would it be compressed into a plastic-garbage island? Who would be responsible for this artificial garbage island?
The third insurmountable problem gets to the real heart of the system's unsustainability: what would be the point of this clean-up if the system continues churning out new mountains of floating waste every year? Since waste is growth in this global Landfill Economy--the faster products fail or become obsolete, the greater the growth of consumption and resulting profits—there are powerful incentives to increase the flow of garbage into the seas and landfills and none to reduce it.
The absurdity of the mythology that "there’s always a profitable technological solution" is painfully obvious, but woe to anyone who breaks the taboo by stating this truth, for the system demands a happy narrative of techno-solutions to justify its pillage.
The system is also out of sync with human life.
Human beings are constantly evolving via genetic, epigenetic and cultural adaptations. Genetic adaptations are slow and require many generations to spread through the entire populace. Epigenetic adaptations can occur within a single generation if the selective pressure (such as starvation) is severe enough. Cultural adaptations—learned behaviors and knowledge—are adapting constantly.
The vast majority of the human genome has been selected over hundreds of thousands of years—roughly 800,000 from the split from other human species such as Denisovans, and roughly 200,000 years from the emergence of home sapiens sapiens—for a communal hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Many of the traits of human organization—social hierarchies, for example—are shared with other primates such as chimpanzees, traits that go back millions of years to our shared ancestors.
The rapid expansion of cultural adaptations—toolmaking and other technologies—has generated an assumption that humans are almost infinitely adaptable and can do just fine in just about any environment or social system. Humans habituate very quickly to new environments; even the most wretched (the Gulag prison camps) are quickly normalized.
As a result, the near-infinite adaptability of humans has been elevated to mythology.
But this ignores that our genetic heritage was selected to prioritize the most consequential survival traits for the individual and the species: a sensitive, profound relationship with the natural world, a moral universe of obligations, duties, reciprocity, sacrifices, sharing, fairness and communication, ownership of work and strong links to family, friendships and community.
To the degree these can be met within an environment, humans can adapt to that environment. If adaptation requires severing all these links, human life has lost its essential foundations, and individuals and society become distorted and deranged.
The expansion of technology, especially the technologies of energy that power all other technologies, has created an expectation that there will always be new technological advances that 1) generate ever-larger quantities of energy for our consumption, 2) painlessly fix whatever problems previous technologies have created and 3) enable us to modify any environment to suit our needs and desires.
These four assumptions have gained the status of mythologies that are taboo to question.
To question whether we're actually happier in a "concrete jungle" than in a real jungle is to instantly be dismissed as a Rousseau Romantic, foolishly glorifying the inconvenient, uncomfortable primitive world that we were delighted to have left behind. That modern life has delivered advances is not what’s being contested; what’s being challenged is the claim that we’ve lost nothing but the physical risks and discomforts of the pre-industrial age.
Not every concrete jungle is identical. Those that leave space for the foundational links of human life are livable. Those that sever these ties are not.
This defense of modernism deflects inquiry from the costs and consequences of the modern lifestyle of atomized individuals constantly prompted to 1) feel insecure about their status and selfhood; 2) respond with fear, angst and anger to media and social media click-bait; 3) make more money so they can consume more, and 4) indulge their every desire ("you deserve it!").
These costs and consequences are not limited to finance or direct effects (i.e. first-order effects); they also spread out into every nook and cranny of human life (second-order effects).
The full consequences are difficult to discern, as the happy narrative and marketing cover every experience and transaction with a smothering layer of goo.
Regardless of the environment, healthy, secure human life is constructed of links between individuals, families, communities, the natural world, the moral universe and the ownership of work.
Our economic system severs all these links as impediments to the ideal consumer: atomized, with only superficial ties to others (social media) masquerading as meaningful ties, burdened with anxiety and insecurity about their identity, status and social role, restlessly disconnected from place or values, stripped of the ownership of their work, addicted to medications, drugs, gaming, social media, pornography, mobile phones, travel, shopping and self-absorbed self-promotion, in poor health, wounded and stressed, teetering on the edge of burnout or rage, clinging to one tribal identity or another, including "brand loyalty" and celebrity worship, seeking distraction in "entertainment," stripped of agency and authenticity, alienated from the realities of the system they inhabit but well-trained to “be positive” even as their already constrained control of their life frays into the fatalism of social defeat.
This brings us to the third and most dangerous taboo: that there is no way to re-establish the severed links of a healthy human life within the system. Those seeking to maintain these links must migrate to the margins, detach themselves from the mythologies and marketing, find ways to regain ownership of their work and the value of their work, reclaim the values and limits of the moral universe, savor and strengthen ties with family and community based on reciprocity, sharing, fairness and honest communication, and acquire oneself (in Kierkegaard’s phrase) by regaining agency and authenticity.
We can restore these links by withdrawing from the system and pursuing self-reliance, integrity, authenticity and autonomy. We’re told that what matters is others’ reaction to us, and so we seek to shape those reactions to fill our needs for approval and belonging in a system stripped of authenticity, agency and meaning. But these reactions say nothing about us; they speak solely to others’ relationship with themselves and the system.
The system values profits, self-promotion, signifiers of status and power over others and their work. From the perspective of a healthy, grounded human life, these are not just valueless but deranging.
What those who break free of the system value most, the economic system considers without value, except as empty marketing slogans that harken back to what’s been stripped away in “the best of all possible worlds.”
What is actually valuable has no price and is not for sale.
Getting Back in Sync
What will it take to get back in sync? It will take a new system with a new set of incentives, a new set of values and a new understanding of sustainability. All of these require a new mythology and a new set of taboos. That's the focus of my work.
Until this new system is in place, we can restore these links by withdrawing from the current system and pursuing self-reliance, agency, ownership of our work, integrity, authenticity and autonomy.
There is much more on self-reliance and degrowth in the books listed below, including my new book Self-Reliance in the 21st Century ($8.95 ebook, $18 print). Read the first chapter for free (PDF).
Self-Reliance in the 21st Century ($8.95 ebook, $18 print). Read the first chapter for free (PDF).
When You Can't Go On: Burnout, Reckoning and Renewal $18 print, $8.95 Kindle ebook; audiobook Read the first section for free (PDF)
Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States (Kindle $9.95, print $24, audiobook) Read Chapter One for free (PDF).
Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World (Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).
Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. Read the Introduction and Section One for free.