Rethinking Growth: “In times of abundance, morality is our only compass”

An artist and a ‘knowledge curator’ debate growth

Rabobank Artist-in-residence, Arne Hendriks, considers the question “What is growth?” with opinion leaders from different fields of knowledge. This week he chats with Godelieve Spaas, a ‘knowledge curator’ who works with the bank’s art department.

Arne Hendriks: I want to know what growth is. Like other people, for most of my life I thought I knew what it was, and that in principle it was good. Now I just don’t know anymore. And that’s why I’m talking to different people – both inside and outside the bank – to try to find some answers. These are people who I think can help me get back to a simple, original idea of what growth is. The mission statement, ‘Growing a better world together’ naturally asks that people inside the bank know what that means. And I hope to benefit from that knowledge.

Sometimes it seems that growth has an inevitable logic to it. Like a life process, or a natural law like gravity, growth seems to be so strong a directive that it’s impossible to avoid it. What’s your point of view, Godelieve?

Godelieve Spaas: Perhaps it’s motion, rather than growth, that drives us. Scientific research shows that everything – from the infinitely large to the infinitely small – is in constant motion. Therefore, according to the quantum physicist David Bohm, we should view motion as the natural and actual state of matter, a condition that needs no explanation because it stems from the nature of the universe itself. It’s the essence of existence.

Growth is a manifestation of motion. In the economy, we see growth as good. This is not an unquestionable fact, but a subjective judgement. You can reevaluate a judgement. What we’re missing in the economy and in companies is the moral framework for making this kind of judgement. We see the economy as a neutral system, which it isn’t. We all have the responsibility to think about the meaning and impact of the growth that we’re striving for. What do we want to expand, or shrink, or stay as it is? That isn’t an innocent choice.

Do we have the tools for that? Distinguishing between different aspects of growth isn’t part of our education. Actually, we start out with a twisted idea of growth, because we relate it to our bodies – for example, being tall is an ideal of beauty. We’re already directly connected to the complexity of growth, and we project our desire for it.

Yes, it’s funny that motion quickly turns into competitive growth. I’m bigger, faster and can jump further than you. As children, we refer to growth on the basis of quantity: is my room bigger than my brother’s? How many marbles will I get if I win this game? It’s defined numerically, in a very physical way. Motion becomes growth and interaction becomes competition.

For me, that’s also the sticking point of today’s economy. A company often strives to be as big as possible – look at Google and Amazon. A small company can expand rapidly and stay big because of all sorts of ‘winner-takes-all’ mechanisms. If you see growth as motion and interaction, then perhaps a playing field with lots of different-sized companies can be much more innovative. It can lead to a more equal distribution of revenues.

An economy in which many different connections are possible can function as an ecosystem in which all components have both collective and individual advantages, while remaining mobile and resilient. Robustness is created by connections between different types of player. So, beyond the chain to cross-sector and cross-discipline, and beyond profit to a more hybrid business model, in which profit and non-profit reinforce each other and multiply value.

“Today, motion becomes growth and interaction becomes competition”

- Godelieve Spaas, Rabobank

Suppose we achieve an ideal social situation. Take the 1970s – I have the idea that there was a nice balance back then. We’ve been growing ever since. We haven’t wanted less; there was always something new to desire. It’s not so much the ‘choice’ that defines us, but the ‘want,’ the ‘desire.’ A continuous awakening of desire. This inner dynamic reflects on us as a species much more than all the good choices that we could actually make.

After the Second World War, during the reconstruction, there wasn’t a lot of choice and you had to work hard to meet your basic needs. Scraping a living. Now, the status quo means that there’s more available to us than we can squeeze into a lifetime. Life is too short to listen to all the music out there, to read all the books, or visit all the places. We have to choose whether we want something or not. Life is finite and that brings the realization that we have to learn to choose. I think that when we really realize that life is finite, we make different choices. What drives that choice? Does it come only from our individual desires? Or do we include our environment and other people in it? Every choice is an ethical choice. That requires a clear moral compass.

Isn’t it the fear of mortality that drives us on? Isn’t growth a function of fear? How strong is morality in an uncertain situation? As an animal, you have two options: ‘shrink’ to hide or ‘grow’ to fight. Always in reaction to the environment and other species. As a human being, one of the larger animal species, we have chosen to fight.

You say, “always in reaction to the environment and other species” – now that’s important. There are trees which, during a drought, give water back to the ground so that the soil maintains its health. Or take the ‘Wood Wide Web’ that scientists have identified. Through underground networks of fungi, it appears that trees and plants are in contact with each other and share information and nutrients. So when life becomes hard, nature doesn’t hold on but shares and works together. It isn’t ‘I’ but ‘we’ that’s the most important driving force.

If you look at how the neo-liberal free market is currently organized, it’s rarely about sharing or what’s best for the bigger picture, or even how to survive together. I don’t think that’s necessarily human. Homo economicus makes choices based on self-interest. But humans are social, not economic, animals. You can see that in the movement of the social- and sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs who choose to take care of the bigger picture. They bring the moral compass back into the entrepreneurial world. They work together in the same building to make each other and their environment stronger and bigger.

Arne Hendriks ‘hugging’ a giant pumpkin


‘Stronger and bigger’ again! Funny, isn’t it – it seems inevitable. Because we’re so obsessed with growth, I think we overlook or fail to recognize the many alternatives. It’s not unwillingness, just that there are simply too few paths heading in a different direction than the idea of growth. We always look for an excuse to do it – not to not do it. Those patterns seem to run very deep.

I work with investors and they only invest when they know there’s growth in a company. But would it be better to consider what a good size would be for that specific organization? What would be appropriate in that situation and context, and with those people? Also with a view to healthy returns. For example, for a company providing high-quality services, I can imagine that it’s not a good thing to get too big. Because it’s important that employees know each other really well, are aware of each other’s expertise and share knowledge so that they can offer the best added value.

What has made us human beings so strong as a species? It’s because we’re intelligent, social beings who build on each other’s knowledge and ideas. However, once we started to see knowledge as property, we began sharing less and less. Despite the fact that knowledge is abundant (it increases rather than reduces when you share it), it’s seen as a scarce commodity in the economy. The modern economy has set up mechanisms that are about owning, not sharing, knowledge. That’s weird if you think about it: how can you own knowledge?

“When we see knowledge as property, we share less and less”

- Godelieve Spaas, Rabobank

Is sharing knowledge less damaging?

Sharing knowledge means new knowledge is developed. Bringing together knowledge, ideas, stories, experiences and expressions – that creates new insights, experiments and knowledge. That leads to movement. Whether that’s in the right direction or not depends on the significance we attribute to it, or the consequences or impact of a thought or action. Then the issue of a moral compass raises its head again.

Back to your question: shared knowledge and experience alone is no guarantee for directing a development towards the good. But if you make knowledge public, so it belongs to everyone, then more people will look critically at how it’s used. It gives more people the opportunity to discuss which applications are good, and which ones are not so good.

From an ecological perspective, the problem is that we share with each other, with our own species, but far less (or not at all) with other forms of life. The American biologist and philosopher Donna Haraway criticizes approaches that regard humanity as the center of existence. People and animals share a world and influence each other mutually.

Yes, and she also shows that these types of exclusive divisions are historical constructs that have nothing to do with an ‘original’ state of nature. In the same way, there’s no natural or original human being: we can shift the boundaries that we have constructed for ourselves. Haraway is convinced that the only way to make and keep the earth liveable requires cooperation between all species: people, animals and plants. I think she’s right. This means that we need a moral compass in which ‘we’ has a larger place than ‘me.’ And that ‘we’ is more than people alone.

”People and animals share and influence each other mutually”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence

How are we going to do that? I like the idea of sharing, because then we’re talking about a balance. But the economy, or at least a large part of it, backs away from that. Still, you focus your efforts on the economy. What kind of economy are you talking about?

I’m working towards a new narrative for the economy. I think we need to reconnect economics, society and nature in the ways we live, work and do business. Meeting growing demand is only possible if we replenish the earth at the same time. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about growing demand, but about achieving wellbeing for everyone. That means thinking in terms not of conquering markets, but of how you can best contribute to human happiness.

From the fishermen of the Wadden Sea I learned about the difference between saltwater and freshwater cultures. Freshwater life takes place within the dikes, where life is organized, controlled and safe. Saltwater life is characterized by the sea that is unpredictable and requires constant alertness and movement. Life at sea is vulnerable and demands endless communication with the larger whole.

Maybe we need a saltwater economy. An economy that constantly anticipates and cooperates with the larger whole: people and the earth. An economy that is part of nature and society, and that also shares and distributes its revenues so that it brings prosperity to everyone. That means, in my opinion, that co-creation is more important than competition and that sharing is more important than growth. That may not be easy and that is what Haraway calls ‘staying with the trouble.’

“Maybe we need a saltwater economy”

- Godelieve Spaas, Rabobank

I’m afraid that that your economy of sharing and connection will still be based on the same principle of growth. A while ago I spoke with Wouter van Eijkelenburg of Rabobank and the start-up Cool Cow Collective. He believes very much in connection, synergy, and not being in competition and benefiting mutually. But from the principle of growth.

Perhaps it depends on what we mean by growth. Do we mean growth in profit and market share? Or growth in our impact: more happy people and animals on a healthy planet? Once again, we have to make a robust choice: it’s about a movement to (re)share and connect. So it’s not about quantitative growth, especially for your own company.

In other words, is growth about ‘I,’ or is it about ‘us’? The time of continuous expansion really is over. We will have to discuss the right size for a company to be, for turnover and for profit. These are moral and ethical choices. Choices that you can’t leave to ‘the system,’ but that you make with the different collaborating people and organizations within that system. Only then can you shift to an economy that represents life.

Who is Godelieve Spaas?

Godelieve Spaas studied dance, anthropology and communication science. She specialized in organizational and business innovations that are good for people and for the planet. In 2016 she obtained her doctorate from the University of South Africa. In search of the economy of the future, she studied entrepreneurs around the world who opt for business objectives, organizational forms and business models in which profit is a means towards a sustainable and social impact. As a consultant, researcher and maker she has worked together with established companies such as Rabobank, DSM, Wageningen University & Research, and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, as well as with forerunners such as Utrecht Community for Pioneers, Enviu, Festival sur Le Niger and DOEN Foundation. Godelieve is the co-founder of the Wire Group and director of the Pari Center in Italy. Her research can be recognized by a combination of doing, thinking and imagination. Currently, she is Sustainable Strategy and Innovation lector at the Centre for Expertise for Sustainable Business, Avans University of Applied Sciences.

Artist in Residence: Arne Hendriks

Growing, getting bigger, is positive – that’s what we learn from an early age. For eight years, artist Arne Hendriks (born 1971) has been researching why, and turning the proposition around: what if we didn’t always want more and more; what if we were to strive for less? With ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ Hendriks asks fundamental questions about our obsession with growth – down to our own height. He works with examples of people, animals and living systems as sources of inspiration. Banking4Food Innovation Centre, Rabo Foundation and Kunstzaken invited Hendriks to work on his research at Rabobank. Recently, in the middle of his exhibition, he talked to opinion leaders from various disciplines about the question: What is growth? For more information about his project, The Incredible Shrinking Man, see www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net.

The published interviews in the ‘Rethinking Growth’ series are a collaboration between Arne Hendriks and writer Jens de Jongh.