Rethinking Growth: “We need a new story”

Artist Arne Hendriks in conversation with comms expert Luke Disney

Arne Hendriks, artist-in-residence at Rabobank, talks to thought leaders from diverse fields of expertise to consider the question: “What is growth?” First up is the man who, according to Hendriks, goes by the bank’s best name: Luke Disney.

Arne Hendriks: I want to know what growth is. For most of my life I thought I knew what it was, and that – in principle – it was good. These days, I don’t know anymore. And that’s why I’m looking for an answer by talking to different people, inside and outside the bank. People who I think can help me recover that simple, original knowledge of what growth is. Rabobank’s mission statement, ‘Growing a better world together,’ naturally expects people in the bank to know what it means. And I hope I can benefit from that knowledge.

Luke Disney is Head of Communications for Banking for Food. The first time I spoke to Luke, he asked me, almost immediately, if I was familiar with Fritz Schumacher’s essay collection, ‘Small is Beautiful.’ Schumacher was an economist who held rather alternative views concerning economies of scale in the business world. I certainly know his work, and even consider him a guide. I want to know more, so let’s begin. Luke, how important is growth to Rabobank?

Luke Disney: In the Netherlands, Rabobank is the home bank for 86 percent of the agricultural sector We want to continue to grow abroad what we have built up here. We see it as part of our mission to support farmers and the agricultural sector in general. That’s Banking for Food. How exactly are we going to do it? We’re currently discussing that.

Immediately we’re getting to the heart of the matter: growth. Why should Rabobank grow abroad?

The most obvious answer is because there’s room. Another reason is that the bank’s balance has to grow as a result of new standards and capital rules following the economic crisis. And ultimately, however you cut it, we are part of a system in which growth is demanded of us. Otherwise, you are pushed out of the market or taken over. Furthermore, the bank also has no choice, because it has a primary responsibility towards its customers. When their money comes to us, we have to make sure it is safe. Growth is also ‘tangible.’ The value we create here can be difficult to measure at the end of the day. However, what you can prove at the end of the year is that a higher percentage of turnover has been realized. Growth as the fruit of labor – it’s what the table is to the carpenter, and the painting to the artist.

So, do you measure the bank’s growth by looking at the bottom line?

Yes, generally it’s a cost-benefit analysis, which should lead to net or bottom-line growth. And that’s the basis of our ‘faith.’ Because personally, I think we are trained to think like that. What is our definition of success? It’s growth. It’s a story that we tell each other. When did growth become such a central part of our faith? When did we as a society become so obsessed with growth? I haven’t read it for a while, but the Bible contains nothing along the lines of, “Thou shalt grow.”

I think that our religious texts do contain a promise of growth and abundance. In the hereafter, abundance is always anticipated. There are appetite-inducing miracles: Jesus making wine from water. “I am the good shepherd, follow me and I will lead you to green pastures.” Prophet Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. The story of Canaan’s grapes. I think in our religious roots there’s a desire for ‘more.’ Or at least the feeling that we’re entitled to it. Our desires grow and with them the willingness and the energy to make certain choices.

“Religious texts contain promises of abundant growth”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence, Rabobank

Growth is also very natural. But in nature, growth is part of a cycle. Trees grow, produce leaves and shed them, starting the cycle all over again in the spring. We have the same cycle, although we close our eyes to it. After years of decline, we’re back now in a period of economic growth. Undoubtedly, a new period of decline will follow later. We are faced with a rapidly growing world population, and that cannot continue indefinitely. Is growth not simply part of a cycle? Or should it be? There is a moment when growth is good, and there’s a moment when growth is no longer good.

If you could assign percentages to activities within the bank that contribute to good growth and bad growth, how would that picture look?

It’s difficult. Let me start by saying that I believe that 100 percent of people come to work here with good intentions. But as I look at it now, 10 percent would be ‘bad,’ 20 percent ‘disputable,’ 10 percent ‘fantastic,’ and 60 percent ‘good.’ And the amount of actual growth that comes from that ‘bad’ 10 percent is limited.

In my profession, communications, it’s my experience that the 10 percent can color the whole picture, so that you no longer see the other 90 percent. Or that public opinion no longer believes it. Part of that ‘disputable’ 20 percent is large-scale agriculture, for which we are often under attack. Opponents say: monoculture is not good for biodiversity. I understand that very well. At the same time, the world’s population is growing rapidly and we will have to feed all those mouths.

That’s very much a human-centred argument. Shouldn’t we learn to think in terms of a living system, and of humanity as a balanced part of it? Then you have to make a choice at a given moment, at least from a material point of view. You can put yourself on the side of humanity with large-scale agriculture, but is that what you should do?

We base our arguments from the point of view of our own species, that’s for sure. Although Thomas Malthus was already warning people, 200 years ago, about the destructive impact of population growth. He argued that the human capacity for population growth is vastly greater than the Earth’s ability to support human existence. Shouldn’t we seek a more focused way of ensuring that population growth slows down? I’m not hearing that discussion right now.

Luke Disney with artwork by Arne Hendriks. According to Hendriks project ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man,’ 150cm is the ideal height. Not quite, Luke.


Do you see yourself as the person who should criticize the ‘system’ of the bank?

Yes, the critical questioning of development is certainly part of my role. And we put that into practice, too. Our team is currently collecting cases under the heading: “Deals that will give you a headache.” We’re asking people within the bank about the deals or investments that they’ve made which they have later regretted.

And?

You can easily discuss this with individuals. But if you want to do it structurally, by means of a survey, for example, it’s a lot more difficult. The culture of the bank makes it difficult to talk about such matters. Even though it’s important to do so. How else can we define ‘Growing a better world together’? It’s also difficult to determine a course as a bank. In our mission statement, growth is the foundation. However good those intentions may be, you immediately exclude certain opportunities. Developments in which perhaps it may be better for the bank to become smaller, with a focus on other things.

Shrinking a better world together.

In any case, I don’t believe in unlimited growth. As early as 1972, the Club of Rome presented the report, ‘The Limits to Growth: A Global Challenge,’ in which the problem of resource depletion is central. What are the limits to growth? I miss that in the discussion about the current economy. We are behaving as though economics is an exact science, but it isn’t. Economics is a story, a belief, a way of dealing with each other. If our beliefs change, then our choices change.

“Are economic models sufficient to explain the world? We need a new story”

- Luke Disney, Rabobank

Buddhist economics is based on a holistic view of the economy, making use of other, principally non-economic, areas of knowledge to shape economic policy. According to Buddhist economists, rational decisions can only be made if we understand how irrationality arises. According to them, for example, it’s necessary to understand what causes the kind of greed that all the riches in the world cannot satisfy.

I studied economics myself. Half of what I have learned has already been proven to be incorrect. As the crisis also made clear, there is a gap between the economic world as it is taught at schools and universities, and the real world in which we live.

From my conversations with young economists, little seems to have changed in schools. ‘Modelling for continuous growth’ still seems to be the starting point. From the current economic perspective, growth means progress, but seen from a radically different perspective – the human body – continuous growth means cancer and death. I’ve had several conversations with geneticists and microbiologists, including Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute. Clevers’ science is exact in examining how cells divide and grow. He says, “At the end of the day, I always have to return to the cell to ask if what I have come up with is true.” Economics is a social science in which assumptions are made on a completely different basis. Economists have no cell to return to.

The question is whether the models, the existing instruments of economic scientists, are sufficient to understand and explain the world today. We need a new story.

Artist-in-residence Arne Hendriks in his Rabobank exhibition


Strangely enough, this lack of an exact reference point makes me optimistic. Because economics is a social science, we ultimately determine what economics is by the way in which we think of, and about, the economy. This means we could, for example, redefine an idea like ‘continuous growth,’ or try to replace it with a completely different concept.

I find it interesting that you call yourself an optimist. Not least because you’ve already spent a considerable amount of time immersing yourself in the idea of shrinking. At the same time, can you even call yourself a pessimist in today’s society? Is that allowed? Are there examples of successful pessimists? Could you work within Rabobank as a self-declared pessimist? We were talking about faith and stories. We also believe that things are constantly improving. I don’t know if that is actually the case.

I don’t think that always believing things are getting better determines whether you’re an optimist or not. For me, the question is: how do I relate to the delusions that exist in the world? Such as continuous growth at the expense of our ecology. I think that optimism and maybe even activism is an attitude of wanting to do something about it. Pessimism often leads to cynicism and saying goodbye to what constitutes a source of energy, for example to maintain that 10 percent bad growth. There’s the functionalized pessimism of the risk analyst. But there’s also the trader who thinks: ‘I’ll get round to it later.’

My grandfather used to say: “Be sure to leave the world a better place than you found it.” But I don’t have any illusions about making major changes alone. I’m more of a realist. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” But I haven’t lost hope that things will get better. I’m a hopeful realist, a hopeful activist. It also depends on your perspective. I'm not worried about the planet; it’s going to be fine.

“I don’t think I can make major changes alone”

- Luke Disney, Rabobank

You mean the planet without people? You can’t ignore our beauty as a species. I can’t say I don’t like what we are. Humanity is worth saving. That inspires me enormously, because I think it really is feasible.

That’s what I’m fighting for every day. As for us as a bank, I think we’re in a transition in which growth has a healthy connotation. Growth that benefits society. When it comes to Banking for Food, that means that there is sufficient healthy food for everyone. But yes, we don’t know everything, especially within the bank. We see more and more that some aspects of growth are bad, but I don’t know anyone who has the definition of unhealthy growth or healthy shrinkage. What is moderation? That’s what we’re struggling with now as a bank, what is growth in moderation?

I believe it’s true that today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions. So much of what we do today is based on the decisions we made yesterday. As times change, some solutions become problems. This is why entrepreneurs and creative thinkers can and must continue to innovate. Again: the art is to tell a different story – as a bank, and as a society. I think that to start with, we have to inspire our own employees. That’s why a collaboration with an artist like you is so important.

Who is Luke Disney?
Born in Canada, Luke Disney grew up in Sydney, a small fishing and coal town surrounded by vast natural landscapes and known for its cold winters. After his studies, the economist started work as a communications consultant at various agencies, then at TNT Express. He was jointly responsible for the Moving the World initiative, a public-private partnership between the United Nations World Food Program and TNT, aimed at combatting hunger in the world. He later became founder and executive director of North Star Alliance, an award-winning social enterprise with the goal of keeping mobile populations (for instance truck drivers) and local communities healthy and safe. To achieve this, North Star Alliance provides care in Road Wellness Centres, which are based in strategic locations throughout Africa. Before Disney started working at Rabobank as Head of Communications Banking for Food, he was director of the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre, where he is still involved as a consultant. Luke is an advisor to the World Healthcare Forum and the Faculty of Economics at the University of Amsterdam, and a member of the Steering Committee for Stadsklooster Utrecht.

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.