Beyond Growth

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Speaker & Worship Leader:- Alix Geard

Beyond Growth
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Alix Geard © 4th June2023

Today’s theme is inspired by “Beyond growth: Pathways towards sustainable prosperity in the EU

I wanted to share something about what the future might look like: especially something new about what’s going on in the space around climate change and degrowth. I’ve been finding that quite depressing, though.

I admit that I even asked ChatGPT for some examples of what I might say. The homilies it came up with were familiar, reassuring, anodyne and almost completely pointless. They did sound good, though.

Instead, I want to throw some ideas at you about what people are like, and how we work together. The ideas are all a bit flawed – they’re working notes and patterns to look out for – but I’ve found them useful.

We will live through the changes that are coming as people. Can we harness any of the things that are baked into that to get us through?

The first draft of the moral mind

I’m going to start with individuals, although in the chicken-and-egg development of humans, with our obstetrically challenging pregnancies and long, dependent infancies, our pattern is to survive as groups or not at all.

The nature vs nurture debate has been expressed over the past century as whether babies are blank slates at birth, or whether they already have some human and personality traits baked in. My understanding of current thinking is that some things are made easy for us by our physical and psychological hardware: we’re not blank slates at birth, but nor are we fully-formed. Our default build is programmed to recognise and respond to faces. Skin contact generally feels good and causes physical changes which incline us to bond.

One exploration and development of this idea is Moral foundations theory, which proposes that people are born with an inclination toward certain values. Those things seem to include:

  • Care, also called protection from Harm – it’s important to protect the vulnerable from harm; and
  • Fairness, or Proportionality.

They also include some shared values that different people and groups prioritise differently, leading to cultural and political differences:

  • Loyalty – especially recognising and supporting your group
  • Respect for Authority – I think this is a way of addressing the harm that violence otherwise causes – if you make the authority struggles relatively rare and recognise the decisions of the leaders betweentimes, you don’t need to actually fight or separate over every decision
  • Purity – this is cleanliness, food preparation and waste management, but it’s also abstracted to include cultural ideas of appropriate sexual behaviour, and what you allow into your body, whether that’s organically-grown food, GMOs or, increasingly, vaccines. It’s also who you allow into your social groups or country, which is probably why debates about immigration can run so deep.
One of the originators of Moral foundations theory talks about it in this TED talk.

I’m also seeing Equality discussed as a separate value from Fairness, and sometimes in conflict with Respect for Authority.

We, as people, bring some programming with us. It’s mostly helped us get by as small groups. Sometimes it can be expanded to make bigger groups hold together, as when in-group Loyalty becomes Patriotism. Each value can express in different ways. Some of those are clearly “good” and pro-social. Some of those seem to underpin deep differences which can affect our ability to work together with people who aren’t part of our own in-groups.

Yeast – no collective sense

My next concept is about yeast. Yeast is a fungus. In the right conditions it will consume sugars and turn them into alcohols and carbon dioxide. Bakers and especially brewers make use of this to physically and chemically change their products.

But yeast has no group coordination. It will consume sugars as long as there are sugars to consume, and it will create waste products around itself until they’re concentrated enough to kill the yeast. I’ve seen it used as the classic example of happy-happy-happy-oops!

On a bad day, it seems that our species has no more collective sense than yeast. We’ll keep doing things that make sense in the short term without realising that the sugars in our environment are running out and the alcohol level is about to kill us.

That’s not fully fair: humans have banded together to address – at least for a time – issues such as ozone depletion and nuclear proliferation. And alcohol doesn’t actually kill all the yeast – when it runs out of food the yeast will “flocculate”, which seems to be a fancy way of saying it sticks to other yeasts which go dormant together. You can harvest and carefully store this yeast, and if you feed it again in a suitable environment it’ll come back… and consume all the sugars around it all over again.

As a side-note, risen yeasted bread dough is alcoholic. Much of the alcohol is cooked off in baking or evaporates off afterward, but fresh bread can contain maybe 2% alcohol.

Dunbar’s number – groups are hard

Primates are not yeast, although I may sometime throw up my hands about us and mutter about behaviours we have in common. We live in groups. An idea that comes from the study of primate groups is that there’s an upper limit to the number of meaningful relationships that a person can sustain. Through a lot of approximations and extrapolations about things like brain size, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that the limit was around 150 social connections, but that maintaining that many connections would require spending – very roughly – 42% of the person’s time in “social grooming” behaviours to keep all those relationships going.

This is often extended to suggest that the maximum “natural” size of human primate groups is around 150 people. It’s clearly more complicated than that. Humans have found all manner of ways to stretch the limits and allow us to work together without needing those direct, personal socially meaningful relationships with each other. It’s not necessarily the case that every employee of a large company or country has a meaningful social relation with every other employee. It is usually the case that there will be siloes, restricted spans of control, and cultural practices both written down and enacted in the way a larger group works.

I note that locally, the group unit that sits roughly around Dunbar’s number is the hapū. There’s some speculation that as hapū got much bigger than this they tended to split.

The takeaway is that big groups are hard. We’re not innately wired for them, and we have to use learnt culture to make them work.

Some of that culture involves finding ways to politely ignore each other. Our ability to walk down the street in a city and apparently ignore most of the people there is one of the ways we cope.

Looking to the herd for alarm calls / Bystander effect – what are other people doing?

We tend to look around to see how others are responding to something to help us decide how we’ll respond.

This goes for a lot of human interactions – whether we queue, masking in public, who it’s okay to bully – but it’s particularly for danger situations. “Is this one of the situations where it would be okay to do something that would otherwise be socially awkward?”

I live in one of the shaky bits of the country. There’s a ritual that happens whenever the earth seems to wobble just a bit, where people look at each other and say “Is that an earthquake?”. That moment of looking around for confirmation is also when we assess which set of rules are in play. If it’s a truck going by, or a strong gust of wind on a tower block that sways, it’d seem a bit foolish to drop, cover and hold. The rules change if it’s a proper earthquake. They’re also different if there’s no one around to check in with.

One of the section introductions that Greta Thunberg wrote in The Climate Book

“Throughout history there have been many major societal changes. Some of them have been quite dramatic – for good or for bad. So when we call for unprecedented changes in all aspects of our societies, we do not mean that we should just become vegetarian for one day a week, offset your holiday trips to Thailand or switch your diesel SUV for an electric car. And yet that is what most people in large parts of the world seem to think. We humans are social animals – herd animals, if you like. As Stuart Capstick and Lorraine Whitmarsh show in the following chapter, we copy the behaviour of others and we follow our leaders. If we do not see anyone else behaving as if we are in a crisis, then very few will understand that we actually are in a crisis.

“In other words, it hardly matters if you say that we are facing an emergency if no one is acting as if we are in an emergency.”

Thunberg, Greta. The Climate Book, 2023, pp 324-5.

We can make huge social changes quickly – we saw that in our lockdowns. But we’re also wired to question false alarms. Someone who’s accused of “crying wolf” when it’s not warranted will lose credibility and social currency, and may elicit anger from those who feel they did something foolish when the alarm was called.

Colonialism, extraction and capitalism

For much of that time we’ve been people, we’ve got by with what we in our groups or tribes could gather and produce with our own knowledge and muscle power.

There have long been ways to supplement that, though, and in recorded history we’ve got quite effective at using those.

Some of those are physical technologies: levers, wheels, roads, granaries and cisterns, horse collars, writing. Some of those are more clearly cultural technologies: cities, taxes, communal worship, stories. Often the types of technologies go together: cities support and require the central collection and distribution of water and grain, which itself depends on having some way to gather labour or goods.

This is both effective and has a troubling side. Put simply, if I take your stuff, I have more stuff. If I use your labour in ways that mean I get more from it than it costs me, I also have more stuff. What do I do with that extra stuff? What are the social and other costs of accumulating it? What does it mean that this is a reward for the use of force – the violence of conquest and slavery? What does it mean that those who wield that force can take goods and people from other places? What does it mean that we can keep our own places “clean” by disposing of the rubbish “over there”?

There’s a whole series of talks to have about how the way we live has come about because of the unfair use of resources and labour that were not ours, and were not freely given or traded. That’s important to how we might address our future: more important than we might at first think.

Our future as people

As we move into the future – whether your concept of time sees that as backwards or forwards – we’re still the animals that grazed and scavenged, gardened and hunted, built walled cities and assailed them. We carry programming at deep levels that worked well enough for us in our earlier small groups, but is sometimes painfully stretched in our current, world-spanning communities and supply chains.

But those are the kinds of animals we are. Are there ways we can use that programming to look ahead, to call the alarm, to make big changes quickly? Can we use our big brains and our social bonding to make futures for ourselves and our species? Do we have more forethought than yeast?

Meditation / Conversation starter

  • Knowing all this, what are some rational things to do as we move into the future: as individuals; as societies?
  • What are some caring things to do?


Opening Song:- “Come Sing A Song With Me” STLT#346
Words and Music – Carolyn McDade
Performed by Brian Kenny, Alena Hemingway, and the KUUF Choir 2019
of the of Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Bremerton, WA, USA

Opening Words:- include Don’t Hesitate” by Mary Oliver

Chalice Lighting:- On The Brink” By Leslie Takahashi

Chalice Lighting Song:-Rise Up, O Flame” STLT#362
by Christoph Praetorius (ca. 1560-1581)
Arranged by Jennifer McMillan for Westwood Unitarian
Song:-What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong
Closing Song:- Purea Nei” by Hirini Melbourne
Performed by Anna Coddington

Closing Words / Karakia Whakamutunga:- The World is Too Beautiful” By Eric Williams