Degrowth: Down to the Kohr

Leopold Kohr was an economist and political scientist known for his opposition to the “cult of bigness” in social organisation and the inspiration for Fritz Schumacher’s iconic publication Small is beautiful and the Degrowth movement. Here are two quotes from his 1951 book The Breakdown of Nations.

On BIG: “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big. If the stars in the sky or the atoms of uranium disintegrate in spontaneous explosion, it is not because their substance has lost its balance. It is because matter has attempted to expand beyond the impassable barriers set to every accumulation. Their mass has become too big. If the human body becomes diseased, it is, as in cancer, because a cell, or group of cells, has begun to outgrow its allotted narrow limits.”

On SMALL: “Smallness is not an accidental whim of creation. It fulfils a most profound purpose. It is the basis of stability and duration, of a graceful harmonious existence that needs no master. For little bodies, countless in number and forever moving, forever rearrange themselves in the incalculable pattern of a mobile balance whose function in a dynamic universe is to create orderly systems and organisms without the necessity of interfering with the anarchic freedom of movement granted to their component particles.”

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Wadlow’s Curve

Measuring 272 cm the American citizen Robert Wadlow was the tallest person in recent history. Wadlow was so tall and heavy he needed braces to walk. Also his limbs had became slightly insensitive at the extremities. When one of the metal straps of his braces gave him a blister it got infected and killed him. His body had become so tall that it was unable to organise enough energy to fight his infection. There’s a tragic connection between Wadlow’s condition and our current economic system. Debora MacKenzie writes: “It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down. To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity.” Complex systems are vulnerable systems, as Robert’s blister so tragically illustrated. Bigger systems ask for greater complexity to keep going, yet are vulnerable to ever smaller threats. We call this Wadlow’s Curve, although Wadlow’s Curse might be a better name.

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Bigger Before Better

A common leadership philosophy in business is to get better before you get bigger.  With evolution it doesn’t work that way. Evolution doesn’t plan ahead. If it would, the human body would certainly not be getting taller in a world of dwindling resources. Evolution is purely a trial and error process, but it does allow to take knowledge from the past into the future. Quite possibly beings learn something in times of physical growth that is beneficial for times of shrinkage. Sometimes things need to become bigger before they get better, which in our vision primarily means smaller but at least just as good.

Present tall human size may in fact create the embodied knowledge for a future smaller sized human species. For dinosaurs to evolve into birds they first grew big, and then shrunk. Sometimes BIG  initiates developments unimaginable if things had remained SMALL. An increase in size leads to a different set of challenges and solutions. But SMALL can still benefit. Birds might not have come into existence if it were not for the increased strength and greater lightness in bone structures of tall dinosaurs, eventually enabling birds to fly. Man is at its tallest size ever, and some believe we can’t or at least shouldn’t get taller than this. But before we shrink to a more practical size, what have we learned from being this tall?  Stronger bone structure? A more efficient metabolism? Another embodied perspective on time and space? An understanding of the interconnectedness of all life?

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KancerCel: Dialogues on Malignant Growth

The Incredible Shrinking Man is interested in the relationship between cancer and our society’s obsession with growth. To connect the desire for less with the necessity to overcome our desire for more Arne Hendriks is developing KankerCel (CancerCell). KankerCel merges the languages of cancer research and economics in search of a new vocabulary that is more resilient against our obsession with growth. KankerCel is supported by Zero Footprint Campus and the Utrecht Science Park.

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Abundance Fantasies: The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat

Perhaps no Hollywood movie director and choreographer personifies the desire for abundance better than Busby Berkeley. His choreographies were wildly extravagant, the geometric patterns hallucinatory, and the props and costumes beyond anything seen before. His work oozes a profound and limitless desire for abundance. And yet we’d like to recruit his point of view as an instrument to come another step closer to the embrace of scarcity.

Since the very start of this investigation into shrinking the human species The Incredible Shrinking Man has had a paradoxical relationship with the notion of abundance. On the one hand it is this desire within humanity that seems instrumental in the destructive relationship with our planet. However, on the other hand  it may serve as a powerful argument for shrinking our species. Smaller people need less. We could shrink towards a state of unimaginable abundance. At a human height of 50 centimeters 1 chicken feeds 100 people and a banana would easily be enough for two dozen banana milkshakes. In the 1943 musical movie The Gang’s All Here, Berkeley underlines his abundance-sensitivity in the iconic choreography for The lady in the tutti frutti hat. Performed by Carmina Miranda, the song and choreography features 40 dancers carrying as many giant bananas pointing towards an abundant future. If we shrink. There’s an honesty in Berkeley’s need to go over the top, a choreography of deeply embedded desire, that may teach us something about the desire we carry within ourselves.

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Bumblebee Megacolony

A study by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México explored the effects of food availability on the colony and body size of 21 bumblebee taxa. Not surprisingly according to the study, the size of a colony is a direct result of food availability. The more food, the larger the colony. A similar relationship can be found almost universally between individual body size and food availability. The more food is available to an individual, the taller he or she grows. However, put together, this does not automatically lead to larger individuals within larger communities. On the contrary, the bumblebee study shows a negative relationship between colony size and the size of the individual. The more food is initially available, the larger the colony, but the smaller the individual bumblebees. And that could be good news in relation to mankind and the size of our cities, that have dramatically increased in size over the last century.

The Incredible Shrinking Man investigates how to shrink the human species towards a state of resource and food abundance. Can we learn from bumblebee colonies how to accommodate an increasing number of citizens in our megacities while on the other hand reducing individual body size?

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Long Legged Risk

Long legs beautiful? Perhaps, but according to a study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting  the long-legged have a 42 percent higher risk of developing bowel cancer.

Lead author of the study Guillaume Onyeaghala has two hypotheses that may explain the association. One idea is that because taller people have longer colons they have more chances to develop the condition. The other suggestion is that increased levels of growth hormones — which affect leg length in particular — are also the driving factor for colorectal cancer. The growth hormone IGF-1 is elevated during puberty, and has been shown to be a risk factor for colorectal cancers at high levels, the study said. Onyeaghala looked at data on participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, a long-running cohort of more than 14,500 men and women. Specifically, the new study examined three aspects of the participants’ height: overall height, torso height and leg length. Researchers also looked at how many participants developed colorectal cancer over the nearly 20-year study period. The only factor that was linked to people’s colon cancer risk was their leg length; the researchers did not find a significant link between people’s overall height or torso height and their cancer risk, Onyeaghala said. The results support the hypothesis that the growth factors that drive bone growth in the legs are a risk factor for the disease.

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3rd Trimester Foetal Hunger

Perhaps pregnant women in their last trimester shouldn’t eat too much. In the winter of 1944/45 the Second World War resulted in a severe famine in the Netherlands. The Dutch survived on as little as 30% of their daily needed caloric intake. It is a well-defined group of individuals all of whom suffered just one period of malnutrition, all of them at the same time. And some of them were pregnant.

Because of good health-care infrastructure and record-keeping in the Netherlands analyses of health records allowed for a systematic comparison of the effects of fetal starvation. Depending on their time of conception the unborn babies were subject to different outcomes as a result of their malnourishment. Foetuses under 3 months old during the famine were likely to be born normal size, having caught up with typical developments. Yet later in life many of these individuals developed high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Contrary to this group the unborn babies between 6 and 9 months old during the Dutch Hunger Winter who had been well nourished up until the last few months of gestation, were born small and generally remained so for the rest of their lives. They also did not develop higher rates of obesity or disease. Even more extraordinarily some of these effects are present in the grandchildren of the women who were malnour­ished. And even their children still showed shrink effects.

Well-Controlled 3rd trimester foetal dieting may very well be a first step towards a shorter and perhaps even healthier human species.

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Small-Bodied Survivor

Ever since 2004 when several remains of a 50.000 year old tiny bodied human species were excavated, the Indonesian island of Flores and its ancient population have been in the centre of paleontologists attention. Homo floresiensis as it was named inspired a lively and sometimes heated debate about smallness and the human species. Who was this very very small human? How long had it been around? How did it get to be so small? And where did it come from?

Now, at a 700.000 year old site called Mata Menge, researchers have found strong evidence that the ancestors of Homo floresiensis were indeed a group of Homo erectus that came to Flores one million years ago, possibly following a tsunami or other major disaster. Interestingly they then became subject to a much more rapid process of insular dwarfism then had previously been suggested. In the course of just 300.000 years since first appearing on Flores the hominin lost 1/3rd of its height. This is up to 500.000 years faster then previously suggested. So, for at least 700.000 years the tiny species roamed the island of Flores, long before Homo sapiens even existed. Adam Brumm at Griffith University in Queensland, who co-led the excavations together with Gert van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong, said: “The island is small and it has limited food resources and few predators, other than komodo dragons, so large-bodied mammals that wound up on this rock would have been under immediate selective pressure to reduce their body mass. Being big is no longer an advantage when you’re trying to survive in such an isolated and challenging environment.”

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Abundance Fantasies: Body Inflation

Skol blowfish people

Body inflation is the practice of inflating or pretending to inflate a part of one’s body. It is commonly done by inserting balloons underneath clothes and then inflating them. Some people have specially made inflatable suits made from latex rubber to make themselves bigger all over. Others explore this fantasy through animation, cartoons or manipulated photography.  Sexual gratification is one of the most common reasons for this practise. In our series on Abundance Fantasies we explore how a deeply rooted desire for abundance manifests itself in our vocabulary, our myths and legends, and our behaviour. If we are to deflate society’s obsession with more, bigger and larger, we first need to understand what inspires this obsession, even if it comes out in obscure and playful ways such as body inflation.

One might argue that body inflation is a more direct and honest translation of the growth obsession that is so much part of how most of humanity expresses itself these days.

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