Saturday, January 23, 2016


Class Notes

Thinking about Dunbar’s number (150), which is about the number of people who can really know each other on a supportive basis, connects with a lot of thinking from my past.  One is Alban Institute’s work on church size.   They persisted a long time but are now gone.  Their work was trying to understand what made congregations survive or fail.  At the time I knew about Alban, in the Seventies, 150 people was about the number it took to maintain a viable church with a building and a professional minister.  Now it would take three times that number but many congregations have shrunk to one-third that number.

Ranchers and wildlife experts are familiar with the idea of “carrying capacity,” the number of animals who can occupy an ecology without destroying it.  Environments have the ability to rebound from overgrazing or drought and can increase their carrying capacity by complexifying or when conditions improve.  Conversely, some exotic plant or animal can crowd into the ecology and tear the relationships apart.  Drought and floods throw off the balance of everything, but some ecologies — like the bottom of the Grand Canyon where regular periodic floods in spring are necessary to replant the cottonwoods — need that disruption to drive the systems.

When I did the three-year extension ministry for the UUA, which meant circuit riding among four groups who probably added up to 150 people, it was interpreted by most people as a “salesmanship” problem.  Make UU sound wonderful, promise it will be profitable, and all will be well.  No one thought of it as an ecology, not even me.   (Well, I did a little bit.)  We did use the Alban Institute’s figures for “carrying capacity” which they estimated to be about 2 potential UU’s per 1,000 population.  That means that in Valier, there should only be about one-third of a UU person.  That must be me.  Thirty-five years later, only one of the groups has died — it was Great Falls where the town is also struggling to keep its people.  The one that flared and grew was in Whitefish/
Kalispell, glamourous, growing, the banana belt of Montana.  This group was not part of the program.   For success, the economy means far more than preaching.

My preaching gown

My seminary finally adapted to its tiny student population by converting to a mail-order low-residence school in leased offices.  They're living off the profit from selling the building originally created for them.  They haven’t quite resorted to the strategy of a minister in the midwest who used to destroy all graphs by claiming thousands of church members.  It turned out he had a radio ministry and claimed everyone in the listening area.

These problems of exceeding or diminishing, as related to economic carrying capacity, are affecting everyone across the Montana Highline.  It’s hard enough to gather and organize people to create a town, but then when the economy collapses, it’s even harder to cut back.  Schools must combine, ministers must travel, and roads don’t get repaired.  The local/state/federal balance is distorted — or at least changed.  As new sources of income are developed and old ones disappear, the kind of population changes.  If no new sources of income are found, the existing population ages in place, creating new needs while destroying old supplies. 

Sometimes you're the cheetah,
And sometimes you're the baboons.

It’s strange to think about hominins, about how they came down out of the trees.  How many individuals must have been lost due to the new conditions without trees -- no place to be safe -- and yet whole new ways of living on the land appeared.  They had to overwhelm their own biologically rooted desire to stay in one place, do the same things, even when that didn’t work.  What finally made them change?  A drought?  A dream? A mutation?

Just as more new converts are needed, the churches empty out — all the different kinds from prosperity mega-operations to little remnant rural groups of grannies and grandpas.  The denominations used to grow, inventing new names to identify themselves and their splinters, just like the expanding economy that demanded new forms.  But now the Walmarts are closing down and no one knows what’s next.  Well, they do — they just don’t want to admit it.  Amazon.  Infinite numbers of people?  Maybe.  Growth as a marker of success?  Being challenged.  Maybe "Small IS Beautiful."  What's after Amazon?

New product?  We’re sort of on the cusp of development.  VERY expensive hightech breakthroughs, but at the same time cheap cell phones and computers for everyone. An interesting development is the realization that while many were rushing around with their salesmanship ideas, there was a whole layer of society that was quietly and persistently developing “organic food,” “counter-cultures,”  "heritage seeds," “co-operatives,” off the grid.

My money, my stockbroker.

One of the interesting things about the economics of art is that on the edge are always very rich people who buy, sustain, found major institutions like museums and so on.  These are the 1 or 2% of people who control, er, “own” the great majority of the wealth in the world.  Artists are part of their infrastructure of prestige and so we visit them, sell to them, get to know them.  

What I am just now realizing is that a really rich person is not at all what we ordinary plodders think.  They are NOT individuals who can do what they want.  Instead they are managed by all sorts of people who tell them what to do.  They have the same problems of expansion and contraction in their Dunbar’s number (friends and family), and often have losses in that context, particularly if they’re not good at “grooming,” (meaning the innocent maintenance of relationships) or pervert friendship grooming into the acquisition of people as though they were bought.  Very wealthy individuals may have a lot of family, but because of English-originating law over inheritance, that can be a serious disruption.  It drives many a BBC plot.

Disney Studios

The truth is that very wealthy people, particularly those who come into a lot of money suddenly, like movie stars and rock singers, are almost immediately converted into being corporations, a business machine with its members intent on keeping their jobs and expanding their control and remuneration.  When someone like Walt Disney dies, it’s barely noticeable because he goes on as a franchise, still keeping all those folks on the payroll, adding lawyers searching contracts for more profit.  He’s just a trade name now.  

Organizational design was another way I came to understanding the importance of these arrangements that are NOT REAL.  They’re like money — it’s only paper that stands for profit.  Who supervises whom, the chain of accountability, divisions and assignments, all that seemingly boring stuff can make a major difference.  Management today is a crippling problem, a failure of producing people who have the skills.

The receding tide of “religion” -- which to the media and most citizens is some set of beliefs and the machinery of an organization -- is not serving the core "carrying capacity" of spirituality.  Rather they are shrinking the spirit.  It hasn’t got anything to do with “theism” or any of the other tent poles of the world’s systems.  It’s about human beings and their 150 friends, neighbors, and relatives, who no longer sing together unless they’re drunk or pushing a political agenda. 

I have no trust that any present venue will increase the spiritual carrying capacity of the country.  But I’m very intrigued by experiments like the one that recorded people all over the world singing the same song and then blended them into one giant chorus.  The “flash choirs” around Christmas always make me cry.  Spiritual content is not the words of the songs, nor even their familiarity, but the human voices — no matter the number.

"The Chorus" about a boys' school.

Here's a link to a terrific French film called "The Chorus" about how the unity of song can redeem misguided morality.

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