Still Thinking Small

Issue 304
September/October 2017
Together We Are Stronger

Reviews

Still Thinking Small
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Cover: Illustration by Valériane Leblond www.valeriane-leblond.eu

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Artwork © Mouni Feddag courtesy of Bright Art Licensing

Artwork © Mouni Feddag courtesy of Bright Art Licensing

Jonathon Porritt welcomes an updated appeal for decentralisation. Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralist Future by Kirkpatrick Sale. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 9781603587129

I read (and loved) Human Scale when it first came out in 1980. I was then co-chair of the Ecology Party (as the Green Party was then called), and we were big on decentralisation in those days. Leopold Kohr’s The Breakdown of Nations (also a key text for Kirkpatrick Sale) was hotly debated, and Fritz Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful was the literary equivalent of breast milk for all young greenies.

So I approached this “new look at the classic case for a decentralised future” with some trepidation: was it going to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, or an energising re-encounter with some still timely truths?

Happily, it turned out to be the latter. Indeed, it’s made me ask why today’s green movement has opted for such an emaciated approach to decentralisation, relegating it to that zone of ‘old saws’ to which we need to make some kind of tokenistic reference.

But it was not without some twists and turns, caused largely by the lack of ruthless editing, that I got to that point. It’s far too long – age should surely encourage greater brevity! – the structure jumps around all over the place, and some of the best stuff (as in truly purple passages) is left to the last 50 pages.

Some of Kirkpatrick Sale’s generalisations don’t just sweep: they embrace all before them. This leads inevitably to glaring inconsistencies. His loathing for bureaucracy, for instance, is vitriolic, but his praise for a small country like Switzerland – probably one of the most bureaucratic nations on Earth – knows no bounds.

And I’d completely forgotten just how complex is the ideology of a “full-on, small-state decentraliser”. All the machinery of the state must be condemned to outer darkness, including many of the hard-earned victories that allow environmentalists today to take comfort in the rising curve of improved environmental standards and regulations:

“The intrusive government regulations passed or promulgated with good intentions, but very little forethought – workers’ safety, consumer protection, environmental protection and the like – have come at immense costs, most of them hidden. Costs to the manufacturer or producer, cost to the consumer, cost to the state, county, city, school district and neighborhood for compliance, and costs to Washington for the time it takes to enforce them. There is no official tabulation of these costs – the government would prefer to keep them hidden and uncalculated – but a respected economist at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Wayne Crews, estimated in 2015 that government regulations would cost the economy $1,882 trillion in that year.”

To most of us, the Competitive Enterprise Institute is an elitist, manipulative privilege-tank, there solely to serve the interests of its billionaire paymasters. And for most of us, good regulation has been the primary line of defence, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, against the ruthless cost-externalising habits of greedy individuals who will always preference private gain over public good – if we let them. I suspect this kind of ideological naivety will have most greenies twitching very nervously indeed.

But my advice is to be generous. The analytical power of Human Scale Revisited is astonishing, based not just on the sharpest of observations as to today’s current political paralysis, especially in the ultra-dysfunctional United States of America, but on a wealth of penetrating historical excursions. Drawing on a battalion of anthropologists, sociologists, architects, urbanists and evolutionary psychologists, Sale eloquently justifies his “fondness for magic numbers” as in providing a rough measure of the two basic kinds of community that humans have apparently found the most useful and successful over their many millennia as social creatures. One is the face-to-face association group, with somewhere between 400 and 1,000 people, and an optimum of 500 – what we might call the common neighborhood, a small area usually of a few blocks where most of the people know one another at least by sight, and in some cases can band together to form small-scale associations. The other is the extended association, a wider alliance of some 5,000 to 10,000 people, which I would call the polis, the Greek word for a small close-knit city with shared customs.

Sale does subsequently allow that cities can still be made to work well up to a population of around 150,000, but this is still a million miles from the kind of “metropolis, conurbation, megalopolis and necropolis” in which the vast majority of human beings will soon be eking out a less than ennobling existence.

All this provides the platform to allow Sale comprehensively to demolish contemporary apologists for the “necessity” of the state. Claim by claim, he rips to pieces the role of the state in guaranteeing peace and security, in driving economic development, in providing public services “beyond the competence of the community and the individual”, in assuring social justice and protecting the rights of the individual, and in providing for “social harmony by preventing criminal disruption”.

All of which not just gladdened my heart, but also stiffened my somewhat attenuated decentralising sinews. The “classic case” for a decentralist future is still strong.

Ironically, however, the contemporary case is even stronger. Sale acknowledges that one of the biggest shifts in the 27 years between Human Scale I and Human Scale II is the solar revolution that is now unstoppably disrupting every aspect of our lives – in a way that was unthinkable back in 1980. But he doesn’t actually build on that to show how 3D printing, for instance, is already doing the same for manufacturing, and how new models of regenerative agriculture are about to do the same for food production.

Despite those missed opportunities, this is a supremely hopeful book. Leopold Kohr, Sale’s great mentor, chose to end his masterly Breakdown of Nations with the shortest chapter in history, en­titled ‘But Will It Be Done?’ It consists of a single word: “No!”

I greatly prefer Sale’s own postscript:

“We are at a turning-point in history. I know no better than you what is to come. But the choices are clear: destruction or decentralism. We can go on as we are, heading towards greater political and economic chaos. Or we can work to achieve systems and organizations of a size where we may regulate them, to reshape our landscapes to permit ecologically sound and locally rooted settlements, to create for ourselves a world in which our societies, our economies, our politics are in the hands of those free individuals, those diverse communities and cities, that will be affected by them – a world, of course, at the human scale. A world dying … or a world being born.”

Jonathon Porritt is co-founder of Forum for the Future.

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