In the early stages of the industrial revolution, it wasn’t clear whether the main source of power would be water wheels or steam engines. The advantage of the former was a cost-free renewable source of energy, and indeed hundreds of large textile mills were built on watercourses in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The main disadvantage of steam engines was the considerable ongoing cost of coal. Yet, over time, it was the expensive, non-renewable, polluting energy from coal which won out over benign water power.
The reason, according to Andreas Malm in his recent book, Fossil Capital, was that the steam engine allowed entrepreneurs the autonomy to develop their own mills independently when and where and how they saw fit, even if it cost them more. Water power, unlike steam engines, demanded a high degree of cooperation among separate mill owners upstream and downstream from one another. Water levels, dam heights, reservoirs, canals, sluices, and other interrelated hydrological factors all had to closely regulated by the parties involved—a complex social process.
By choosing autonomy over cooperation, mill owners were able to move their factories to the cities and exploit the growing labor force of displaced rural people forced there by the enclosure movement. They were able to abandon collective practices in favor of an expanded range of free individual action for themselves, at the cost of creating a dependent working class subject to their dictates. The rest is history.
In his new book, Human Scale Revisited, Kirkpatrick Sale makes the case for small-scale collective systems as the principle of social, political, and economic organization. In architecture, urban planning, public health, food, transportation, industrial production, democratic politics, and a host of other areas, Sale makes the case for human scale as the optimal measure of complexity. Taken at face value, his arguments are irresistible. The tyrannies and abuses of large-scale political and economic entities are self-evident to most of us. Why wouldn’t we want to scale-down to a human-level of face-to-face personal interactions?
One of the obstacles not raised by Sale is illustrated by the choice made by those early British industrial mill owners. The riparian communities of owners of water-based factories were within the human scale Sale features. Their interactions had to be face-to-face, deliberate, and coordinated. But, when given an opportunity to be masters of the universe, to control their own destinies, they quickly abandoned collectivism for individualism. There is not much psychology in Sale’s mostly sociologically-oriented book, and its absence seems a fatal flaw with regard to any attempt to understand how we got from a mostly small-scale world to the gigantism of today.
Sale piles up his examples rather helter-skelter without tying them together very well. It’s not clear how one type of small-scale operation—say what’s relevant to recycling—meshes with another—say the optimum size of a farm. More profoundly, he seems to presuppose a simple, common human nature or set of values underlying successful human interactions. Where such values may conflict, he suggests that groups simply split off, as if the frontier was still available as an escape valve.
In fact, certain differences in value—as between collectivists and individualists—are not so easily resolved. The human-scale of ancient city states was as amenable to tyrants as to democrats, to slavery as to freedom. Kinship societies, internally personalized, could be barbaric to outsiders. Sale is clearly disposed towards localized socialistic collectivism—in the spirit of Murray Bookchin—yet among his favorite examples—ancient Athens and colonial New England towns—we find (though he doesn’t say so) resolutely capitalistic communities grounded in a fierce defense of private property.
Sale’s relentless focus on individual communities leaves aside the question of how they can interact in a positive and benign manner. He cites Jefferson’s notion of “ward republics” as an embodiment of human scale politics, but misses Jefferson’s insistence that these local republics be integrated in a confederal system of human-scale representative assemblies which can integrate regions, states, and the nation in a bottom-up rather than top-down system of accountable democracy. No one, except a member of the choir, is going to take seriously a localism that does not address the relations among local entities.
Most of Sale’s examples, especially in politics and social organization, come from the preindustrial world. He does not explain how that world—which was largely human scale out of necessity, not choice—was overturned by the large-scale explosion of modernity. In a few passing references, he fingers capitalism as the culprit, without showing just how capitalism was responsible for the overturning of human-scale societies. He also seems naive about the real if corrupting benefits of modernity: health care, electricity, fossil fuels, appliances, central heating, mass production, freedom of movement, social equality, unimaginable material wealth, and so on. Yes, these are dependent on exploiting and polluting the environment, but they have become part of a modern psychology that is deeply resistant to returning to the near-subsistence world Sale advocates. We now have ecological overshoot by several billion people, and he gives no indication of how to resolve that dilemma while returning to a simpler, human-scale life.
Don’t get me wrong. I have advocated the human-scale values emphasized by Sale all my life. I too bemoan the tyrannies of corporate power, big government, and globalization. I agree with him that we desperately need to reestablish human scale values as social norms if we are to survive. But yet another celebration of those values—even one as good as that offered by Sale—is not enough in these dark times. We desperately need to know how to proceed, what kind of practical agenda to follow, if we are to have any hope of getting there before it’s too late.
Adrian Kuzminski is the author of Fixing the System: A History of Populism, Ancient & Modern, and The Ecology of Money: Debt, Growth, and Sustainability, among other works.