Small is Awesome

When humans launch a new endeavor they should always ask themselves: what size ought this endeavor to be? And the answer should always be: as small as possible.

small-is-awesomeScale is a metaphysical concept, a fundamental value that underlies everything. Usually, however, people don’t think much about scale. They want their endeavor to grow, to get bigger, and as fast as possible. Their attitude is: big is good; small is bad. Much harm comes from this attitude.

Small-scale has many intrinsic advantages. The smaller a thing is, the more comprehensible it is, the more responsive, and the more accountable. If humans wish to guide their endeavors — to control them — they should keep them small. And if “man is the measure of all things,” as the Greeks taught, then small matters all the more. “Man is small,” declared E.F. Schumacher, “therefore small is beautiful.”

In recent times, the worship of big has become a mania, a dangerous obsession. Thank heaven then that times are changing. The revolution in communications technology has toppled big, knocking it off the pedestal it has occupied since the beginning of civilization. Now, big is bad.

As I see things, small has always been beautiful, but now it is more beautiful than ever.


On the Origin of Origins

Everything starts out small, everything. At the precise moment when the Big Bang created space, time, and all the matter and energy that exists, the universe itself was about the size of a dime.

Although we think our planet is very large, when we compare it to other objects in our solar system, it is really quite small. If you imagine the sun – at best, only a medium sized star — as the size of a bowling ball, then the earth is about the size of a peppercorn.

On this peppercorn of a planet, things that appear awesomely large to humans start out small. For example, a thin sheet of crystal water flowing down the side of a rock wall in the Peruvian Andes becomes the world’s largest river by volume and possibly the longest: the mighty Amazon. Long a source of speculation and argument, the exact site of the river’s origin is so obscure that it wasn’t established with certainly until the year 2000.

So why is it that human society is so enthralled by things that are big? Shouldn’t we revere the small, the mother of us all? No, we are obsessed with the big. It’s time to get over this.

The Prophet of Smallness

Thanks in part to the late E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, the issue of scale has steadily moved forward in the public dialogue. (Published in 1973, the book sold millions of copies and made its author world famous.)

In his book, Schumacher described how large centralized organizations, despite their vaunted economies of scale, tend to become mired in complexity and, hence, slow, cumbersome, and wasteful.  By contrast, decentralized small-scale enterprises — thrifty, versatile and agile — tend to conserve material and energy.

Soon after Small is Beautiful appeared Fritz Schumacher and I became friends and we collaborated until his death in 1977. Ever since I’ve been promoting the idea that scale is a primary consideration in all human affairs.

Environmental Protection in the Garden of Eden

(Let’s go on a history tour, starting at the very beginning when the central state was created to give humans the power to control and exploit natural systems on a large-sale . . . )

Treacherous snakes were not the only problem to confront Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Now, Eden was no myth but a real place – the Fertile Crescent located in the Tigris and Euphrates valley in ancient Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq). This valley was actually an ecological paradise, a land of abundant wildlife, of rivers teeming with fish, and of lush vegetation thanks to soil made exceedingly rich by the annual overflow of rivers swollen with the winter rains.

But trouble lurked in this paradise. The floods that delivered the silt that enriched the soil were also extremely violent and powerful, sometimes even forcing riverbeds to alter course, destroying everything in their wake: crops, settlements and much of the human population. (The legend of Noah’s Ark sprang from these floods.) 

Centralization & Its Discontents

(Our tour takes us up the present when— for the first time in history – the force of centralization is retreating before the force of decentralization.)

There’s a good case to be made for centralization, and I’m certainly willing to acknowledge the central state’s role in imposing and maintaining social order. Order comes first, it always has, it always will. It must come first. “Better injustice than disorder,” observed Goethe ruefully in his old age, having experienced the chaos of the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. But, down through history, the force of centralization has been used to despoil nature, to subjugate human populations, and to oppress and exploit local communities. Centralization has lost its mojo. And — wow! — that’s a really good thing!


(NOTE: Readers interested in the issue of scale should take a look at Green Entrepreneurship.)