Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

On the Perils of Thinking Too Big

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

On the Perils of Thinking Too Big

Article excerpt

The only pleasure in redecorating or moving house comes from stumbling across books that I'd almost forgotten I owned. One such treasure turned up a fortnight ago: Kirkpatrick Sale's 1980 classic, Human Scale, combines an erudite, impassioned and incisive critique of industrial systems with an elegant appeal for the human dimension in everything we build and make.

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This sense of human scale depends on well-proven measurements, physical perspectives and relationships that derive from, and so remain in harmony with, our bodies and the environments in which we dwell; what militates against it now is an industrial system in which destructive, out-of-scale enterprises proliferate, in pursuit of never-ending "growth".

Since it was first coined (by the US congressman Stewart McKinney) in the mid-1980s, we have all become increasingly familiar with the phrase "too big to fail". Long before that, however, Sale and others were pointing out that corporations had grown so large as to exist beyond all meaningful regulation, circumventing government control by "lobbying, tax breaks, bureaucratic interlocks, overseas plants, simple non-compliance and the threat of job losses", and that the only way out of this situation was a revolution in the scale of our thinking, restoring those measures that the urban designer Paul D Spreiregen defines as "related to people and their abilities to comprehend their surroundings" (or what some would call right/just dwelling).

This critique would make human scale the main principle in sustainability: a vision, as far as Sale is concerned, not only of appropriate technologies, but of participatory dwelling, in which creaturely being is prized, nothing is merely a resource and the environment is deemed beyond further compromise. Sale is quick to warn us against corporate-industrial appropriation of the phrase: "Yes, they have come up with this idea now called sustainable development'," he says, "but it is actually the most odious oxymoron going around. …

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