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16 January 2014updated 03 Aug 2021 2:34pm

Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale is essential reading for the modern age of corporate bulk

We are now familiar with the phrase “too big to fail”, but Kirkpatrick Sale’s 1980 tract on the perils of thinking too big provides a much deeper view of institutional sustainability.

By John Burnside

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.

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. Development of the kind that is meant in industrial civilisation is destructive of communities, people’s lands, and eventually livelihoods. Sustainable development is a convenient industrial myth.”

This practice of co-option by the industrial system is in many ways our biggest stumbling block. Sale foresaw how readily some of us would compromise with consumer capitalism, as long as it rebranded itself as “green”. In Human Scale, he notes that even renewable energy, when it takes the form of “power towers, solar ‘farms’, gigantic wind machines”, can become just another element of the destructive industrial paradigm: “All attempts to take a basically decentralised form of energy, centralise it with some large machine, convert it into electricity, transmit it back to decentralised users . . . will inevitably prove as sensible as killing a fly with a cannon.”

Contemporary greens would do well to heed this point. No matter how clean or how low-impact a technology may seem in principle, once it is blown out of a scale appropriate to people and their understanding of their surroundings, it becomes part of the industrial system and just another part of the problem – and because corporations and big landowners derive huge subsidies from out-of-scale projects, they are further empowered to damage and expropriate the soil, seas and perspectives on which right dwelling depends. This model of industrial-scale appropriation has become a commonplace in farming, workplace relations, urban design, all aspects of security, education – the list goes on.

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That Sale foresaw it all so clearly as far back as 1980 makes Human Scale an essential book for our own times.

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