Book Review: Human Scale Revisited
by Kirkpatrick Sale; a reaction to a our foremost Neo-Luddite philosopher
I read Kirkpatrick Sale's book Human Scale Revisited with some trepidation. Pop culture has conditioned me to side with the plucky rebels in most fights. They're the plucky heroes who fight against the empire. They're the heroes when fighting an illegal alien occupation. They're the heroes even when they're green or blue or turquoise in a planet far far away, which nobody can remember because it's slunk away from the cultural consciousness.
So when I picked up Sale's book about the joys of simple living and the curse of Bigness, and its pocket companion The Collapse of 2020, I wondered if I would end up going full Thoreau and throw out my computer and phone. I disagree with almost everything that a neo-Luddite believes, but the temptation is a strong one.
The circumstances surrounding the author and the book were arguably more interesting than the book itself. Sale had made a bet with with Kelly, of Wired fame, about whether we'll face a civilizational collapse 25 years hence in 2020. He bet that three things would happen - the global currency collapse, significant warfare between rich and poor, and environmental disasters of significant size.
At first when I had read of the bet I dismissed it out of hand. Who wouldn't? I had lived in 2020, and it didn't seem like I was in the middle of a civilizational collapse. I'm sure I would've noticed.
But it's still helpful to see how the luddite beliefs of Rebels Against the Future has evolved over a quarter century to a short and rather depressive conclusion.
It's not just the relentless pessimism that makes the book interesting. It's the fact that half of the extrapolations sound farfetched, but half of them sound exactly like the things that smart, educated people worry about today.
For instance, take South Bronx in New York City. It started its life as Morrisania, the private domain of the aristocratic Morris family, including Lewis Morris who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. As they developed their landholdings, German and Jewish immigrants came to the area. It was called the Jewish Borough, with almost half of its residents being Jewish in the 1930s.
Then came World War II, and post that the feverish work from the federal government, which changed the entire face of the neighbourhood. Literally. It went from two thirds white to its opposite in about a decade from 1950 to 1960. There was landlord abandonment and white flight, coinciding with economic changes, crime and all supposedly influenced by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway by Robert Moses.
It cut through the heart of Bronx and displaced thousands of residents. Some neighbourhoods were entirely destroyed. This meant that those who could leave, did leave, and created a bit of a negative spiral. The Civil Rights movement and the general racial tension didn't help matters much.
Property values naturally plummeted, which brought more flight, which reduced it further, which reduced economic opportunities, which brought in more crime, which reduced the property values. And so it went.
All this, Sale argues, helped create what's effectively a modern urban slum. As states grow, they swallow cities and villages. And the consolidation of power at the state level means there's little power left in local centres. This starts off the downward spiral, of trust erosion, of a lack of self-sufficiency and cooperation.
Never before have nations grown so large, never have corporations become so powerful, never have banks and brokerages been so influential and intrusive, never before have governments swollen to such unmanageable sizes, never have the systems, the factories, the technologies been so huge—hence, never before have the crises been so acute.
As a sort of Dunbar number for cities, Sale suggests a maximum size of 100,000 inhabitants. Ideally it should be smaller communities of around 5000, with your own "commune" equivalents of around 500, which can be seen in ape colonies also as the ideal maximum size for a group.
The core of most of the problems is that we have a government that is much too large. And he continues in fine invective, laying out his wrath against the seemingly expansive government, which also lays out his worldview in a nutshell.
Governments, whether meaning to or not, always seem to create more havoc as they grow larger, and the largest of them historically have tended to be the most destructive and bellicose. ... Indeed, so regularly does one encounter this phenomenon in the reading of history that I am emboldened to advance this as a full-blown maxim, what we may call the Law of Government Size: Economic and social misery increases in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation or state.
Why is this growth malign, in Sale's view? He relies on Lewis Mumford, the historian of cities, to help him out here.
Throughout history, he has shown, the consolidation of nations and the rise of governments have gone hand in hand with the development of slavery, the creation of empires, the division of citizens into classes, the recurrence of civil protests and disorders, the erection of useless monuments, the despoliation of the land, and the waging of larger and ever-larger wars.
Anyway, what other kind of problems, apart from the odd insane Expressway, do governments cause? Sale has a list. It's long.
For instance, when we used to have medieval guilds (or if you're in London, as you still have), the guilds had an oath of assistance towards each other. A sort of multilateral treaty that they'd take care of each other. But when the organisation was destroyed by the King in the interests of mercantilism, it destroyed that network. And what happened? The smaller craftsmen and workmen fell through the cracks. And once they fell through the cracks, the government stepped in with charity and offers of help, building and operating hospitals and a welfare state, slowly but surely increasing our reliance on the government. Thus goes the dystopian tale of "how the government made us dependent on them".
And if economic ruin and a creating a malign co-dependence wasn't enough, what else does the Big Government get up to? They wage wars.!
In fact, Sale argues that governments are much more likely to wage large wars when they're unified and large, rather than when they are tiny little duchies. There are sections that detail the multiple large scale conflicts that exists in the modern world (in 2015, 65 countries fighting wars and 638 conflicts between insurgents and separatists), which didn't happen in our bite-sized history.
It is an interesting fact that when the peoples of Germany were divided into dozens of little principalities and duchies and kingdoms and sovereign cities — from about the twelfth century to the nineteenth — they engaged in fewer wars than any other peoples of Europe. ... Not that there was total peace, nothing so otherworldly as that. But there were long stretches without war, and those (mostly internecine) wars that did erupt tended not to be so intense or so lasting as those on the rest of the continent. All that changed, of course, with the unification of Germany and the establishment of one government over 25 million people and 70,000 square miles.”
(I think Sale is confusing the frequency of wars with the cumulative damage of wars, but point taken!)
He also is concerned about a steady increase in dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, on government corruption and cronyism and wastage of extreme proportions.
And. that's not all. The fact that the governments are larger today means that they're actively the creator of several new social problems. They're more inefficient, autocratic, wasteful, corrupt and harmful. The idea being that this impersonal apparatus, like in Kafka's dream, causes irreparable harm on smaller polities of all shapes and sizes. Sale quotes an economist from Warne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (which sounds wholly unbiased though I haven't been able to track down the exact calculations) that the government regulations cost the economy $1.89 Trillion in a year!
This growth of government that then gives rise to a multitude of problems gets the catchy name of prytaneogenesis - where the seat of government creates an illness, akin to an illness caused by a doctor.
And if that's not enough, in a sane world:
It would not allow the production of 89 million polluting motor vehicles (2014) every year, or countrywide fracking that fouls drinking water and creates earthquakes, or metropolitan areas of 24 million people, or a cabinet department (Homeland Security) formed out of 22 agencies with 216,000 bureaucrats, or the manufacture of 387 cereal brands in America, or a Code of Federal Regulations that at 175,496 pages in 2014 was 117 times as big as the Bible, or a single World Trade Organization, governed by a secret court, regulating 90 percent of international trading.
Where else does the government's grubby hands cause disaster? It's in our corporations of course. Sale's argument is that in this mechanistic age that was kicked off by the Industrial Revolution we are increasingly getting detached from our humanity and actively screwing up the planet. His actual list of complaints is a little larger:
There is as well an imperiled social ecology, with a breakdown of family and community throughout the industrial world, an increasing dependence on the uncontrolled internet and “social” media, international cyberwarfare, unchecked and spreading slave and sex trades worldwide; in the United States, an erosion of religious commitment, contempt for law and law enforcement, increasing alienation and distrust of established institutions (throughout the end of the twentieth century and for all of the twenty-first, the General Social Survey of the University of Chicago determined that public confidence in all American institutions is below 30 percent), cultural ignorance and confusion, ethical and moral deterioration, a growth of suicide, mental illness, alcoholism, prescription and nonprescription drug addiction, alienation, poverty, domestic and racial violence, broken and divorced families, and unwed motherhood (from 4 percent to 40 since 1950, 93 percent of mothers under 20 in 2015), an inability to establish racial harmony or justice, and increasing rates of mass incarceration by an order of four since the 1970s.
This isn't just an isolated screed. Sale is arguing for a new world, one that's more tractable and less Tower of Babel compared to ours. Surely companies have economies of scale and marginal cost reductions at least, so just in this one teeny tiny instance bigger would be better right?
..in fact, as Barry A Stein, the leading scale economist, has shown, "studies of productivity, as measured by value of shipments per manufacturing employee, show that the highest efficiencies tend to occur not in the largest size plant, but in those of moderate size," that is, with fewer than forty-five people.
And he's not content with destroying the core of economics by killing the idea of economies of scale. Our love of bigness doesn't even extend to farming, where smaller farms yield more at a higher value and also enrich the locality. Where small farms have higher yields than large farms, and in any state the value of the crops grown on the average acre tends to be larger when the average farm is small.
And what's Sale's solution to these giant corporations and their hegemony? Well, it's having smaller companies. And have it be worker owned. It has this example which hit home. In eastern Pennsylvania, around 1973, one section of the mine established an autonomous work group. The workers were well trained, they'd set their own hours and they didn't have any bosses to tell them what to do.
And not only did the production quotas not decrease, accidents fell 5x, safety violations fell by 50%, and the miners were actually happy. Yup, somehow they managed to make happy miners an actual thing!
But along with the government causing problems of size and corporations also causing similar problems, we're not done. Did you know that 15k scientists from every country around the globe got together in 2017 and warned all of humanity that we're doomed? Or that there's only 5% of wild animals are left globally.
For instance, there are sections dedicated to the economic collapse. In an explanatory article, he lays out a slightly condensed thesis.
The ten hottest years on earth have been between 2005 and 2020, with 2019 the hottest ever recorded and 2020 very close. That means ice melting at a record rate, with significant loss at glaciers around the world, in Greenland, and at the poles, with ice going three times as fast in the last three years in the Antarctic as just ten years ago and the Arctic in what a scientist at the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University has called a “death spiral.” The U.N. climate panel, which puts the blame for global warming on “greenhouse gasses,” says these must cease by 2030, a goal that not a single major country is capable of meeting. Add to this the assault on the world’s oceans through acidification and overheating, including 60 per cent of the world’s fisheries fished to capacity and 33 per cent overfished, and the extinction of species at a rate that one scientific team in 2017 said offers “a dismal picture of the future of life,” and it may fairly be said that an ecological collapse is well underway if not yet quite complete.
But that's not all. The larger governmental institutions we've set up, like the WHO, brought DDT and the plague to Malaysia as a side effect of their zeal to eradicate malaria. This is where Sale reaches inwards and pulls our his own James Scott, and starts sounding eerily similar to Seeing Like A State. For instance, he goes through, in powerful detail, an example of peanut farming by the British ruining thousands of acres of land in Eastern Africa.
Sale explores how the income differences are vast and getting larger, how the middle class is shrinking, how there is ineradicable poverty around the globe and how there is an incredible amount of consumerism that's only making the richest richer.
Ok. we've gone a long way to establishing that we've dug ourselves into a nice hole, what's the solution? Sale has the answer.
So to save our planet and its civilizations we must move in an opposite direction, we must work toward the decentralization of institutions, the devolution of power, and the dismantling of all large-scale systems that have created or perpetuated the current crises. In their place, smaller more controllable, more efficient, more sensitive, people-sized units, rooted in local environments and guided by local citizens. That is the human-scale alternative.
Technology is like discovering magic in Middle Earth. The world as you know it changes once it's here. While it's calming to think of the (imaginary) idyllic days gone past, there's no reversal of the arrow of time.
The key issues he sees span all worlds - the economic order that is ripe for collapse, the political order is deteriorating in front of our eyes, and the environmental collapse which is becoming large scale and inevitable.
He also talks about our life being fundamentally different, in scale and scope, to what came before. Our cities are vast, our crises are different and nothing in the world can stem the tide of exponential growth. To Sale, exponential growth is cancer.
To put it simply, modern technology enables us to do the bad things we’re doing faster and more efficiently than ever before.
I am of course deeply troubled that those I know and love may not continue to exist, that many benevolent and righteous souls may vanish, and that much that was good in human achievement and art is gone forever. That is nothing but sad, yea heartbreaking, for any sentient human. But when I reflect upon what that species has done, what fundamental evil it has thrust upon the world to cause its civilization to collapse, I cannot but feel that it is ultimately for the betterment of Gaea that it should cease to thrust its pernicious presence upon the earth.
And naturally since environmental, political and economic catastrophe comes from our curse of Bigness, where the government and corporations have become all powerful, the only solution is its removal.
What's needed is massive decentralisation. Much like the kings of yore who put down their swords and armies and walked away, he's asking humanity to do the same. To get to smaller, more efficient, more controllable units of society where people can have rooted lives.
After all, if you want to survive stably for a long while, you gotta go small. It holds true for countries (San Marino, tiny and thriving since 301 AD), companies (Keiunkan, a Japanese hotel operating since 705 AD), organisations (I couldn't figure out if the Catholic Church counted) - the trend is clear. Athens, not Rome, that's the motto.
Sale also has a small aside where he explains why the English system is preferable to the metric system - because the English system of an inch (distance of the first joint of the thumb), a foot (length of forearm) or the yard (extended arm from fingers to nose) is a human one. The metric system relies on an impersonal calculation, not human at all. This despite the fact that not all of us have the same thumbs or forearms. It's not a major part of the book, but amongst all his recommendations this is the one that's likely to stay the longest with me. And now you.
To start with, there are a few major pros that you have to give the book - it's relentlessly optimistic (in a completely pessimistic tome otherwise mind you) that humans can live happily and sociably and lovingly in small communities. To me that vision is somewhat of a comfort blanket, because it's something I'd like to believe too. I wanted to be one of the Na'vi, like everyone else, happy and blue in my paradisiacal land.
But still. There are some clear sins that Sale commits in his books. Let's have a look - they fall into mostly four buckets - 1) his fear of exponential growth, 2) his misunderstandings of how networks actually form, 3) an inability to separate the worst of the modern world from the best of the modern world, and 4) a misunderstanding of where innovation and progress actually comes from.
So the first misunderstanding, his fear of exponentials. This is perplexing because instead it should be his friend. For example, there are stretches that wax lyrical about the Golden Age of Athens when we constructed the magnificent beauty of Parthenon. But would you really skip back 2500 years to give there? With no healthcare or Netflix or halfway decent epic poetry? When you read about Socrates taking hemlock it's a grand gesture. When you're standing in a smelly street corner wishing they had invented coffee, life's a tad different.
Everything bad he denotes has indeed come with exponentials. But so has everything good. For things that build on other things, which include population growth but also includes science and technology, exponentials are great. Even with things like population growth, which seemed uncontrollable and scary when I was growing up, the world seems far more capable of supporting everyone, with the more brains the merrier. And if he wants to throw out the Romer-style endogenous growth argument with the bathwater, that seems a tad harsh.
So if you did want to live an idyllic life today, you should in fact embrace everything that technology can give you, and look towards shaping the world as we know it. Our cities are different not just because of size, but because we now can have different cities than they could in the past.
This is the second misunderstanding. Even while the physical city might have a few million inhabitants, they're all inhabiting a virtual world filled with friends and family and colleagues from dozens of different locations. And that's a scale advantage. It's one that Geoffrey West talks about a lot in his research, how both good things (ideas, startups, wealth) and bad things (robberies, crashes, traffic jams) happen way more in cities than otherwise. I'd argue the answer is not to run away from the super-scaling that's going on but to understand it and make it your friend. That's what we've been trying to do anyway.
Also, Athens in its glory days wasn't small by choice. It was small by circumstance. Choosing not to grow is not a luxury our species has ever shown much proclivity for. In fact, the only real modern society that has embraced this contradiction might be Japan, but even there you can see robot battles and skyscrapers galore!
The third misunderstanding is more a bias issue. Sale focuses so much on all the ways in which our worship of the "large" has caused issues that he forgets that it's not a solely bad thing. To his credit he recognises the bias, but once recognised he puts it behind him, forgets about it and continues on anyway.
Would you rather live in a smaller town? Well, it depends. Do I still get cafes and bookshops and restaurants and movie theaters and takeout at 1am? Do I have the chance to bump into complete strangers who might change my life? As much as all TV series show idyllic lives in small town settings, they brush past the reasons why the main characters leave for cities in the end. It's for opportunity. Humans like to congregate where other humans are, because that's where the action is.
Because for Sale it's a fair bargain to give up our trappings of modernity in exchange for an idyllic small town life. And you know what, that's totally fair. The problem is that this isn't a one-man equilibrium yet. Most people won't. Or don't. Or can't.
If we did want to live in "human scale", we could do that through going back into Athens, when you could know everyone, or you could go to modern day Silicon Valley, where much the same ethos lives. The difference is that only one of those places has indoor plumbing.
And the fourth misunderstanding is an existential issue. There are reams of work trying to uncover the secrets of innovation and progress. There are prominent folks asking more people to take on the mantle and try to look at the problem. My small efforts included, this is an existential problem that humanity has to master to get to a Star Trek era, where we can have the life that Sale dreams of, just with matter replicators.
But to get there requires that we, as humanity, work together. We need genius clusters. We need better progress narratives that detail our technological ladders. We need more scientific funding, increased experimentation, more ideas, and better cross functional collaboration. That's unlikely to happen if we're not also living in a society where "Bigness" was helpful.
It's a collective action problem. The US spends $130Bn in Federal R&D a year. That amount can be spent because it's decided by a centralised entity. Split that out amongst a 1000 entities, and you have organisational and coordination chaos.
Ok, so he does make some mistakes. But that's fair enough. But as he's a neo-Luddite, he's probably also the best person to see the flaws in our existing system. And that he does with aplomb.
He explores some ideas on decentralisation that seems straight out of the Peter Thiel playbook. Cities should have more autonomy and funding. It needs to be directly responsive to its residents. (He would probably approve of the Miami Mayor and his direct Twitter game.)
This is very much in the Jeffersonian plan for smaller republics that came into vogue in the early 1800s. He called it "ward governments", small units of a few hundreds to a thousand, as separate units. It's also echoed by Thomas Paine, who remarked how there was a Pax Americana for a long few years in multiple US states post the American war when there also was no government. To him, this was no coincidence.
He also tries to look at the various city states, including Singapore, Monaco and The Vatican, to see if they resemble Ancient Greece, or at least Athens, in their cooperative spirit and strong network of communities. Turns out, kind of.
This part of the defense also sounds remarkably like the writing of Mises. A long litany of the inefficiencies of larger governments, who are essentially large, blind, cantankerous, wasteful entities, and the list of ways in which their ills are exacerbated by their size.
What Sale does in the book is to make a pretty strong case of a world where we could be living. One that reduces the sense of alienation we feel and increase the sense of connection.
It's a utilitarian calculus. If we're harming the world this much, and ourselves too, then perhaps the progress we're getting is not worth it. In Tyler Cowen's Stubborn Attachments he talks about the optimal belief in "sustained economic growth" as what humanity's north star should be. This would be a case where he will even get a technological pessimist to agree. Just that they will have slightly different definitions of the world "sustained".
The ultimate goal that Sale has, as is evident from the title, is to push the theory that we should live in a world that is comprehensible to humans. Buildings at human scale, societies at human scale and whole economies at human scale. You can almost see his frustration at me reading this impersonally on a Kindle.
One of the benefits he touts, accurately, is that a sense of belonging is great for humans. It's why religion is good for us. The book is a paean to tell us all to pitch in to society!
Which conveniently ignores the fact that we do! Volunteerism is pretty high! 30% of adults volunteered through an organisation in 2019. That's not including all the people who are active in communities, join thousands of clubs which now, thanks to technology, they can.
How will tiny city states defend themselves against avaricious states?
Avaricious states fight far more than tiny city states, so if everyone's in a tiny city state then there would be less wars, period.
Okay, but that doesn't feel like much of a Nash equilibrium does it? After all, the age of city states in days past also say Gengis Khan and Alexander.
Yes, but those are isolated examples from a 2000 year old history. Instead the small duchies can just band together with a mutual defense treaty and create a deterrent.
Right. What about the fact that you need large states to deal with pollution or healthcare?
We don't need the federal govt to take those on! We can deal with that perfectly at the city state level. In fact, because of metis it'll be faster and better.
All that said, I do have a soft spot for both the books. Playing Cassandra is a hard job. Playing Cassandra when half your predictions come true is even harder!
And in many ways I do believe in Sale's vision. Of smaller, livable communities, of parks and woods and animals, of the feeling of communal belonging. I'd like that.
Not to mention the fact that his annoyance that the world is no longer easily tractable is very widely shared! Our world doesn't just scoff at wannabe polymaths, it ensures that confusion around life is a core condition. We are so steeped in complex interrelationships that this is not a choice we're given.
However, there's also a false dichotomy at the heart of the narrative. Some of the strongest technologists of the time argue for more decentralisation and community based living.
As technology evolves, the most profound and destabilizing change is likely to be the transition from centralized internet services to decentralized ones.
[India through cryto] defends national security by preventing deplatforming, deters fraud via on-chain accounting, and offers a decentralized alternative to a new Cold War.
While the crypto-speak is the current zeitgeist, the feelings have been a long time coming. You might recall Peter Thiel tried to do seasteading to set up a marine nation once upon a time not that long ago.
The natural endpoint for libertarians is to voice support for increased decentralisation and more localised governance.
Yet, in any instance, technological rise and economic growth do have externalities. In fact, wrangling those externalities is kind of what a large part of the liberal order is working on now. Granted they're not particularly fast, but that's the battle that's worth fighting.
The funny thing is that this book, so clearly dystopian, was about a hair's breadth away from being utopian. With minor changes (perhaps the title) we could've had a book that talked about where we wanted to get to, and talked about how the arc of economic history has made living in smaller communities arguably more possible today.
The fact that life seemed more idyllic in Athens circa 500 BC tells us about what we're missing, and once you finish snorting, about what the next wave of decentralisation is likely to bring us.
More interestingly, the question that it raises is an important one. What is the right type of ecosystem we should aim to design for ourselves as humans?
This has profound implications in how we think about our world. Paraphrasing Douglas Adams, using feng shui to create a space that makes a dragon happy might also make us, another organic lifeform, happy, and the fact that dragons don't exist doesn't matter one whit to the system being devised.
Similarly, the fact that we're unhappy in several ways as detailed above might result from our, dare I say, alienation from the modern world. One of the implications of the fact that the world has gotten larger is that our tools to wrangle it to become smaller haven't worked.
And this problem that was created by technology can only be solved by technology. After the world got big when everyone schlepped off to four corners, we discovered magic flying machines to help travel faster. And then we discovered even more magical talking rectangles that almost eliminates distance altogether, at least insofar as connection is concerned.
We do live in digital villages today. The fact that they're not physically contiguous means that not all of our needs gets taken care of in the same fashion that Sale imagines. It's not the same as living in a village in the Cotswolds. But it's still pretty amazing!
One of the problems with the modern zeitgeist is that it's not easy to read dissenting voices at the base level of the system. We don't have enough Marxists tearing at the fabric of our societal beliefs, and keeping us honest. Which is why reading Sale's work was invigorating. It left me far more hopeful about our future than it had any right to do. I think you should share in the enjoyment.