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Ecology of scale

In 1973 E.F. Schumacher wrote a book called “Small is beautiful”. Ever since it has been an inspiration to many environmentalists. And with time passing the three worded title developed into an almost biblical truth with universal proportions. Schumacher and his followers blamed modern organisations for loosing connection with the human scale, leading to anonymous workers deprived of craftsmanship and work satisfaction. He predicted that large scale would lead to a focus on profit-only instead of on human needs, human relations, ethics, stewardship and environment.

Now, 2016 doesn’t show much of success for Schumacher’s pamphlet. The overall tendency is still, and even stronger, towards a larger scale of production and organisation in general. Globalisation is unstoppable; driven by old school economies of scale and new school technologies. It brought our societies wealth, health, better food, longer lives, less poverty, more mobility, more information and connection to a larger part of the world.…….. No signs of alienation. It seems our organisations have been able to go to a larger scale and meanwhile raise the quality of work and work-environment, freedom, autonomy/independency, work/private balance and output.

Impressive .. and it’s not all. Increased scale, like in urbanisation, has improved access of the world’s population to work, healthcare, education, cultural activities and has, to a large extent, prevented pollution of our environment and the disruption of our natural surroundings. Our fellow world-citizens did not leave their rural turf for no good reason. Just consider what our planet would have looked like if the urban part of the world population, which is now heading towards 60%, would still be at 1973s 35%? Under African circumstances it would have meant that nowadays an extra 300 million people in this continent would live with lower or no access to water, hygiene and care.

At its surface; urbanisation has its drawbacks and makes many of us look away from the essence that lies below: the urban scale-engine enabling our world to improve circumstances for an ever increasing population. Together of course with the merits that come from research, industrial production and new technologies; with each of them being fired by scale.

So now let’s go from global to personal. I buy my lettuce these days as greenhouse-grown, industrially pre-washed and dried, freshly packed portions that exactly fit my needs. Compared to growing and preparing my own lettuce, as I did in Schumacher’s time, this new standard saves vast volumes of water, energy, waste, nutrients, pesticides and, of course, sweat. When my hip needs to be replaced by a new titanium one I would prefer to go to a large regional or even national hospital, using the best equipment, with staff trained in treating patients as clients and with surgeons that have a long reference list op successful operations.

Still the preoccupation with small scale is present throughout our society. It seems like it’s the human mind itself that generates this persistence. It’s the same mindset that generates romantic conservatism, stemming from a fear for the unknown, a lack of oversight, the inability to deal with complexity and the unwillingness to be just a small part of a small wheel in a global clockwork.

The true paradigm might be that Schumacher's preoccupation is nothing else than the expression of the human need to be important in relation to its surroundings. If it can’t be done by growing as a person, it must be done by scaling down its habitat. In that sense small-scale pre-occupation stems from the same root as protectionism, nationalism and the likes.

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