The Decentralist

A look back at the idea that small is beautiful


Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for the Decentralist Future, by Kirkpatrick Sale, Chelsea Green, 359 pages, $24.95

Chelsea Green

Thirty-seven years ago, Kirkpatrick Sale set out to write a comprehensive compendium of the evils of things pushed far beyond their natural "scale," coupled with pungent arguments for why these baneful developments are destructively anti-human. The result, Human Scale, weighed in at a hefty-scaled 523 pages. The present work, Human Scale Revisited, is a slimmed down and updated reissue, adding a plethora of examples of things that Sale believes have run far beyond our ability to comprehend, cope, and pay for.

Sale is an independent journalist whose ideological proclivities are difficult to characterize. Depending on the passage, he can appear as a Bill McKibben environmentalist, a Peter Kropotkin anarchist, a Wendell Berry communitarian, an Albert Jay Nock libertarian, and, now and then, a crypto-authoritarian. His other volumes range from SDS, the definitive history of Students for a Democratic Society, to Rebels Against the Future, a defense of the Luddite anti-industrial movement in England. His most recent cause has been to put forth the case for secession ("harmony through division") as a way to protect human communities whose values are threatened by rampaging bigness.

The heart of Human Scale, then and now, is Sale's judgment that "to save our planet and its civilizations…we must work toward a decentralization of institutions, the devolution of power, and the dismantling of all large scale systems that have created or perpetuated the current crisis. 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."

Sale builds his case on what he calls the Beanstalk Principle: "For every animal, object, institution, or system, there is an optimal limit beyond which it ought not to grow." He ransacks history and human experience for supportive examples, many of them compelling. Among the thinkers he favorably cites are Aristotle, Lewis Mumford, Arnold Toynbee, Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Putnam, Thomas Jefferson, and Sale's mentor, the late Austrian economist Leopold Kohr.

Of particular interest is Sale's no-holds-barred attack on governments grown too big, too costly, too corrupt, too invasive, and too prytanogenic—a Sale-coined Greek neologism meaning "damage caused by the state."

"Guided by a liberal mania that government is able to solve all problems," he writes, "Washington's reach extends into virtually every nook of the society; where it does not control, it influences, where it does not dictate by virtue of law, it persuades by reason of power.…Beyond a modest size a government cannot be expected to perform optimally, and the larger it gets the more likely it is that it will be increasingly inefficient, autocratic, wasteful, corrupt and harmful."

What is remarkable about this broadside is that Sale has been since college a man of the left. He has published in Mother Jones and The Nation (and also The American Conservative). But unlike the followers of, say, Bernie Sanders, to whom government in control is ever the solution, Sale is clear-eyed about what that would mean and wants no part of it.

Indeed, he is even moved to observe that "the ascendancy and triumph of Donald Trump in the 2016 election was only the most recent demonstration of the antipathy to government that runs deep in America beyond the reach of all the do-gooding boosters and the high-pressure media to alter or cure."

Big Socialism sucks, but Sale is equally scornful of Big Capitalism. As it has developed in practice, he argues, capitalism has put the advanced industrial societies into mortal peril through its roughshod exploitation and waste of resources, its "ecocide," its social burdens, its social irresponsibility, its instability, and its overgrowth. His alternative to global capitalism consists of human-scale economic units, self-definition of jobs, self-scheduling of time, small group work based on consensus and cooperation, and autarkic self-sufficiency. He praises family farms, communal agriculture, worker-run cooperatives, kibbutzim, and, in a final Luddite supernova, "abandoning as unnecessary and undesirable almost everything manufactured at the factory level anywhere and anyhow."

Not surprisingly for a lifelong partisan of the left, Sale has little to say about the evils produced by Big Labor. He does, however, keep faith with his thesis by quoting the economist Mancur Olson caustically criticizing union coercion. When describing a workplace self-management experiment at the Rushton coal mine in Pennsylvania, he seems saddened that the United Mine Workers killed it off for its own petty reasons.

Although he notes approvingly the merits of "telework" and "telemedicine" for the decentralist life, Sale provides little discussion of the role of the internet, social media, and other digital technologies (including currencies) that permit the interaction of people beyond normal face-to-face settings. Here the author's Luddite tendencies do not serve him well.

Possibly most troubling is Sale's unfamiliarity with science. He is relentlessly scornful of nuclear energy, which he associates with huge, dangerous, capital-consuming edifices kept afloat by subsidies. There is something to be said for that point of view, but there are already on the horizon new, modular-built, economical, proliferation-proof, waste-consuming, and walkaway-safe Generation IV nuclear plantsnotably the liquid fluoride thorium reactorwhich would have displaced the light-water dinosaurs 30 years ago had the dinosaur lobby not persuaded the federal government to stop them in their tracks.

Sale is also dead set against petroleum fracking, despite what most would see as its obvious economic benefits to society. His ultimate cure-all for the energy needs of a human-scale society is the sun. In 1980 he gave much space to solar thermal applications, since solar photoelectric was then far from cost-effective for most uses. Today his enthusiasm for solar has reached greater heights. Solar, he argues, is small-scale, decentralized, flexible, economical, safe, and communitarian, and the fuel is free. Sale naturally favors communal solar heating and microgrids with electricity storage. That obliquely recognizes that solar only works when the sun shines, but it leaves open the question of locally created electricity storage technology.

You have to wonder how a committed decentralist dedicated to small-unit self-sufficiency can view as the energy solution photovoltaic panels made of rare earth metals mined and processed in China, shipped across the Pacific, trucked to the local solar outlet, and controlled by electronic systems, a concept far beyond the imagination of even our mid-20th century forebears.

Finally, Sale's paean to the small, harmonious, face-to-face democratic community of friendship and shared values needs a hard look in light of too many small communities' discrimination, intolerance, and cruelty against the "different."

Sale acknowledges witch burning and lynch mobbery as regrettable aberrations, but he argues that communal responsibility, a convergence of values, the pain of ostracism, and ultimately the "secession, migration and relocation" of the minority to start over somewhere else are useful correctives to repressive tendencies in the small communities of the future. Well, yes, this worked, more or less, for the Umayyads, Mormons, Puritans, Tuscarora, and Zionists, to name a few, but it does require finding an accessible destination more congenial than the place departed from.

What will deter these small communities from oppressing others? That's the central question in G.K. Chesterton's wonderful little novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill. His sad conclusion was: probably nothing. Perhaps the best answer was Kohr's: Conflicts between small principalities will always recur, but they won't do a lot of damagecertainly far less than conflicts between megastates and their war machines.

Sale's historical showcase is the little town of Lucca. For 800 years, "surviving ups and downs and feasts and famines, it was one of the most prosperous places on the entire Italian peninsula, not to mention the entire European continent." That came to an end with Napoleonic imperialism, but its experience produced "Lucca's Law": "Territories will be richer when small and self-sufficient than when large and dependent." The other historical models he invokes include New England and Swiss canton town meetings, Jefferson's proposed (but never activated) ward republics, tiny nations like Liechtenstein and San Marino, and the more exotic (but less convincing) examples provided by the Dinka, Basarwa, Tiv, and Lugbara.

Back in 1980 I hoped Human Scale might attract a segment of the left, drawing them away from socialism and sociopathy. I was disappointed. Although I continue to believe millions of Americans favor a human-scale future at least in principle, I see no evidence of a coherent movement.

But let's give Sale his credit. He has defined an organizing principle for a world he believes would be more conducive to human happiness, prosperity, and freedom, and he has marshaled every conceivable argument for why this posited world is better than a globalized empire of bigness. Sale says this book is not a blueprint. It may, however, inspire some people, somewhere, under some conditions, to seize upon its insights and use them to improve their lives.

NEXT: The Commission on Presidential Debate's 15 Percent Polling Criterion Must Go, Argues Lawsuit from Gary Johnson

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  1. …we must work toward a decentralization of institutions, the devolution of power, and the dismantling of all large scale systems that have created or perpetuated the current crisis. In their place, smaller more controllable, more efficient, more sensitive, people-sized units, rooted in local environments and guided by local citizens.

    Is this person seriously claiming that, for instance, decision makers in Washington D.C. couldn’t possibly know the wants and needs of 350 million individuals?

  2. dismantling of all large scale systems

    Let’s start with corporate farming. What’s a few hundred-million starved third-worlders when the goal is smallness?

    1. Any TBTF corporation existing in a state of profit due to government machinations may well be accomplishing something, but at a measurable efficiency loss. Telcomms have laid many miles of cable, and yet the deliberate suppression of competition means Americans still get shitty service and choices/innovations ranging from poor to none.

      The techniques of the medallion-owning Yellow Cabs, the Marriots and the Monsantos can be used, and improved upon, by smaller companies. Absent market interference, companies will grow as big as they can personally sustain, and if that eventual size is massive and still flexible enough to be competitive, responsive to their customer base, then wonderful.

      Yes, massive corporations have produced a lot of grain and plastic widgets. This is not proof a bunch of non-Leviathan-endorsed smaller companies will never be able to similarly thrive without the proper cronyism and campaign contributions that we all know signals true achievement and ability.

      There’s a valid point buried in your post. Not that smaller companies can’t accomplish the same as Tyson and ConAgra but rather, where the flaming fuck would we find that many Americans whose life dream is growing thirty acres of winter wheat?

      This is still not a compelling argument for massive companies that cannot be sustained without government support. The poor of the world don’t need more price-supported, subsidized free grain – nothing about that even makes sense.

      1. Great comment

  3. Here’s a Bill McKibbon editorial in today’s NY Times.

    “But there’s an extra dimension to the environmental damage. What Mr. Trump is trying to do to the planet’s climate will play out over geologic time as well. In fact, it’s time itself that he’s stealing from us.

    What I mean is, we have only a short window to deal with the climate crisis or else we forever lose the chance to thwart truly catastrophic heating.”

    “Tax cuts and executive orders can easily be reversed. The effects of climate change policy cannot.”


    1. Wow, he can single-handedly affect the planet’s climate? He truly is the most powerful man alive. What an insane religion, this climate change catastrophism.

    2. To the planet, a short window is a few thousand years. I thought there was a two term limit.

  4. The ultimate devolution of decentralized power is individuals, spontaneously orgznizing as they want, and he seems to shy away every time he gets near that edge. Worker-this, work-that, those are ok, with the clear implication that they must be worker-led. You can practically smell the proletariat purity test underneath. Obviously he’s can’t comprehend that once workers become authoritarian leaders, they are no longer workers, and his fear of factories shows he hasn’t a clue on how capitalism arose out of necessity. How does he think a modern chip fab plant could be built and run without billions in investment? Does he truly envision a world of artisanal cars, container ships, and jumbo jets, using artisanal highays, railroads, harbors, and airports?

    1. Given how much government intervention there is in the economy and the amount of cronyism there is, it’s hard to know how large companies would become in a free(er) market society. Obviously, there are economies of scale, but there are also diseconomies of scale that the government (either directly or indirectly) plays a large role in creating. Much would clearly depend on the nature of intellectual property, zoning, land tenureship (e.g., is there some sort of georgist land value tax/fee or are there higher occupancy-and-use standards determining ownership?), and licensing laws at play within a society/locale. I think that’s the attractive part about decentralization, though. Theoretically, it should give individuals a greater degree of control over their own lives and give them the space to cooperate with like-minded individuals in order to create the kind of communities they want to live in.

    2. I could handcraft a cpu in my basement, on a budget. It’d only take ten thousand years per chip. Been working on my first boule for about 6 years now, expect it to finish crystalizing sometime around 5220AD. Solar powered crucible! I should have the litho setup ready by then.

      Customers can form a line to the left.

    3. Sale’s world doesn’t need container ships or jumbo jets, because there won’t be a great volume of goods being shipped a long way, nor many people traveling long distances on business. AFAIK he still likes bioregionalism, an excuse for small-is-beautiful he latched onto when that came out.

      & actually Sale does not dwell on the orgniz’n of society around work. Unless he’s changed, he thinks there’s already too much work qua work.

  5. OT: Please, God, Stop Chelsea Clinton from Whatever She Is Doing

    What comes across with Chelsea, for lack of a gentler word, is self-regard of an unusual intensity. And the effect is stronger on paper. Unkind as it is to say, reading anything by Chelsea Clinton?tweets, interviews, books?is best compared to taking in spoonfuls of plain oatmeal that, periodically, conceal a toenail clipping.

    It’s a fun essay.

    1. Nevertheless, she existed.

    2. It is also surprisingly neutral. And it has one astounding Chelsea tweet:Words without action are … meaningless. Words with inaction are … just words. Words with opposite action is … hypocrisy.It’s self-unawareness pretty much sums up the safe-space brigade these days.

  6. John Law 1, 70’s Terrorists…well, they usually win: Judith Clark, Getaway Driver in Deadly Brink’sHeist, Is Denied Parole

    Judith Clark, who as a young woman was part of a violent left-wing movement and participated in a fatal botched robbery of a Brink’s armored car in 1981 in Rockland County, N.Y., was denied parole on Friday despite the support of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who ordered her sentence commuted late last year.

    1. I don’t see Cuomo’s action as politically risky. This way he got to have his cake & eat it too.

  7. Destroying civilization does not require a population explosion– a dull thud will do.

    What a few billion created in one century on a planet still half-wild, a few tens of billions may transform or destroy by their sheer numbers- climate included.

    1. What’s wrong with your mind that you think what you wrote is intelligible?

      1. Bravo. Well said.

  8. The best argument for decentralization is that:

    In a small-scale system, the human can be an individual. In a large-scale system, there can be no such thing as an individual. We are merely biological beings with an amygdala and limbic system that can be manipulated once we acquired the knowledge to do so. Every large system no matter how it is organized will ultimately be Hegelian in its view of whether/how individuals even exist except as instruments of the whole.

    Doesn’t mean small systems will actually work better. But it’s a lot easier to prevent a small system from being dickwads to some individuals than it is to convince a large system that individuals exist.

    1. No one mentioned the title of the book is an architectural idea for the size of buildings.

  9. This book sounds like it has the potential to have actually subtracted from human knowledge. It is one thing to have written a book 37 years ago that did not understand economies of scale, but to do so now, after the field of economics has been changed completely by a more complete understanding of economies to scale, is reprehensible.

    Knowledge production has economies of scale. An idea takes effort to discover, but can then be transmitted at very low cost. The existence of cities, with their density of people, is due to economies of scope and of scale. One cannot explain why European wines and cars are sold in north America, while north American wines and cares are also sold in Europe without economies of scale and a taste for variety.

  10. Sale’s mentor, the late Austrian economist Leopold Kohr.

    That’s a surprise. Sale used to just claim to be popularizing the work of E.F. Schumacher. But I stopped listening to Sale on WBAI decades ago (I’m sure his program went off long ago too), so maybe he’s branched out a lot since I last paid att’n to him.

  11. Somewhere I read that the largest group of people what can work with each other over time is 14. That is pretty well proven by the number of sects of the Christian church here in America. Seriously what would happen if there were no government but instead mutually agreed laws to live by. I always here if there is no government what roads. First there is no car or motorcycle that causes any damage to roads. It is big overloaded trucks yet corporate lobbyists get you to maintain them. And it go on and on.

  12. RE: The Decentralist

    This is preposterous.
    Centralized governments have shown throughout history the ruling elites know how to run a country and a planned economy to the benefit of the masses many times over.
    Talk about revisionist history!

  13. Bill McKibben == Nut Case

  14. What is remarkable about this broadside is that Sale has been since college a man of the left.

    No, there is really nothing remarkable about it. Communism and socialism hope for a decentralized future. Fascists loved small businesses and ecological, sustainable living. Sale still sounds like the typical leftists: a mix of wishful thinking and “the beatings are going to continue until morale improves”.

  15. Back in 1980 I hoped Human Scale might attract a segment of the left, drawing them away from socialism and sociopathy. I was disappointed. Although I continue to believe millions of Americans favor a human-scale future at least in principle, I see no evidence of a coherent movement.


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