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.