Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chapter 5: A Question of Size

Before beginning to read this chapter, judging by the title, I thought here Schumacher will give us the crux of his argument as to why "small is beautiful." And indeed I think he at least attempts to lay it down general. Whether he is successful, I was not impressed.

Schumacher gets away from talking about the danger of abusing natural resources and wants to speak on the question of size generally. However, I would think that our "idolatry of giantism" is a problem because of how the largeness tends to abuse natural resources and fails to recognize them as capital. So, I was confused as to why this point had suddenly dropped from discussion.

He makes his claim by attempting to focus on what is needed, namely, at least freedom and order, and the need to "discriminate, to get things sorted out." Indeed. This sorting out involves the necessity of noticing how there is not one solution to the problem. It is not smallness in every case, nor is it largeness -- giantism. I thought: how honest of him to include the relativity factor of the situation, but I don't think it helps his argument. If we suffer from a problem of giantism, which I agree with him that we do, perhaps it is better rhetoric not to make this explicit and only push the virtues of smallness.

And his primary schema runs: giantism leads to changes in technology (transport and communication), which leads to "footlooseness" which leads to lack of structure. Is this true, in all cases? I had a problem with understanding why being "footloose" was such a problem. It may tend toward instability, but can't see why it has to. Or even why these changes in technology should even lead to footlooseness. In fact, his example with the United States population and geography is grossly exaggerated: there are three megalopolis', one between Boston and Washington; around Chicago; and between San Francisco and San Diego. This is true, but is what he says next: "and the rest of the country being left practically empty; deserted provincial towns, and the land cultivated with vast tractors, combine harvesters, and immense amounts of chemicals." Wow! Empty?! Deserted?! Tractors and combines?! Either the man hasn't been to the United States, or he is exaggerating to make his point.

Generally, I agree with Schmacher's conclusions that we have an idolatry of giantism and that we need to reclaim the beauty of the small. However, I'm not too impressed with how he attempted to show this in this chapter. Like I said, he argument may have been more corroborated if he continued to on the discussion of the depletion of natural resources.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Personally, I thought this chapter was quite telling, even if not satisfying in all of its arguments.

What especially stood out to me was the following statement:

"What I wish to emphasize is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer. For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive. Yet people find it most difficult to keep two seemingly opposite necessities of truth in their minds at the same time. They always tend to clamour for a final solution, as if in actual life there could ever be a final solution other than death. For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance." (p. 48)

Here we discover Schumacher's total vision. He's not here to criticize "big" in all of its manifestations, but rather its extreme forms, such as what he sees to be the "almost universal idolatry of giantism" in his time. Schumacher quite openly admits, "If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction" (p. 48).

Eric, I have to disagree with your rhetorical point about the above statements, suggesting that it would have been better for Schumacher not to mention them and instead focus solely on the "values of smallness." Honestly, despite contextualizing his thought here, I still think the general rhetorical push of the book has clearly been the value of smallness. And personally, this chapter eased one my own greatest concerns about Schumacher, for up until this point I could not tell to what extent he was going affirm smallness, part of me fearing that he might take an extreme himself with the idol of "smallness." Thankfully, this isn’t the case.

As for your point about the limits of his argument and the way he understands metropolitan areas in our country, I think you are generally correct. From my own understanding of the issues, I believe he would have been better off focusing on the problem of "big" when it becomes bureaucratic. He seems to admit this in regards to large corporations at the beginning of the chapter, pointing out how even some of them had recognized small to be better in some respects and consequently divided their businesses up in varying degrees (see p.47). Yet does this not happen in cities too! ? (It would be interesting to consider the value of the principle of subsidiarity in this regard.)

Lastly, I agree with your lament that Schumacher for all intensive purposes dropped discussion of resources (though I think it is implied that the "enormous problems" created by big cities deal with wasting resources), even if he does raise important questions about "human degradation" as a result of "giantism." After all, "economics as if people mattered" must necessarily involve "economics as if nature mattered," for we are part of the Earth ourselves (as Schumacher even said back in chapter 1). Hopefully this issue will be better resolved in the second part of the book, titled "Resources."

Thanks for your thoughts!