Smallness lauded -- at length; Human Scale, by Kirkpatrick Sale. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. $15.95 .
"Human Scale" is both provocative and annoying -- in part prophetic and in part, frankly, crackpot. In the center of the book (its most successful part), Kirkpatrick Sale argues convincingly and with encyclopedic detail against the myth that bigness is supremely efficient. He documents the hidden costs of bigness and points to the many innovative enterprises that suggest small is not only beautiful but often better.
These central chapters -- on education, medicine, farming, government, transportation -- provide a strong case that small- and medium-scale technology and institutions are pragmatically desirable.
But "Human Scale" is marred by considerable problems.
For one thing its language is careless, cliched, and at times bizarrely inventive, with Sale resorting to such ugly terms as "technofix" (belief in technological solutions to all problems) and "pryteneogenesis" (government as the cause of all problems) in order to explain some of his core ideas.
There is also a kind of exaggerated overkill in Sale's attempt to portray bigness per se, rather than, say, greed or lack of knowledge, as the cause for our difficulties.
The opening of the book suffers from a different kind of overkill. Sale's massive research yielded a wealth of detail that provides weight for his arguments at the center of the book. But initially, instead of focusing on one issue at a time, Sale presents heaps of fragmentary information on the vices of bigness. Besides making little sense to anyone who hasn't made a previous study of the subject, this leads to an ironic problem: it swells a book on "human scale" to over 500 pages, with too many of them lacking grace or a persuasive human voice at their center.
And unfortunately, like too many other radical critics of american society, Sale studiously avoids the kind of overall argument that might actually persuade the average citizen and move him to action.
Despite these flaws, Sale does provide some convincing, even compelling material. He combats the myths of bigness with his "beanstalk principle": "For every animal, object, institution, or system, there is an optimal limit beyond which it ought not to grow."
He sees in big government, for example, lack of coordination, bureaucratic insensitivity, and lack of voter control. Giant and impersonal work environments, he shows, often result in lower productivity. When conglomerates control markets, he argues, the result can be price fixing and lack of real competition. Big schools produce bad student-teacher ratios, he contends, and can intimidate children. And massive energy systems make failures or cutoffs nearly catastrophic, he warns.
Sale's best writing is found in his analysis of America's small businesses -- far larger in number, far more innovative, and far more generous in return on assets than the bigger and supposedly more efficient corporations.
He catalogs local citizens' movements toward decentralization of government, the advantages of personally controlled solar energy units, and the dollar benefits of prevention and self-help in medical care.
When discussing transportation, he avoids the usual jeremiads against gas guzzlers, focusing instead on a root cause of America's energy difficulties: the sprawl that separates producing and consuming areas, homes and jobs. sale points out that if work, recreation, and residences were in closer proximity, not only would we use less energy; we might also have more cultured places to live and cleaner and safer areas to work.
When Sales talks of "trends," however, he often begs questions and understimates the complexity of American society. His whole treatment is skewed by his sense that government can do no right, its opponents no wrong. From his point of view, people never have different interests; contention is always a simple matter of people against government -- never, as is often the case, of people against other people through the medium of government. Sale doesn't seem to realize that one man's citizen's lobby is another's "special interest group."
Sale's thesis often leads him to strange conclusions on more mundane matters. He is, for instance, opposed to big buildings like the Empire State and the World Trade Center. He provides rather complicated drawings and some "scientific" analyses to prove they are beyond "human scale" -- at least the range of our eyes and necks.
Sale rightly reminds us that the makers of the modern world, the scholars and inventors and scientists from the renaissance through the enlightenment, believed "man should be the measure of all things." Sometimes, however, as a poet once said, man's "reach should exceed his grasp." Surely life is a balance of both truths. Sale's strength is in drawing attention to one of them, his weakness underplaying the other.