The so important question of SCALE

Rick and Scott
Rick and Scott-motheroak behind

It seems difficult to me to express in words how important scale is to the viability of human existence on this planet, or, i should say, on a little piece of it. The questions themselves are simple: how big? how small? how many? how much? how often? how fast? how far? at what cost? and what powers it?How we enact responses to these questions however, is not so simple– this is where causes and effects have confounded us. Our perception (most of us anyhow)and understanding of scale, i would argue, have been massively skewed and scrambled by the pervasive yet obscured subsidy of cheap & easy energy(and externalized costs), and our unconsciousness of how the world works, as well as our seeming disempowerment when it comes to design.

Of course, we’ve now gotten use to living primarily in the world of human artifice, where how the ecological world works has been for sometime now  subject to the(truly dumbed down) attitude of “don’t know- don’t care.” And the referent of those words is precisely cause and/or effect– which IS how the world works, though so often those are hidden from us–as in we can’t see them. Take for example landfills, or oil spills, or factory scale slaughterhouses, or the corpses of children killed by toxins and/or war. Pretty much all of us participate in the causative chains of those events– and do we get to see(or smell or hear) the results? Would that change anything, perhaps? Understanding  some of these effects might require more abstract analysis than our education systems have prepared us for, or maybe we just don’t want to understand.

Take for example a simple throw-away cup, or a banana, or a nice hot(fossil fired) bath–you name it. At the immediate level of our own experience, we simply desire to use or eat or have one–seems harmless enough, no? This level we comprehend all too well. But to begin to understand the ecological impact or effect of that desire, we would have to do a little math, particularly multiplication–because you are merely one of hundreds of millions enacting that same desire(and able to do so)– which is precisely where the scale effect bloodies the planet. So if we look deeply we can begin to see–the clearcuts leading to our throw-away cup, the chemicalized plantations and gigantic ships hauling our  bananas, or our oil/coal CO2 emissions to heat hot water. And it doesn’t stop there– we should also see the cast of oil tanker trucks coming our way from gigantic refineries(or mountains destroyed for coal)–themselves the result of massive metals mining etc etc, and then further back in the sequence to the giant drilling rigs themselves, as well as the exploration ships prior to them–this is all a chain of causes and effects, and the aggregate effects are obviously of such a scale as to have already seriously imperiled the beauty and integrity of our living planet, our mother the earth, and this without mentioning the socio-political effects, such as displaced(or murdered) country people.

Some happier news is that in permaculture thinking/design scale is highly important, and human scale the most appropriate. And what is human scale? Well, i tend to see it in relation to various referents– our body size primarily, and what it can handle without a lot of mechanization. Then the volume and mass of materials and how they get gathered and moved; whether our object can be affected and changed by the work of hands and legs and the skilled use of small tools, with little if any use of huge machines and all they entail. Most artifacts of beauty are of human scale, no? Does this mean all big technology gets rejected? Of course not– especially if we are using it in beneficial  ways, such as heavy equipment to dig reasonably sized foundations or ponds, or make berms or other earthworks–flexibility is usually a sign of intelligence, it seems to me. It seems stupid to inflexibly reject all such technology since it is already existent(the damage is done), and there is much important work to do, and few hands to do it, and we are a bit late in getting started.

In my own gardens, cultivated with a single horse, i took to keeping them narrow enough so that i could toss rocks out to the edges from the middle–seemed human scale to me then, and still does. A horse is definitely human scale–that’s why  people have always liked them so much(among other reasons), and the size of the implements scale in between say, a hoe and a tractor. And though i like my little tractor(when i need it), the scale of “industry” it took to manufacture it is probably beyond what can be sustained in the very low (if at all) fossil energy future of say, 30 to 50 years from now. who knows? you might ask, but if you do the math on those tires–well, maybe you get the picture by now.

Livestock will be considered on other pages, but for the moment let us just look at the scale of keeping some laying hens. in the current factory model of eggs for the masses, the scale is truly gigantic: mega barrels of oil to underpin and power all the mega equipment and fertilizers and grain production and combines and anti-biotics and trees for the cartons and trucks and warehouses and more trucks and refrigerators and grocery stores,  just to get us our little dozen of eggs a week. Totally unsustainable–it won’t last much longer folks–a decade at most, i’d wager. but a few–say eight hens and a rooster in the yard and orchard? quite doable if you  understand the birds’ needs and arrange to get them met over the duration. it will take some learning, but look at the yeilds: the freshest, highest quality eggs around(tho not as many as if they’re grain fed), meat for the table without refrigeration, nutrient rich manure, feathers if ya need em, insect control, garden waste digestors, some entertainment, and the list goes on. Plus they reproduce themselves yearly. and the scale is such that you can build their shelter, and indeed deal with the whole situation–care and feeding that is, without oil or big machines. That’s simply a scale alteration.

Generally and historically, in cultures where we see it the most,  the penchant for bigness was supported by slavery, and today oil(and blood for oil) has allowed most of us(at least white folks) to have the equivalent of at least many dozens of

less than 1 acre here
less than 1 acre here

slaves each(try pushing your car to the grocery store–or rowing that banana ship). That,  you might agree,  is clearly not an example of each of us taking an ethical responsibility for our own existence, which includes the effects of that existence on the earth and people, yes? So those are some of the reasons why, in ecological/ permaculture design, a smaller scale is preferred. Or you might look at it this way: it’s easier to keep a small house clean and warm, quicker to catch(or milk) two(or one) cows(or goats) than ten, takes many times less energy to grow and harvest and store a garden of roots than to continually drive to a store, and if you walk where you need to go, you don’t need any oil at all. AD


To read and study re scale(for starters):

“Small Is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher