A couple of thoughts collided at the Schumacher centenary research day I attended yesterday (the festival goes on all this weekend in Bristol). This collision, looking at the various tactics of the sustainability/ethical trade movements through the concept of ‘human-scale’ systems, is about the challenge of engaging with collective, aggregated effects on the individual, personal level.
So here’s one of the main challenges posed by modern society: that of the dislocation, through a step-change in societal scale and complexity, of our actions from their effects. Stuff’s got big and all connected and our actions have global ripples which we cannot hope to grasp. Our economic system is lost in financial packages and algorithms, our products are compiled in several different locations across the world by people we would not be able to talk to, our fossil fuel and general resource exploitation subtly and steadily destroys gigantic systems we depend on. We rely on a whole panoply of intermediaries to do a whole load of things we know zilch about, and we interact with them on a mostly incredibly simple basis – that of the consumer, in a straight swap of anonymous cash for historyless product.
Schumacher uses the concept of ‘appropriate scale’, and today the term ‘human scale’ was promoted, as a good thing for things to be. To be understandable in the context of a situated, human life. There’s a number of people we can maintain meaningful social contact with – around 150 – beyond that, individuals blur into a mass.
However, we are undeniably more than 150 people. And there are many good things about that. So, if no longer human-scale, what scale is this mass?
It is a common and widespread phenomenon, increasingly studied, that the whole really is more than the sum of its parts, that large groups of simple organisms modelled by straightforward rules can exhibit behaviour most intuitively assignable to a single, complex organism – think the ‘hive mind’. It’s called emergent behaviour. We can think about the whole system, the emergent organism and its characteristics and behaviour, and how it interacts with the world around it and if it does so ethically, but this is very unlikely to match up closely to how it is experienced in an individual agent (human) level. So though on a whole-human-race level, the destruction of whole ecosystems is obvious and criminal, the individual human doesn’t often experience it at all, let alone as such – and those who do are rarely those most culpable. Dispersed, the tragedy of collective inaction is a minor individual flaw that pales alongside more pressing concerns of vibrant human life.
From this understanding, the task of green movement to motivate dispersed humanity to ‘change course’ – to divert the actions of the whole-human monster from its current devouring, polluting and ecosystem-stripping – depends on its success at making a non-human-scale beast human-scale, whether in demonising individuals for particularly heinous offenses or highlighting the immediate benefits of a greener, happier world. This comes alongside the recognition that powerful external or group ideologies (the conventional way of pinning external considerations to everyday life), whether ecological or religious or scientific, only work for subsections, subnetworks of humanity: the majority are turned off by religion, happy to disregard the abstractions of science and look on at the pious eco-conscious with condescension. In a parallel, but different tack, we give up on understanding the effect of our actions and trust that consumer demand for human-scale desires and needs, whether through attractive green products or the rising cost of alternatives, can convert our world economy to one that lives within its means. Either way, attempted success lies in creating a suitable human-scale substitute for the acknowledgement of the effect of our (collective, not individual) actions, what lies behind ‘making it relevant’.
The seductive gleam of an electric car, a school-taught respect for ecosystems, a trust in the tables and graphs of science and the appeal of happy, clean, car-free communities are only human-scale substitutes for direct human experience of the impact of our actions. Your personal conviction is a somewhat nugatory extra consideration if you have to drink water from a poisoned stream. If it’s your friend you trap in a sweatshop, your neighbour you flood and your local reservoir you pour oil and excrement into, it’s already human scale.
The blur of humanity outside of our close networks, of course, isn’t actually a blur. Everywhere, everyone has human scale life around them. Increasingly through connectivity our close networks stretch to encompass more of the effects of what we do. The green movement (or the global social justice movement) will succeed when behaviour of the beast becomes meaningfully human-scale, and we see how our actions impact the lives of those connected to us, and we understand the link between what we do and what happens. In a recent RSA lecture, Jeremy Rifkin asked whether we and how we could extend our empathy to encompass the whole human race and to the biosphere as our common habitat – but a more accurate description would be to extend our potential empathy to the whole of the human race, and for us to come into contact with diverse parts of it. (‘Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be’). The best chance we have on an individual level, in a world were geographically dispersed connection is far more possible, is to try to simplify and reveal the lines between action and effect and reveal those whom we affect to be our friends.
There’s a parallel discussion on work to be had – firstly the connection between a worker having human-scale work and being in touch with its whole impact, and the link between this and ethical/purposeful work, and secondly how large organisations and networks are their own fuzzy emergent beings, which with an understanding of how individuals respond to and give them their character, may gives us the context and opportunity in which to explore engaging with our whole-societal psychopath on a more appropriate scale.