Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the human scale

The way our society is structured is such that we try to maximise "efficiency." (I, as well as a guest blogger, have written about this concept of efficiency, and what we lose because of it, here, here, here, here, here and here.) What this leads to, under current notions of economics ("free-market" capitalism with its baseless assumptions of perfect competition, no barriers to entry, perfect information, etc. etc.) and building, is called economies of scale. What this basically results in is the ability to produce the most amount of something for the maximised possible monetary profit. What this also ends up doing, however, is something that is a shared story across the country, and most of the world - the conglomeration of smaller entities into bigger and bigger and bigger and meaner entities - corporate takeovers, industrial farms, massive financial companies too big to fail, etc. We have "globalised" almost everything imaginable - companies, manufacturing, growing, and disease. What we end up creating are entities with "lives" of their own, so big and powerful that smaller humans can get trampled along the way, without redress and remorse. In many places across the country, our buildings have shown similar trends over time. Take a look at this picture of the built environment in downtown Detroit, and how it has changed over time.

Apart from the obvious increase in vacant land, we observe that the size of structures, in general, has increased over time. We have ended up building bigger and bigger structures that have a tendency to make one walking through it or standing beside it insignificant. Of course, many of these structures are visual manifestations of institutions and organisations I just described. What this tells me is that we value the lives of careless institutions and organisations over the lives of the humans, plants, animals and nature that guarantee their existence.

Such scales are seen in landfills, too. Here are some pictures and numbers about some of the largest landfills in the nation (you can read the articles here and here).

What I think is necessary to address when talking about issues of our impact on the environment is a look at scale. It is absolutely not possible to tread lightly with big things. Big tractors compact soil, oxen do not. Big power plants require massive amounts of fossil fuels, while living with less energy wouldn't necessitate the rape of mountains. Big buildings take a lot to erect, while smaller ones recognise our place in the world and the grander scheme of things.

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