THE GIANT, PROCRUSTES, of Greek mythology, was said to place his victims on an iron bed and either stretch them or cut off their limbs until their length equaled that of the bed. In his extended homily, Human Scale, Kirkpatrick Sale takes on the Procrustean task of cutting American civilization down to size, human size.
In an earlier book, Sds, published in 1973, Sale wrote from the Left to a special audience -- radical students and those interested in their doings. tThat book, extensively documented, portrayed an intensely energetic and well-organized radical group's impact, by means of campus turbulence, on a government preoccupied with the Vietnam war.
In 1975, in his book, Power Shift, Sale chose a politico-economic theme. Drawing a line from California to the Carolinas, he called it "the Southern Rim." He them outlined in some detail the entrepreneurial incursions of "southern" politicians and tycoons who, like wild cowboys in town for a Saturday night revel, went romping through the economy, rudely shouldering aside the Eastern establishment.
In this most recent book, Sale asserts that bigness is engulfing Western civilization. An overconsuming, overpolluted, overorganized, hyped technocracy, stampeding for an ever bigger GNP, is racing madly toward its own destruction. A dedicatory list of unusual length includes the names of people, from Wendell Berry to E. F. Schumacher, who have written or spoken for decentralization in all forms.
Let the weaknesses of this book be addressed at the outset. There are inaccuracies. Most of the sources the author does recognize are secondary, and one suspects he trusts to memory a good deal. Sale also synthesizes current events extensively, with primary reliance on clippings from The New York Times. And he has a distracting habit of stating a position as a foregone conclusion when, in fact, the point may be quite debatable.
Another characteristic of this book is the excessive use of example to support or prove a position, when the subject does not really require such a cloud of witnesses. Sometimes his use of illustration as evidence also backfires, as when he cites the increased use of the "compact" automobile as an example of "human scale." Anyone who has to twist and contort his or her frame to get into a compact may wonder if Procrustes didn't go a little too far.
But having said all that, the merits of the book can be recognized. Arnold Toynbee wrote that the total life of society could not be surveyed by anyone who was a member of that society, and that only when Western society had become extinct could it be seen in true perspective. But portions of contemporary Western society are evident, even obvious. Technology overwhelms humankind in many ways. In congested cities we become part of what, over a generation ago, David Riesman called "the lonely crowd." The molecules of a semiconductor, storing our most private data, are a memory bank the capacity of which may be infinite and the longevity of which may be forever.
The human is a coping animal. All but the last two or three centuries were spent coping with natural forces over which we had no control. Since then, humans have been occupied in coping with the technology by which some control of nature has been achieved. Now, the control of that technology itself is in doubt.
To explain just how bad things have become on a human scale, the author cites his Beanstalk Principle. This refers to the old story of Jack and the giant about five times his size. The giant was not only five times as tall, but also five times as wide and five times as thick as the boy, or exponentially, five to the third power. Thus, assuming Jack weighed 50 pounds, the giant would weight 50*3, or 125,000 pounds. His own bones would not hold him up at that weight. Based on this analogy, the Beanstalk Principle holds that there is an optimal size for everything, beyond which all elements of the thing considered will be affected aversely. It is Sale's point that almost all aspects of modern life have exceeded the optimal size.
The bulk of the book is devoted to a discussion of the changes which would take place if the present bigness were reduced to human size. Arable land would be divided into small family farms. The city as we know it would become a series of communities of not more than 10,000 inhabitants. Schools would be smaller, in some cases being adaptations of the one-room school room. The use of the bicycle, one technological development truly constructed for the human body, would increase substantially. Human waste and garbage would be recycled for beneficial use. Sun, wind and water would become the primary sources of energy. Industry would be divided into small units and would be owned, controlled and operated by the workers. Government would be reduced to a minimum, and localized where possible.
Sale frankly acknowledges he doesn't know how these objectives can be achieved. Nor does he take the position of Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave, that a new age is being born, even as the old industrial age expires. Rather, he affirms a faith that such changes are possible, even though he is not able to outline the procedures for accomplishing them.
The book belongs to a genre which addresses the genuinely serious social, economic, cultural and ecological problems of today. These are not problems originated by one nation or by one economic or political system, but by technology. Human Scale garners more material to support its subject than do some other books with similar themes, but it is more simplistic in its analysis, reducing the final equation to three words, "Big is bad."
An issue which the author does not address is the matter of diminished expectations. One detects a mood in the land today, of which this book is an evocation of sorts, which anticipates reduced circumstances. Practically everything the author decries as too big came into being because of a dream. Dreams are nearly always bigger than the human scale. It would be another tragic chapter in history if, at some time in the future, the human species, surrounded by things scaled to its size, forgot how to dream.