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When Building Sustainable Societies, There’s No Better Guide than the Human Scale

We need to fashion communities such that individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers

Adapted from Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralist Future; Chelsea Green, April 2017

It can be fairly objected that every age has its crises and so far the ingenuity of the human brain or the capacity of human society has been able to solve, or appear to solve, most of them. No matter how problems have grown in the past they have not interfered with the sort of growth that has characterized Western civilization in the modern period. But that lesson from the past disguises one important fact of the present: our crises now proceed, like the very growth of our systems, exponentially.

da vinci's vetruvian man sketchPhoto Wikimedia CommonsLeonardo da Vinci's The Vitruvian Man sketch was his exploration of the theories about human proportions set forth by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. “Human scale” was originally an architectural term, used to describe the components of a building in relation to the people who use it.

“During the past two centuries,” in the words of M. King Hubbert, the prescient geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, “we have known nothing but exponential growth, and we have evolved what amounts to an exponential growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of non-growth.”

Obviously the solutions to these crises, even when they are identified and tried, have done nothing to diminish the impact of exponential growth, and indeed the solutions turn out to be problems, or generate unforeseen problems, as often as not. That is why it is necessary to turn in a totally different direction with a totally different mindset and expectation—a way, as I will show you, to the human scale.

It is now obvious that the way we have been going, particularly for the last 25 years, has plunged us into multiple environmental and social crises, and going on in that direction invites, if it does not guarantee, civilization’s collapse within the next 25. That is no exaggeration: as Pope Francis said in his June 2015 encyclical, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

So to save our planet and its civilizations we must move in an opposite direction, we must work toward the decentralization of institutions, the devolution of power, and the dismantling of all large-scale systems that have created or perpetuated the current crises. In their place, smaller, more controllable, more efficient, more sensitive, people-sized units, rooted in local environments and guided by local citizens. That is the human-scale alternative.

In the search for the proper order of things and societies, a search that has inspired humankind since its earliest sentient days, no better guide has been found than the human form, no better measure than the human scale. “Man the measure”— has that not been the standard, or at least the goal, for the greatest number of human societies for the last 5,000 years, though lost from ours for more than a century? And still today, though many are deluded into a gigantism dependent on technology, the guide to any desirable future, for the ways in which tools, building, communities, cities, homes, shops, offices, factories, forums, and legislatures should be constructed; I see no reason to go beyond the simple rule: they should be built to human scale.

“Human scale” was originally an architectural term, used to describe the components of a building in relation to the people who use it. A cottage door, for example, is necessarily built to human scale, high enough and wide enough so that a body can move through it comfortably, located at a place convenient for the body to use it, in some harmonious relation with the other elements of the building. A hangar door, by contrast, is not, for it has nothing to do with the human form, and is outsized and disproportionate to the human body.

Human Scale book cover Photo courtesy of Chelsea Green

From earliest times until quite recent eras, most conscious building has been a reflection of human scale, for in every society the measurements most convenient and most constant were those of the finger, the hand, the arm, the stride, and the height of the builder — a tradition we honor today in the English system in which an inch is based on the length of the first joint of the thumb, the foot on the length of the forearm, and the yard on the length of a normal pace or an extended arm from fingers to nose. (It is vastly preferable to the metric system, based not on anything human at all but on a meter that the French Convention in 1799, in its zeal to do away with all tradition and rely on what it regarded as rational thinking, chose quite arbitrarily by taking one ten-millionth of the meridian of the earth from the North Pole to the Equator.) Even buildings intended to evoke awe and inspiration, such as the Parthenon and Peking’s Temple of Heaven, were, when successful, built on these human measures.

But the idea of human scale can also be used to govern the design of communities and towns, indeed of whole cities. It means buildings that can be easily taken in by the human eye, in harmonious relations that do not engulf or dwarf the individual; streets that can be comfortably walked, parks and arenas for habitual human contact, places for work and play and sleep within easy distance of each other; the natural world brought into daily life, with grass and trees and flowers in every part, open spaces to experience scenery by day and the starts by night, woods and farms and grazing ground somewhere within walking distance.

And all of this of such a size as can be comprehended by a single individual, known at least by acquaintance to all others, where the problems of life are thus kept to manageable proportions, and where security is the natural outcome of association. Cities, too, with their overlays of urbanity, can arise from an amalgam of such communities, with interlocking networks and cross-neighborhood relationships of all kinds, providing only that the cities themselves do not lose the human scale, either in their buildings or their total size, and do not smother their separate parts.

And if buildings and communities can be built to the human scale, then it is not so difficult to imagine all the other aspects of human life, by extension, governed by the same principle.

I mean social arrangements, economic conditions, and political structures could all be designed so that individuals can take in their experience whole and coherently, relate with other people freely and honestly, comprehend all that goes on in their working and civic lives, share in the decisions that make it all function, and not feel intimidated or impotent because there are any large hidden forces beyond their control or reckoning.

What it takes is a scale at which individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers, makers and creators instead of just users and consumers, participants and protagonists instead of just observers and taxpayers.

This alternative future would certainly not be without its problems, some considerable perhaps, and would likely face crises of its own in the course of its enactment, which in any case might take several decades, unless the will to escape the impending doom serves to vivify populations worldwide. But it would, at a minimum, provide relief from the imperilment brought on by the large-scale institutions of the present.

Such an age would not be congenial to centralized bureaucracies or high-tech conglomerates, would not permit multi-billion-dollar investments in nuclear plants or military adventures or useless space stations. It would not allow the production of 89 million polluting motor vehicles (2014) every year, or countrywide fracking that fouls drinking water and creates earthquakes, or metropolitan areas of 24 million people, or a cabinet department (Homeland Security) formed out of 22 agencies with 216,000 bureaucrats, or the manufacture of 387 cereal brands in America, or a Code of Federal Regulations that at 175,496 pages in 2014 was 117 times as big as the Bible, or a single World Trade Organization, governed by a secret court, regulating 90 percent of international trading.

At the moment such a world might seem a utopian dream, and it will not come easily, but there are several reasons to imagine it possible.

Singapore skylinePhoto by achresis khora/FlickrModels for almost every part of a future built to the human scale already exist now, and include independent city-states like Singapore (pictured above), Monaco, and Vatican City.

For one, it accords with some of the deepest instincts of the human animal, possibly encoded in our DNA, such as the need for tribal and community sustenance, for harmony with the natural world, for companionship and cooperation. It accords with the experience of by far the greatest part of human history, from the earliest settlements to most of the world today, in which people lived in compact villages and self-contained towns, crafting and hunting (and later farming and herding) for themselves, before some of them evolved into cities and empires. And it accords with much that is rooted in the American experience, such as the traditions of cooperation and self-sufficiency that grew up in the early settlements, the town-meeting democracies that extended at one time from New England to Virginia, the agrarian and anti-authoritarian values of the Founding Fathers, the Jeffersonian understanding of scale and distrust of centralism, the drive for self-sufficiency and independence that for generations led people from the cities to the frontier.

For another, we have had the advantage of knowing the ills and errors of high technology in these past decades, the one ironic benefit of its super-rapid exponential growth. I say “we” though it might better be said “a few,” and those of the quasi-Luddistic bent who realize that machines must be differentiated so that those that are of human scale — small, safe, simple, manageable by a single individual, along the lines suggested by E. F. Schumacher’s “alternative technology” — are not confused with all those that tie people into large, dangerous, complex, and uncontrollable systems and webs.

The Luddites, as a matter of fact, made those distinctions, for they were very comfortable with certain small-scale looms and stocking machines they used every day, only opposed to the belching factories that replaced them, “machinery hurtful to the commonality” as they said in one threatening letter. Thus a human-scale world would have the advantage of knowing not to depend on technology that involved expensive and manipulable machines within large, widespread, even global complexes that would have no regard for the individual village, the community, the family.

And finally, the evidence continues to mount, despite certain trends to the contrary, that such a human-scale future is, at least in many tenets, doable.

Models for almost every part of such a future already exist now, or have existed in the knowable past, in many parts of the world, including our own: worker-owned businesses, intentional communities, cooperative movements and banks; generations-old independent communes — like the twenty-three Bruderhof communities around the world and the seven Amana villages in Iowa — Quaker meetings governed by consensual democracy, coast to coast; independent city-states, basic to life in ancient Greece, common in medieval Italy, recurrent in modern times and extant today in many places, including Singapore, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican; societies without a state, from the million years of tribes in Africa, Indian tribes in both North and South America, settlements in Polynesia and other South Pacific islands, New England villages in the US colonial period, and countless others.

Most of these entities have lived within the shadows of larger institutions and states, it is true, but that is only a testament to the fundamental, and apparently eternal, tenacity of the idea of the empowered community. And if it has been done, it can be done.

Inuit children are given a puzzle at a fairly early age that asks them if, given a square of nine dots, how can you connect all the dots with only four straight lines, never taking your pencil off the paper?

Most Inuit have no difficulty in solving this after a few minutes, but even sophisticated children in other parts of the world have failed to solve it, and it stumps most adults as well. Those who fail are accustomed by their culture to certain quite unconscious ways of thinking that are difficult to break out of, but Inuit children, living as they do in wide open arctic spaces, naturally have a different sense of space. With that sense they find nothing difficult in the idea of extending the straight lines beyond the nine-dot square, thus:

nine dot square puzzle solution

In the same way, there is much about the human-scale alternative that at first seems impossible, undoable. But that is largely because our culture has conditioned us in myriad ways over the last several centuries to thinking of certain kinds of solutions and disregarding — in fact not being aware of — others.

But they are there.

Kirkpatrick Sale
Kirkpatrick Sale is a prolific scholar and author of more than a dozen books — including Human Scale, Rebels Against the Future, and After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination. He has been described as the “leader of the Neo-Luddites,” is one of the pioneers of the bioregional movement, and throughout his career has been a regular contributor to The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, CounterPunch, Lew Rockwell, The New York Review of Books, and The Utne Reader, which named him one of 100 living visionaries. Sale is currently the director of the political think tank the Middlebury Institute for the study of separatism, secession, and self-determination.

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