How Big is Too Big?

August 12, 2009

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2008: the world is watching as a building rises to surpass the height of all previous human-made objects. Its architects and builder will not reveal the final altitude of their creation. Size matters. They won’t accept second place in the tall building Olympics. How big will it be?

Most of us know the end of that story–the Burj Dubai became the world’s tallest building at 818 meters (2684 feet). We live in a society obsessed with growth, wealth, obsessive eating, size, mass, volume, area. It’s all about big. Huge even. Everything has to be bigger, better, faster, louder, more powerful, more luxurious. The Biggest Loser vies with Survivor for ratings on television. It’s ironic that the biggest losers will be humans when the global energy crisis leaves little to sustain life. The Survivors will be the cockroaches.

A profound new book by Quaker economists has posed the question of why seven billion people continue to behave as if the earth’s resources were infinite. Each month economists publish figures for GDP percentage increases, stock index gains, inflation, national wealth. The message is that growth in economic activity, increases in monetary wealth, and expansion of all kinds of technology will outpace the degradation of the earth’s systems and save the planet from ruin before 2100. Most ecologists are not sanguine about these prospects.

Instead, Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver argue that humankind should seek a “right relationship” between sustainable economic activity and the earth’s delicate biosphere. All current evidence from climatologists, biologists, ecologists and other earth scientists is that the current pace of economic growth is not only too great, but that significant retrenchment will be required if humans are to save themselves and their environment from catastrophic ruin in the next century. What does this mean for a society that wants to build “bigger and better” with every new technological leap?

Among the prescient messages in this book is that one of our society’s most destructive obsessions is the quest for bigger economies and more stuff. While many of us profess a desire to live with less, we fail to understand that less does not mean a small step backward in personal wealth and consumption. Less means a complete transformation of our expectations for personal fulfillment, affluence, material wealth and physical well-being.

When it comes to how we live, and the spaces we inhabit, our vocabulary and standards for adequate accommodation are about to change in ways we never thought possible. Americans in particular will be forced to live with less. Our houses will be subdivided, our rooms diminished in size, our possessions curtailed. And we will become wealthier as members of the commonwealth of life on our planet, if not at the bank or stock brokerage.

3 Responses to “How Big is Too Big?”

  1. Does less mean no more blogs? Do we get rid of the internet? Get rid of computers all together and live like the Amish? While I respect their life style, I will not live that way. I prefer comfortable. There is such thing as too big, but I dont think complete transformation is the answer, simply an adequate modification to our life styles will do. And I refuse anything else.

  2. It is not a matter of giving up computers, the internet, or all current technology. Living in a balanced relationship to the earth will mean giving up the pursuit of technologies that attempt to subjugate the natural environment. The Amish are an extreme example and not one that will be germane to the future of American life. The point of the book is that we cannot consume our way out of the current crisis; economic activity will have to be scaled down dramatically. Life will be better than it is now because people will have what they need, not what they want.

  3. Mark W said

    We are headed for the Malthusian catastrophe at last—in spades—and the human population must fall. We’ve been burning every resource, up to and including the such fundamentals as topsoil and the atmosphere, to the detriment of most multicellular life on earth. And, with apologies to Pynchon, “No one escapes the Karmic Hammer.” But ultimately we shouldn’t entirely abandon technological civilization if only because of the Planet-Killing-Asteroid problem. (If the dinosaurs had had a more robust space program we’d be all be dinosaurs today!) We must turn our collective intelligence, such as it is, to the deliberate net *production* of topsoil on a continental scale, to purposefully re-filling the freshwater aquifers we have depleted, and to the net re-sequestration of greenhouse gasses on some timescale shorter than that of the geological era. Our organizing enterprise must be to make more Nature.

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