Book excerpt: The problem of excessive scale

February 5, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThis is an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit. Please order your copy for shipment in May.

In his excellent book The Breakdown of Nations the maverick economist Leopold Kohr makes several stunning yet, upon reflection, commonsense observations. He points out that small states have tended to be far more culturally productive than large states, that all states go to war but that big states have disproportionately bigger wars that kill many times more people, and that by far the most stable and advantageous form of political organization is a loose confederation of states, each so small that none can dominate the rest. Kohr arrives at his conclusions by a process of reasoning by homology (viz. analogy) by analyzing many of the problems of modernity as different manifestations of the same underlying problem: the problem of excessive scale.

Most people can relate to the concept of optimal scale on an intuitive, visceral level; we know when something is abnormally big or abnormally small, and we tend to dislike abnormality. The exceptions, be they midgets or giants, are considered freaks. In living things, growth tapers off and stops when the organism has reached its optimum size. Pursuit of largest possible size is a quixotic one, like that of the farmer who tries to grow the largest-possible turnip. Terms like “jumbo shrimp” make children giggle. There was once a very successful and influential religious cult devoted to finding the optimum in all things: the Greek cult of Apollo, with its motto of μηδὲν ἄγαν — “Nothing in excess.” Excess is never without cost, excessive size is no exception, and beyond a certain point the cost of excessive size becomes exorbitant. This point is lost on very few people, virtually all of whom happen to be politicians. For them, there is simply no limit to how big their nation-state should be allowed to become. When they think “bigger” they automatically think “better” and “more powerful,” in spite of much evidence to the contrary. Incapable of understanding the concept of diminishing and negative economies of scale, they cannot understand why increased defense spending results in more military defeats, or why increased spending on education causes ignorance to spread and test scores to plummet, or why increased spending on health care results in an increase in morbidity and mortality. In their headlong pursuit of “growth” they work themselves into the cul de sac of excessive size, a predicament from which there is no escape except through collapse.

Kohr defines the effect of excessive size using the Law of Diminishing Productivity: if one adds variable units of any factor of production to a fixed quantity of another, at some point the effect of adding one more variable unit will decrease productivity rather than increase it. The best example of this law in action we currently have is with population as the variable unit and Earth as the fixed unit. Indications are that we passed this point some time ago, but the population continues to grow because, although productivity is being steadily diminished, it is still above zero. Kohr’s ideas lived on in the work of E. F. Schumacher and others, but they have failed to gain enough traction to reverse the march to gigantism, followed inexorably by collapse.

Ironically, Kohr’s effort failed precisely because of the vast scale of the contemporary intellectual endeavor. Kohr pointed out that most of the great advances in learning and the arts occurred in small communities — in ancient Greece, medieval Europe and other places where everyone knew everyone, where the entire sweep of human affairs could be taken in at a glance and where one could be well regarded as what was once called a Renaissance Man — a generalist. But the vast scale at which contemporary society operates makes it impossible for anyone to observe the whole of it with any degree or precision or insight, forcing everyone to specialize in one thing or another; the vaster the scale, the more circumscribed the realm in which one can gain sufficient expertise to understand what is happening and be in a position to predict what might happen next. The proliferation of experts who know almost everything about almost nothing is a sure sign that the pursuit of knowledge has been carried to an excessive scale, but the existence of these same experts makes it impossible to claw knowledge back from the brink of utter irrelevance, because that can only done by a generalist. In turn, generalists are not allowed among specialists: to a specialist, as Kohr pointed out, a generalist is either irrelevant (unable to advance knowledge in the specialist’s narrow field of expertise) or an impostor (someone not even interested in advancing knowledge in the specialist’s narrow field of expertise).

To illustrate how this works (or, as the case may be, does not work) let us take the specific example of breast cancer. There are specialists in the genetics of breast cancer (which seems specialized enough for our purposes) who have recently taken to the airwaves in the hopes of drumming up support for extending their already rather expensive program of research. They have found some genetic markers for breast cancer which could potentially lead to more effective treatments given a great deal of further research. Some poor sane woman calls up and asks, “What about prevention?” (There didn’t used to be so much breast cancer, you know.) One specialist starts babbling about the difficulty of doing studies of breast cancer prophylaxis therapies … before remembering that she is an oncological geneticist, dammit, not an historical epidemiologist! Now, let’s suppose the impossible: someone managed to get an historical epidemiologist specializing in breast cancer on that same show. (It is difficult to have different areas of expertise represented on one show and still have it be interesting because the different specialists tend to politely ignore each other.) The historical epidemiologist would probably say that the evidence for lower historical incidence of breast cancer during centuries past is ambiguous because the diagnostic techniques we use today were not available then, but it’s certainly the case that the rates for many types of cancer have doubled and even tripled since the early twentieth century, by which time doctors were certainly able to recognize tumors. So why is that? Well, the epidemiologist volunteers, the spike in cancer rates coincides with the introduction of a large number of synthetic organic compounds into the environment — ones that do not occur in nature. Another poor sane woman calls up and asks, “What about the carcinogenic pesticides found in breast milk?” What specialist do we summon next, a neonatal nutritionist, perhaps, who will tell us about the increased risk of cancer in breast-fed infants? (Sorry, that’s off-topic!) Or an agricultural chemist, who will tell us that the pesticides are required to bring in the bountiful harvests we need to feed a growing, albeit cancer-riddled, population? Perhaps we should ask a politician? A politician would no doubt say that he will support all of these lines of research, so please remember to vote for him on election day.

Better yet, let’s all take a short mental holiday (because by now most of us could probably use one) and ask a prince. Suppose the court scientist comes to the prince and says, “My prince, our women are developing tumors in their breasts at an alarming rate, and I have discovered why.” (He is the only court scientist, but a very good one. He specializes in Knowing Much More Than Anyone Else.) “In this vial I have an extract of breast milk,” he goes on, “which contains the same poisons your chemists are giving to your peasants to kill insects. I have fed these poisons to rats, and they too developed tumors. The poisons must be banned.” The prince, his pampered hand resting lightly on a leather-bound volume by Niccolò Machiavelli, thinks to himself: “These chemists say that they are my friends, but are they really? Here is my chance to find out. If I ban these dreadful poisons, then they may comply willingly, but if they resist even for a moment, then I will condemn them as poisoners of women and children and clap them in irons and/or banish them from my realm in accordance with my caprice du jour! In either case, I will no longer have to wonder whether or not they are my friends.” Aloud he says, “These poisons are an abomination,” and to the palace guard, “Summon the chemists!” When the chemists arrive some minutes later, red in the face and out of breath, the prince, growing impatient, motions to the court scientist to get on with it. The court scientist repeats his words. “As you wish, my prince,” the chief chemist says, “but don’t your peasants need these poisons to kill the insects to feed the growing population?” The prince, now looking positively bored, turns to his scientist: “What would be better for us, a smaller but healthier population or a larger but sicker one … never mind, I just answered my own question. The poisons are hereby banned. Lunch, anyone?”

If a relatively specific problem, such as the task of banning cancer-causing pesticides, shatters into tiny, mutually unintelligible domains upon the submerged rocks of overspecialization, then what of the far more general problem of controlling scale at every level? It is simply not specific enough to register with any of the numerous specialists and specialisms on whose domains it impinges. There is a vast and desolate no-man’s-land stretching between political science, economics, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, history and philosophy (to name a few) and this is the wilderness that our poor hero, Leopold Kohr, chose to wander. And although his book is a joy to read in spite of its sombre message, his fate was a sad one. He was trying to stop the cancer of unconstrained, uncontrolled growth after it had already metastasized and engulfed the entire planet. But thanks to Kohr’s efforts we are able to realize that although the sick patient is the entire planet, the cancer is not necessarily in all of us. Instead of pointing at each of us, Kohr points at the global political juggernaut driven by a blind ambition of achieving global unity. Our task, it would appear, is to jump off this death-wagon without breaking our legs.

Tags: economies of scale, Law of Diminishing Productivity