The Curse of Bigness

April 25, 2018

The next time I hear a politico or banker or corporate executive talk about institutions “too big to fail,” I’ll direct them to the 34 percent of Americans who are obese. Last I heard, these big Americans, themselves a kind of cultural institution, were failing en masse, racked by diabetes, asthma, heart trouble, and bound for early death. The human form can only grow so big. Or I could point them to Pig #6707. Conceived in the laboratories of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the 1990s, Pig #6707’s embryo was genetically altered with a human growth gene to develop into a super-pig, bigger and faster-growing and more productive of meat. But the genetic alterations produced a monster, impotent and nearly blind, its legs arthritic, its body crippled, the creature able to stand up and be photographed only with the support of a plywood board. When asked by a reporter why he created the sick pig, the lead researcher said his intent was to make livestock more efficient.

There is, of course, a caution for our species in Pig #6707. When an organism grows beyond its design, nature will determine it to fail — a fact of life, in the strictest sense. Nowhere in evolutionary theory is hypertrophic growth posited as the key to success. What is key is optimum size, what we’d more accurately call right size. All living things have a right size, and historically evolved to that size because it was optimal for survival. So, for example, elephants and giraffes and rhinoceroses, though comparatively huge, are in fact just the right size — their bigness operating as a defense against predators, allowing for greater reach in forage, and much else. The same goes for polar bears and walruses and whales, which require extra tissue volume to retain heat against cold water and long winters. Dinosaurs, as we all know, were likely the biggest creatures to walk the Earth, but bigness didn’t help them meet the challenge of changing conditions. The largest of the dinosaurs disappeared altogether, the smaller ones got even smaller and eventually evolved into birds, while the animals of more moderate size, the marsupials and primitive mammals, found that being small in the first place was a blessing.

But bigness is the prejudice of American life, our cultural albatross, the axiom being that when something is big it is automatically better.   That we allow corporations to grow to outrageous size is just another symptom of the disease. Bigness worship permeates every layer of the culture; it is racked into our brains with every turn of the advertising screw; it is a totalizing force.

Today we find ourselves in an unprecedented age of corporate gigantism. This situation is characterized not by outright monopolies, but by the rise of oligopolies, a few very obese firms, the Big Three or Big Six, dominating their sectors while being insulated from failure by the hand of government. Republican and Democratic administrations alike, spellbound by so-called laissez-faire ideology, abandoned their antitrust duties and abetted the growth of stupendous privileges in the corporatocracy. At the same time, federal and state governments have done most everything they can to ignore, discourage, and imperil the small man in the world of business.

It’s an old story, and it bears repeating: Government subsidies favor large-scale standardized activity (in farming, manufacturing, retail — the list is long) at the expense of the local, the small, the diverse, the upstart. What we’re told is that all this consolidation, this predilection for bigness, always and every time — per the usual knee-jerk size-valuation — brings “synergies,” “economies of scale,” efficiency, innovation. But the opposite is too often the case. “The irony,” says economist James Brock, “is that we have established a reverse economic Darwinism, where we ensure the survival of the fattest, not the fittest, the biggest, not the best.”

It was E.F. Schumacher who, in the 1950s, as the chief economist at the British National Coal Board, came to the quite reasonable — at the time unthinkable — conclusion that energy supply, the coal that England so ravenously was burning up, could not satisfy an ideology of unlimited growth. It was, Schumacher concluded, a suicide pact with Planet Earth. What Schumacher offered instead in the book that made him famous, Small Is Beautiful, is the common-sensical idea that man is small, therefore should think small — that is, think along the lines of human scale.

When in 1955 Schumacher was invited by the government of Burma as an advisor on economic development, he understood at once that the rote econometrics of the West had little to offer the Burmese. Schumacher fell in love with the country, the people, the culture, and it was Buddhism that most impressed him, Buddhism in practice in the little villages, the Buddhism of the Middle Path. The experience was transformative, inspiring him to gestate the notion of a “Buddhist economics,” an “economics as if people mattered.” Instead of demanding that his hosts modernize, he urged the Burmese to hold fast to the middle path, employing energy-light, human-scale technology — what he called “democratic or people’s technology” — to develop the economy on the organic scale of the village. Instead of industrial irrigation super-projects, there would be drip-irrigation and foot-operated treadle pumps (which have worked in Burma to this day). Instead of breakneck urbanization and huge capital investments and centralized planning, the Burmese would do better to decentralize as much as possible, he said, to keep decision-making local for the local production of food and handicrafts to be locally consumed.

Mahatma Gandhi’s development plans for India were much along the same lines. “If we feel the need of machines,” said Gandhi, “we certainly will have them. Every machine that helps every individual has a place, but there should be no place for machines [that] turn the masses into mere machine minders.” What in the intervening years has been the alternative? In China, great leaps forward have poisoned the rivers and the lakes and the fields and the coastal beds, displacing huge populations, concentrating them in the filth of cities as machine minders, impoverishing every rank of traditional society while enriching a very few, for whom tradition is nothing more than an attachment to the nonmaterial.

Of course, among the economists for whom growth was the unquestioned ideology — growth for its own sake, the ideology of the cancer cell — Schumacher was considered a crazy old man, a godforsaken crank. And to that he was said to have replied that a crank is small, safe, cheap, comprehensible, nonviolent, and efficient, a perfect tool of intermediate technology.

Let us be cranks then, though the consensus conspires against us — against the very notion that the small-scale and low-tech may hold the means to a workable future. We can start by downsizing the monster corporations. The antitrust law is there, waiting, a fist in our pockets. Let’s have a third party in politics that might dare to confront bigness — hell, let’s have a second party, given that Republicans and Democrats are at odds only in the perfumes they wear. Let’s have ten or twenty parties. Let’s encourage local production with local labor within easy commuting distances; pay a living wage; restructure land-use patterns to provide easy access to work; grow most of our food close to where it will be consumed. Let’s dream small.

Of course, bigness may still be needed to provide certain goods and services, but the most realistic future for humankind lies in a determined return to the human scale. The transformation will no doubt be costly in the short term, that is, less profitable for Big Ag and Big Oil and Big Coal and all the other bigness complexes, but it will produce vast benefits to social health in the long run. And how shall we quantify that kind of quality? Not in the usual gibberish of national product — the original definition of gross meaning “repellently fat” — or exports and imports, or capital-output ratios, or capitalization, not with the metrics of the idiot savants in the finance industry, who produce nothing one can hold in the hand, nothing of real value in a human-scale economy. Instead of depending on slave labor abroad, we can have jobs at home for the things we need, not the things we are told to want. Instead of processed food, we can have fresh food. Instead of faraway hierarchies, we can have local networks. Instead of militarism, cooperation. Instead of repression, innovation. Instead of homogenous, homegrown.

It goes against every urging in our recent history and our covetous training, and therefore it may only happen when some external force comes into play. Most likely that force will be the limits of Planet Earth, and our fitness will be determined, as it was with the dinosaurs, by our ability to adapt to the new conditions. Or not. We might do well to remember that the laws of nature are bigger than Goldman Sachs or Amazon or the United States of America. Until then, we will continue to think of our systems as too big to fail, during which time we may end up presiding with a blithe mind over their failure — which, ultimately, will mean our failure.


A longer version of this essay originally appeared in Orion magazine.

Christopher Ketcham

Christopher Ketcham has written for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, GQ, Details, the Nation, Salon, Orion, Mother Jones, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, Hustler, Penthouse, Maxim, and many other magazines, newspapers and websites. He is currently a roving correspondent on the public lands of the western United States, working on a book.

Tags: Corporations, E.F. Schumacher, economic growth paradigm, limits to growth