In our modern world, we have a love of the big.
Except that’s not quite right: we have a love of the ever-larger. This has led us to lose sight of something critical.
“How much is enough?”
I was listening to a podcast the other day where the person being interviewed was musing on how their life had been made worse by this phenomenon.
He had been born in Colorado Springs, CO, but his career had led him to Dallas, TX. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex has grown together into one great sprawling mass. More and more of his, his wife’s and his children’s lives was occupied in just getting from point A to point B, and in getting things done.
So he had resigned his position, and moved back to the much-smaller town he came from. It wasn’t as small as when he left, of course, but it was still small enough.
Only to see it, in turn, ruined by the endless desire to grow. Within a few years they were back to spending far too much time getting from point A to point B, or to get needed things done.
Think about it. Florence at the height of the Renaissance, with all the great achievements of that time, never grew past 75,000 people total. Frankfurt, a major market centre, was under 20,000 until the second half of the 19th century. Great university towns, great trading centres, great centres of art, culture and science, all the size of what we would dismiss today as backwaters, unworthy of attention. Edinburgh, in the 18th century, a centre of science, industry and culture influencing the world, was only a little larger than Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, is today, and smaller by the same amount than Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This isn’t just because there are so many more humans than there used to be. We used to live smaller deliberately. Today, in most of the world, we have crowded into urban areas, depopulating the countryside. What’s left there is either a “deactivated place” — a town that’s lost its purpose, its economy and is just hanging on by inertia, like Greenwich, NY — or has become one whose economy turns on some few companies located elsewhere who maintain plants for the moment, like Rensselaer, IN. (Both Greenwich and Rensselaer are of similar size.)
Yet everywhere the goal of local politicians is “development” and “growth”. They look to get the same chains as everyone else has, the same remote employers to settle a plant close by, and always real estate expansion — new developments.
Size isn’t everything.
It is, however, often one very important thing. Destructive.
It breaks bonds, it creates strains, it makes ordinary tasks more difficult, it removes resilience, it causes diversity to fall … should I go on?
Our mania for bigness, and our mania for growth, has taken so much from us.
One reason I find the coming long descent — we are always well into the long emergency — back to more local worlds so exciting is that it brings the promise of small. People who are doing something for the people in their immediate vicinity to value, who invest their energy into doing it better, but not into growth.
People who recognize that while Marxism and its derivatives are not a way to live, that Marx was right in the concept that a human life should be rounded. Improve your methods and knock off work earlier so as to paint, to write, to dance, to do.
Locales that can be walked, that needn’t have blistering streets without shade (because they are so wide to handle traffic). A cup of coffee lovingly prepared in the owner’s shop, not some formulaic code practised to a stopwatch by an underpaid barista and the profits flowing elsewhere to produce a cup that’s less flavourful, but just like I could get … anywhere.
The first is “enough” and to spare. The second leaves us wanting more … in a desperate search for something worth having.
Enough. It’s a wonderful idea when you get used to it. Then perhaps happiness will be found, rather than constantly pursued.