Lots of Little Ones or One Big One?

When talking about increasing the impact of sustainable farm projects, people often discuss it in terms of ‘scaling up’ sustainable growing. But what does that actually mean?

According to the online Cambridge Dictionary, to scale something up is:

“to increase the size, amount, or importance of something, usually an organization or process”.

Implicit in this are specific assumptions about the constitution and order of scale;

  • that it is fixed (Delaney and Leitner, 1997),
  • vertical, anchored by the endpoints of the global-local binary (Jones et al, 2007),
  • and inherently hierarchical (Cameron and Hicks, 2013) with the global at the top of the hierarchy, followed by national, regional and local scale.

This hierarchy assumes that power and influence come from above, trickling down to smaller, and therefore less significant, ‘scales’. Think about it. Generally, it is accepted that the bigger, the better. The more powerful. The more influential. Therefore to make something better, it must be made BIGGER! Growth is inherently associated with success in modern Western cultur. Ever since the fossil fuels first started being truly exploited during the Industrial Revolution, we have become increasingly tied to the belief that bigger is better. Economies of scale dictate that a you save more if you produce more.

Perhaps also because growth seems like such a natural process, we consider it as the obvious and appropriate thing to do.

Modern organisations who work to the ‘bigger is better’ mantra have been proved by E.F. Schumacher to be ineffective, counterproductive and even destructive. This is because they tend to be inflexible, centralised and complex in nature.

This scalar thinking, however, obscures all of the ways in which issues are created, constructed, regulated and contested between, across and among scales (Bulkeley, 2005, 877). It is described by Moore (2008, p206) as ‘politically regressive’ because it unhelpfully reproduces socio-spatial inequalities and chokes off possibilities of resistance. It also implies that globally marshalled power is the only way to challenge globalisation, a view reinforced by Swyngedouw (2004). Gibson-Graham however criticises Swyngedouw’s assumption that power is naturally appropriated by the global and that local struggles need to be conducted on a larger scale in order to counteract globalisation (2002). For Cameron and Hicks (2013), this view limits our ability to recognise the transformative potential of grassroots initiatives, which are often seen as marginal endeavours, too small and fragmented; unable to match the global scale of contemporary issues and therefore stimulating reactions of assumed naivety (Gibson-Graham, 2002). Gibson-Graham advocates a need to overcome popular perceptions which link diversity with images of a fragmentary politics- the very enemy of “collective resistance” (2002, p29). She argues instead for the constitutive power of small and local processes (Gibson-Graham, 2002), inciting social transformations not just through large scale, coordinated political action but also through multiplying and diversifying small endeavours, (Cameron and Hicks, 2013), to transcend the limits of capitalism. Indeed, smaller scales have been supported as being preferable in urban agriculture initiatives for their ability to respond appropriately to changes in the market (Hodgson et al, 2001), changes in taste, for their genuine grassroots participation and community activity (Viljoen, 2005), and due to the “smallness and patchiness of human knowledge”, which according to Schumacher (1985, p22) relies on experiment more than on understanding.
Once again, language is a “fundamental ingredient” to how we perceive scale (Delaney and Leitner, 1997), and taking a discursive approach, we can reveal how scale is not just an external fact awaiting discovery, but a way of framing conceptions of reality (Ibid. 1997), operating epistemologically, as a lens (Jones et al, 2007) and comprising of networks of social associations that shape and transform spaces (Smith and Kurtz, 2003). This thinking allows us to “tune out the louder worlds” that steal our attention and frame our understandings of grassroots initiatives (Law, in Cameron and Hicks, 2013, p55). However, whilst avoiding these traditional assumptions of the global-local binary, we also need a richer understanding of scale than simply reverting to the logic that “global is bad, local is good” (Cameron and Wright, 2014).
An alternative to this stubborn scalar thinking has been expressed as a ‘flat ontology’, in which power and influence are not assumed to operate in from the top-down but according to the interweaving of the relationships and interactions which comprise of the specific site (Cameron and Hicks, 2013). Here, sites are “self-organising event-spaces dynamically composed of bodies, doings and sayings” (Jones et al, 2007, p265) which are “continually transformed through unfolding network connections with more extensive spaces” (Moore, 2008, p206). Consequently, traditional assumptions are challenged; scale is no longer seen as vertical or fixed but redefined as a process (Gross, 2011), and the hierarchy is shattered as power and influence are no longer seen to come from the top down but within and between network connections, allowing us to see the possibilities for action that are latent in any site or situation (Cameron and Hicks, 2013). This shifts the focus from a situation where projects are competing with others for “their portion of the funding pie” (Gibson and Cameron, 2001, p15) to collaborating to overcome joint obstacles and seize mutually beneficial opportunities, as noted by the Bristol Guild of Food Producers (2014). Therefore, it’s less a case of increasing the size, and more a case of multiplying and diversifying the number of valuable, mutually empowering relationships within these unfolding network connections. These can impact through their constitutive power, as well as their ability to work on “hearts and minds”- contributing to long term and wider catalytic effects (Cameron and Hicks, 2013, p62). As Viljoen states, “the key ingredient is people”, and whilst size determines the yield, it cannot determine the success of a site, it is the interconnectivity that will determine this (2005, 220).

Small is beautiful.

Permaculture believes that systems should be designed to perform functions at the smallest scale that is practical and energy-efficient for that function, and human scale should be the yardstick for a humane, democratic and sustainable society (Holmgren, 2002). The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

A given energy supply can support a large mass moving slowly, or a small mass moving fast. Therefore, smaller scale projects are able to respond quicker to external threats, such as climate change.

ants-v-elephantsThe small ant or the powerful elephant? The ant can lift several times its own weight, while the elephant cannot. So millions of ants that equate to the mass of an elephant, and their collective strength would be much greater than that of the elephant.

There is also an ethical component- if we limit the size and amount of what we have, it means there is enough for other people. Since the Enlightenment we have largely lost this in European societies.

Rather than ‘scaling up’, then, perhaps we should instead be concerned with experimenting, improving, replicating, diversifying small projects and initiatives. Much like cells within a living organism. When growth is required to serve the needs of the larger organism, they simply divide into two cells.

Similar to the conclusions drawn in an earlier post about the pace at which we live, here I advocate that it should be about optimum scale, not bigger.

To get scale right, we must start small, and use trial and improvement to add to it until the balances are even, so to speak.

There are plenty of small projects succeeding all over the world, but because research has tended to focus on BIG things, these have largely gone unnoticed.


One thought on “Lots of Little Ones or One Big One?

  1. Pingback: A Quiet Revolution – Foodprints

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