In the previous chapter (Chapter 2: Abundance by subtraction), we leveraged the power of “less” to demystify the myth of “more” (challenging the assumption that quantitative excessiveness makes us happy). We now turn to “big,” or excessiveness in size. Why do we appreciate large size and want to make things as big as we can?
Fundamentally, this is because nature is overwhelmingly big compared to our small body size and physical fragility. For our entire existence, humanity been fighting to overcome the threats posed by nature, which are massive in size, intensity and complexity.
In a sense, our history has been about our disparate efforts to invent a variety of devices – the bigger the better – in order to defy our helplessness in the face of natural threats and increase the odds of our survival. In the pre-historic era during which there was almost no technology, devices couldn’t be physically large. People leveraged intangible methods such as enigmatic rituals or myths to understand and somehow calm the overwhelming threat of nature which was way beyond their control.
As the time went on, people started inventing increasingly sophisticated devices both physical and conceptual. Architecture became taller and larger, and our systems such as agriculture and transportation became increasingly sophisticated.
Left: Giza Pyramids by V Manninen via CC BY 2.0
Right: Agricultural system in ancient Egypt
As increased food production allowed humans to direct increasing amounts of resources towards intellectual endeavors, our society kept growing – physically larger, and systemically more robust. It enabled the creation of reliable shields against external threats and delivered much-needed safety, security and stability. Today we no longer have to feel natural threats on a daily basis thanks to wide variety of large facilities, infrastructure, systems or capacities that protect and empower us. Storms or heat are blocked, darkness is conquered, the food supply is stabilized, diseases are contained and the social order is maintained. This is the power of big-ness. We have many reason to love big-ness.
Except for one “small” detail: our bodies.
However hard we may try to envelop ourselves within large structures, our bodies are still small and fragile. And that is not going change anytime soon. As the things that surround us grew larger, disconnect or gap between our size and the surroundings kept growing, large urban areas became “concrete jungle” despite the intentions of planners. The vehicles we drive can easily became weapons capable of crushing our bodies. A Wal-Mart can be a ridiculously large and confusing place if you are trying to find a specific product. Large, complex political and economic system run by elites are no longer accessible by ordinary people or laypersons.
From that perspective, big is alienating, oppressive, disorienting and disengaging. There is nothing much we can do than to succumb and give up when we face huge, hard, heavy, fast and strong objects or systems. We feel helpless.
That’s when we feel the need to re-discover the power and effectiveness of smallness.