Bigger Versus Better

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Endangered Species, John Cheek, Philosophy, Sustainability, the Madfarmer | Posted on 06-10-2009

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by John Cheek

 

49630_cowboys_titans_football Professor George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkley, has argued that language is structured around an indeterminate set of conceptual metaphors. Some of these metaphors are common aphorisms such as, “Life is a journey,” while others, such as, “Form is motion,” are explicitly spoken less often but are still important in the way we think of things.

 

Imagine driving on a two-lane highway through a verdant stretch of Oklahoma wheat fields in early spring. You might describe the scene this way, “The dusty road ran fortuitously between newly green fields.” But wait, the road ran? Roads don't run; they don't move at all, (forgetting for the moment the chunks that have fallen out of the I-40 cross-town in recent years…) but it's not uncommon for us to describe the form of a static object in this way. In fact sometimes we would struggle to describe form at all if we were restricted from using the conceptual metaphor.

 

Another conceptual metaphor that affects not just our language but our psychology is, “Size equals significance.” Think about “big discoveries,” “huge developments,” or just the screens at Jerry's World in Arlington. Unfortunately, I think this conceptual metaphor is a danger to sustainable thinking/living. Here are a couple of places where I think we should be careful about letting the size of things decide there importance.

 

Last Tuesday the banner headline on the BBC homepage read “Giant fish 'verges on  extinction.'” The story reports that a three-year search for the Chinese paddlefish has failed _46444231_paddlefish1 to yield a single sighting, the last paddlefish having been spotted in 2003. Now, I think it is important and grave when any species is on the brink of perishing, but why does the paddlefish warrant a front page story? Because it's the largest fresh water fish in the world? Think of how the threat to polar bears has caught the public attention where the plight of smaller creatures is ignored or even mocked (I found a spotted owl last week. It was delicious.). Now, I'm not suggesting this isn't an important story, but given how crucial creatures as small as bacteria are to all of the biological processes that keep us alive, you'd think we'd have equal appreciation for the little guys.

 

Another area where bigger is often presumed better is in business. We are impressed by profits in the billions and international distribution. This isn't meant to be a screed against corporations or business in general, just an invocation to look to the little guys. Large companies serve an important purpose in our society to be sure. It's hard to imagine how any of us could participate in the blog without a few big corporations. That being said, small companies present some unique advantages.

 

Think about a trip to the grocery store. If you’re interested in sustainable living, then you likely look for products labeled “Organic” or “Fair-Trade.” Those labels inspire some confidence that the food you buy is produced in a healthy, sustainable, and just way, but that confidence is pretty weak compared to my confidence in the quality of the food I take home from the Mad Farmer's fields. When I buy locally, from a producer I know, I'm not just helping local economy and decreasing my carbon footprint, I know that what I'm getting is the very thing I set out to get, much more than any label could ever show me.

 

So, as we go about trying to decide what's important to a sustainable life or a sustainable community, remember that size isn't equal to significance. Some things may be “too big to fail,” but they might also be too big to succeed if quality and sustainability are the goals.

Comments (1)

personally i think “big” as in big-box store, big houses, big cars, are in many cases destined to fail due to declining oil supplies and energy and resource depletion in general … the big corporations may break up into loosely formed conglomerates connected only by emails and data streams and little else as they scramble to regionally source goods and materials too expensive to ship thousands of miles around the globe. in the meantime, if a big corporation takes a sustainable step, that one step could lead to another and another. ultimately some forward-thinking companies may realize on their own the function of quality is better served in smaller and regional or local rather than global. and as social responsibility continues to spread — and people / planet / profits changes the model of “profit only” as a business model, the real question is: if sustainability and resilience are end goals and being incorporated into a businesses model (which would include diversity, modularity, social and environmental justice, etc.) then whether small, medium or large, will that be a useful thing?