Matter of Scale

Do aggregates of humans  in business suits lose their soul beyond a certain number under the same corporate roof? 

Does the myopic quest for efficiency and profit to the exclusion of all other common good turn proper intention toward the dark side?

Can we survive in the era of BIG? 

Those were the questions rising in the steam from my first cup of coffee this morning. And so my morning pages took the shape of the following screed (also posted to for a potentially wider audience than you, mom. TLDR. But that’s okay. I feel better now.)


John Muir famously said that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

I have new concerns about a near-by deforesting project and have started digging into it. And what I find is that logging Lick Ridge down to the dirt brings me squarely back into the currents that have been sweeping the western world to the brink now since the Great Acceleration.

It’s all about efficiency of the process and profit for the shareholders, and in the end, money drives the machinery of the age. This is our purpose, our raison d’etre, what America, at a certain aggregate level, is and for too long has been all about. And the rest of the world – at least until recently – wanted to walk in our boots and follow our way forward. That way does not lead forward but a few more steps, so it’s urgent that we go another direction.

Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Fiber, Big Finance, Big Risk: What all of these giants have in common is that, in the end, and in spite of slick ads and creative greenwashing, people and planet do not matter. The future does not matter other than that the graphs of share prices trend upward. The vitality and well-being of particular living creatures and Earth systems play no part in the business equation. Those messy abstractions limit power and profit and make shareholders unhappy and tend to shave a few million from CEO portfolios.

Through all the BIGS runs the thread of self, of haughty and callous indifference, of arrogance, of denial and of greed. To hell with your soil, your drinking water and air, your pitiful little investments, and your health. Those effects are simply collateral damage of good business. The worse these things become, the higher goes the GDP. If things are not broken, if there is not the perpetuated fear of insufficiency, then we don’t need more natural gas, more pesticides, more Happy Meals, more health/life/property insurance. Well-being is steady-state talk, and the board won’t like it.

There is a divide here, somewhere near the bottom line, of people on the one side who are champions for the living, for the sustainability of place, for the dignity of differently-colored people on the other side of the globe and for the health and well-being of far-future generations. And those on the other side who are champions for the cold dead figures on a balance sheet.

There is a gulf fixed between those who think them-there-then and those who think me-here-now; those who don’t get Mr. Muir’s ecology of all things.

The former understand the frail marvel that is a cell, a coral reef, an intact forest, or a unimaginably-complex spoonful of topsoil and they feel some sense of duty to honor that creature, that living system that was here long before us, whose ongoing integrity sustains our own.

The latter see nothing alive, only resources to transform into commodity, and suckers who must pay The Man from their puny wages for toxic drugs and toxic policies and toxic food and old-growth wood pellets to keep their families alive but unwell.

This cabal has always been immensely powerful, so that the Old Story, business as usual, has driven the ship towards the brink during the Modern Era – during the entirety of my boomer lifetime. BIG has trammeled small for a century, but never like we will see in the coming years when Goliath reigns.

A single writer stands perplexed in the middle of his field looking at a strip-mined once-forested ridge one valley over. What is he to do with the round pebble in a leather sling? Is there a vulnerable place on that thick beetling skull where enough humans with good aim and with enough centrifugal force can fell the giant, can write the script of the New Story where people and planet matter more than profit?

I once thought so. Today, I am not so sure. But we should all keep that small hard river rock in our pockets, turn it in our hands often over the coming months and years, and remain vigilant for vulnerable targets to bring BIG down to human scale. BIG is at war with nature. And so we wage peace. Small is beautiful.

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Big is the rule, right now. Big business, big corporations, and big benefits for those corporations. It’s the foundation of capitalism, and that is our reality right now. I worry that the race to implement robots to improve the bottom line of corporations (under the guise of improving our day-to-day lives) will get us into BIG trouble!

  2. You sure they aren’t mourning pages these days?

    I’ve lived my whole life in a conservative state whose very existence seems defined by petroleum. My very home is bordered by not one but seven pipelines. Five on one side and two on the other. And, yet, I have worked and spent my money to save little pieces of nature even among the suburban sprawl of Houston.

    When you live in a place of nature and a piece is stripped, in your neighborhood, it’s always a shock. And, when you can save a piece of nature threatened by the developers bulldozers, it’s a wonderful feeling. Little against big is what we have now. Big is getting bigger, but, then again, little is getting bigger too. Banding together, raising our voices, voting our consciences, we will make a change. We won’t win them all, we might not even win most, but little by little we will change the course.

    Now Fred, tell us about the life that reclaims those ridges and valleys. The blackberries that are going to sprout and bring in the bears. Explore the edges, document, write…

  3. Kinda disagree. You have made a big generalization here about BIG. You are emphasizing we-they paradigms that don’t need to exist. Your final advice seems along the line of shoot at the first BIG thing you can hit and ask questions (maybe) later. There’s gotta be a more nuanced approach.

  4. I don’t see where you see shoot from the hip, Con. And tell me where my generalization about BIG don’t match reality on the ground. I’m listening. The solution is in a certain human scale of things that has, in my lifetime and yours, been supplanted by the power of very large numbers and of making the deal–for the lowest price per unit policy, gallons per acre, board feet per acre, or dollar premium vs dollar of paid-out benefit. Caveat emptor.

    Do share your notion of an effective-in-the-short-term “more nuanced approach” in confronting Monsanto, Exxon Mobil, Wall Street, Blue Cross and Weyerhaeuser. Nuanced has done nothing but bounce off the frontal bones of said Goliaths to date.

    The divide I describe is real and pernicious. I am open to an explanation for how that is not so. The consequences of putting Earth and People Last are not at all hard to find from these giants, the examples to the contrary are minuscule in comparison. But I am open to being shown the flaws in this understanding.

  5. I think Big per se isn’t the focus, but corporations big enough to have shareholders. The Corporations Code in each state needs to be amended to make the duty of the Board to be more than maximizing profits for shareholders. The Code needs to require consideration of intangibles like harm to the environment. I have a law degree and have read about this a bit. If we could only get states to do this. It is a matter of state law, with most states encacting a Uniform Code created and pushed through by lobbyists

  6. CopCar, I don’t see the cause-effect between large populations and large conglomerate corporate profit machines although size does seem to equate in some ways with ethical practice. it’s almost like at a certain scale of power (to buy, sell, distribute, brand and advertise) it becomes possible to generate incredible returns that bewitch the rising priests of BIG OIL etc. Formerly moral people are sucked into this machinery of power and sell their souls to the devil. Across all the BIGS, at some point, small people and nameless places become nothing but acceptable collateral damage; the bad corporate actors stop caring about consequences.

    They create “alternate truths” that allow them to live with themselves.

  7. Good thing for nature, bad thing that over the interim our children’s children will suffer the consequences of “for profit” mentality that drives us to spend, consume, use up and throw away because that’s where the money is.

  8. Yes. I agree. Very bad for people and the thousands of species that support us. It’s a mess out there. I think maybe we’re all caught up in our own machine. Where’s the off button? On a lighter note, it’s good to know there are people like you that get it and have the courage to speak up about it.