Big is Ugly

“Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”
― E.F. Schumacher

In the 1970s the economist and author E.F. Schumacher condemned the industrial system of production for the harm it does to individuals, communities, and nature. He wrote the influential book Small is Beautiful and summed it up by saying “man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful.”

Big is ugly

The corollary of ‘small is beautiful’ is that ‘big is ugly’. Schumacher’s sentiments echo those from a wide variety of writers and commentators from the very beginning of the industrial revolution until now, including William Wordsworth, David Henry Thoreau, John Ruskin, William Morris, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Wright and Schumacher’s contemporaries including Ivan Illich and Schumacher’s teacher, the economics professor, Leopold Kohr.

Kohr had this to say about bigness:

“There seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.” – Leopold Kohr

Early industrialism

From the beginning in the late 1970s industrialisation resulted in the centralisation of production in ever-growing cities. As more and more people flocked to the early industrial centres of England, the Romantic era poets of the time who revered both nature and human well-being, were horrified with the squalor, noise and inhumanity of the workers’ conditions both inside and outside the factories they worked in.

The poet William Wordsworth could clearly see that industry was replacing nature; the artificial was replacing the natural. Wordsworth was abhorred industrial-sized production, which he saw as being an act of violence. In his poem, “The World is Too Much With Us” Wordsworth is saying that modernity has eroded not just people’s connection to nature, but also people’s sense of individual identity, self-determination and agency. The poem suggests that modern city life has led to a sort of uniformity of experience and that people have lost the ability to live naturally.

Other nineteenth century writers such as Thoreau, Ruskin, Morris, Tolstoy and Charles Dickens criticised industrialism, and the division of labour in particular, which increasingly separated workers from their productions and drove people to work in conditions that were degrading and dehumanising.

That soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which must necessarily and inevitably produce either escapism or aggression, and that no amount of of “bread and circuses” can compensate for the damage done–these are facts which are neither denied nor acknowledged but are met with an unbreakable conspiracy of silence–because to deny them would be too obviously absurd and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity.” ― E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

The flight to the cities decimated rural and provincial areas, turning once thriving localised economies into ghost towns. In the twentieth century Mahatma Gandhi also condemned the violence that industrialism causes, undermining traditional close-knit social structures. Gandhi was not averse to machinery, per se, but he did think that industrialism with its behemoth machines and reliance on dirty energy was harmful to both people and the planet. Human-scale technology is more natural and more humane. It provides skilled and meaningful work for more people. Gandhi gave the example of the sewing machine as a type of desirable and appropriate-scale technology.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. – E. F. Schumacher


Recent writers like Jarod Diamond and Robert Wright talk about civilisations that have failed throughout history because they became too big and ravenous, using up limited resources. Because they were so big these civilisations became burdened with the weight of complex bureaucracies and technocracies which hastened their fall. Wright talked about ‘progress traps’ which are when a technology, institution or system is beneficial to begin with and so it is made bigger and bigger until it expands too much that it ‘crashes the system’. This has happened many times throughout history. The Sumerian civilisation, for instance, over-farmed the lands of Mesopotamia even when it was becoming obvious the harm it was doing. Their clever irrigation systems and farming processes led to increasing salination of soils where ultimately nothing could grow, and the civilisation perished.

Ivan Illich made the same point about the education and healthcare systems. Once a school or a hospital becomes too big it becomes counter-productive. Illich calls the industrialist mindset, ‘growth mania’, and says it is an addiction and that “addicts of any kind are willing to pay increasing amounts for declining satisfaction,” which is exactly what we see in society today.

Growth leads to declining marginal returns which at some point tips into the negative and the costs of growth (including environmental and social degradation) outweigh the benefits.

In the wake of the global economic meltdown in 2008 governments around the world spent billions bailing out failing financial institutions. (Ironically, it was the financial institutions that had created the problem in the first place!) The reason given for the bailouts was that these banks and other corporations were considered too big to fail. This highlights one of the biggest problems of industrialisation and capital accumulation; namely a lack of resilience. As Alan Greenspan, the former US Federal Reserve Governor, correctly pointed out after the bailouts, “if they’re too big to fail, they’re too big”.

Whilst a huge part of the developed world’s manufacturing has been shifted to developing economies in places like Mexico and East Asia, it has still grown and grown. More is manufactured in the world that ever before. Instead of despoiling their own countries, the developed economies import their goods but outsource their pollution, emissions and resource depletion to poorer countries who can less afford it.

If big is ugly what is to be done?

The answer is that small is beautiful!

The ideal business is small, no matter what sort of business it is. Small is beautiful because it does less harm to the natural environment, it increases workers’ sense of self-worth, it creates more jobs, it creates a more equable distribution of wealth, it localises production and consumption and uses less energy and resources. That’s win after win after win!


Leopold Kohr (1973) – from Size and Democracy, by Robert A. Dahl and Edward R. Tufte, Stanford University Press.

Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered.

Wordsworth, W. (1855). Poems of William Wordsworth.

Illich, I. (1973). Tools for conviviality. HarperCollins Publishers.