by John Cheek
Professor George Lakoff, a linguist at the
Imagine driving on a two-lane highway through a verdant stretch of
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
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 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.