Layers of Ecology: Book Review for A Matter of Scale by Keith Farnish

“Businesses and politicians have no part whatsoever to play in the solution: it is all about individual ‘non-civilians’.”

-Keith Farnish

The Sust Enable webcast series was spawned in a climax of understanding… years of myriad input and countless bits of information collected over time at once coalesced into one artistic, complex and beautiful vision.  I’ve never experienced anything else quite like it.  This is why I sometimes refer to the project as my “opus”–it artistically expresses and defines who I was before this period.  Who I will be after, too, is forever altered by the work’s creation.  Like giving birth to a living being, the act of creation transcends your own capacity to control it.

I can only imagine that Keith Farnish’s comprehensive A Matter of Scale was a similar labor of love.  One can sense the author’s own expressive burst in the feverish love with which he forms his ideas.

A Matter of Scale is an e-Book only; not yet a typical “print” book.  This could be for a number of reasons.  It could be the author’s environmental concerns of tree-felling for books.  Then, it could be the crux of his whole philosophy of taking personal responsibility for the actions affecting our global ecosystem.  But one thing is certain–A Matter of Scale is unpublished certainly NOT due to its lack of quality insight and urgent information.  For its own modest scale and scope, it packs a wallop.

A Matter of Scale is a powerful read.  Farnish is a long-time environmental writer, and his experience shows.  Farnish implores us to expand our narrow perspectives about what’s going on with our planet by examining issues that often slip by the naked eye: issues of scale.  

For instance, microscopic viruses, who are so small and singular they walk the line between a living and inanimate being, are more deadly than the nuclear weapons that we tend to fuss over, while cities are breeding grounds for infection.  

The implicit caveat inherent to noticing the astonishing significance of the tiniest elements on Earth is to then see the absolutely unfathomable enormity of the single human species’ influence on all living systems and processes of planet Earth.  Farnish dedicates Part Two of his book to illustrating the extreme effects humans, which perhaps from a global vision look as insignificant as little ants or bees, actually have on massive systems (just as bees and ants likewise facilitate innumerable plant life).

His main message is that each one of us can take personal responsibility for what we believe and choose, and that individuals taking direct action for what they feel is right is essential to developing a world we can all believe in.  This thesis resonates strongly with me.  It is the same concept that Sust Enable stems from.  Our philosophies and experiences continue to match:

“On a personal level, I have chosen to become a vegetarian for a number of reasons – the desire not to kill animals and the understanding that such a diet is more environmentally sound among them – but if I was a nomadic Inuit or a Kalahari Bushman, then dietary choice would only be possible if there was a surplus of the necessary nutrients to keep me alive. If I had to eat meat to survive then my vegetarianism would take second place to my hunger.”

A Matter of Scale, Keith Farnish

Indeed!  I once believed living 100% environmentally sustainably in an urban setting in the United States would be a breeze.  

What I failed to consider is exactly what he describes here: that your circumstances determine your range of choices.  Is dumpster diving really a viable choice?  Well, when you’re working 9:00 to 5:00 on editing and shooting a film, the answer becomes No!  While it might be possibly to live 100% sustainably with the resources available in Pittsburgh, it must be your top priority: if it’s not or it cannot be, then 100% is only a fantasy.

But why work on any given thing if the overall harm you could do to our shared world surpasses the overall benefit to you?  Farnish poses these questions by comparing side-by-side some common practices, and the results are provocative, to say the least.

Farnish has the tendency to wax philosophic sometimes, and he experiments with language that is alternately directly imploring and neighborly and warm.  Perhaps the tone only seems unsuccessful sometimes because our current social media is so saturated with similar messages.  Yet I think Farnish excels for the most part, especially in the sections in which he seamlessly incorporates theoretical and scientific information and lets it speak for itself.  Some of the research he presents here will wow you, and let you think about it for days.  And hopefully, serve as another little bit that ultimately provokes you to act.

I firmly believe, and Mr. Farnish has confirmed it, that if every human being on Earth had the means to realize her deepest dreams–and the means to grasp and understand her intricate presence and purpose within life–then the world, utilizing its maximum potential, would approach Utopia.  Mr. Farnish has acted in the best way he knows how, with his opus, A Matter of Scale.  I have acted with mine.

When will you share yours with us?

(In the meantime, read it: it’ll do you good.)

For More Information:

  1. Steve Salmony

    Still ignoring one cause of the things that threaten the human community.

    Based upon what we can see now, and understand from so many discussions in SustainaBlog, would it be correct to say unequivocally that an increasing food supply for the human species is the essential factor producing the recent skyrocketing increase of absolute global human population numbers?

    Until this relationship is seen (ie, food is the independent variable and human population numbers is the dependent variable), and its implications understood and accepted, the human community cannot respond ably to the global challenges that are looming ominously on the far horizon, I believe. The family of humanity will continue its necessary but insufficient projects at “symptom mitigation” of the global threats without ever taking hold of what is actually causing our difficulties and threatening our very existence. We can identify the problem. We are it.

    If the skyrocketing growth of human numbers worldwide is THE number one problem to be confronted by the human community in our time, then ideas for humanely reducing human population numbers makes good sense, I suppose.

    To have continuously denied the seminal work of Thomas Malthus and to have castigated the great scientists who have extended his thinking and improved our understanding; to have adamantly demanded that the relationship between food and human population numbers be seen conversely, will be acknowledged as the greatest failure of human perception in human history. At least to me, the implications of this potentially catastrophic perceptual error (ie, human population numbers is the independent variable and food supply the dependent variable) appear to be profound and could have something to do with the existence of the culturally derived functional insanity in the thinking of the leaders of the global political economy and their manipulation of many minions in the mass media who are mainstreaming this primary misperception and other economically expedient and politically convenient mistaken impressions to people everywhere.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  2. Island Press

    Sounds like a very interesting, thought-provoking book! Seems to me like too much of the discussion concerns solutions to current environmental problems, not what we can do to prevent them in the future.

    For anyone interested in another book about human actions as the root of the food, energy, and disease crises, check out “The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment” by Paul and Anne Ehrlich (co-authors of the 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb”). It addresses how the current path of human cultural evolution is impacting our environment and what we can do about it.

  3. Keith Farnish

    Thank you for the review, Caroline. I’m glad you had the time to read and understand the book in detail – it is greatly appreciated. On the tone of the book, I purposefully have kept it conversational in order not to alienate too many people; some hard-core anti-civs may find this too soft an approach, but I’m prepapred to take the risk in order to gather up a slightly wider audience who may not have given the ideas the time of day.

    Island Press – the solutions included (which only occupy one chapter of 17) are long term and largely about prevention in the future; they are about undermining systems and allowing those who want to survive that opportunity. A non-civilization set of cultures will always outlive those cultures imbued in civilization – that is borne out by history.


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