The Human Scale: Oliver Sacks on How to Save Humanity from Itself


The poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) was one of those rare seers capable of bending their gaze past the horizon of their culture’s givens. He wrote presciently about consciousness, our search for meaning, and ChatGPT 30 years before ChatGPT. He challenged the blind spots of Western medicine with his empirically tested faith in the healing power of nature. And as he was dying, he wrote poignantly about the measure of a life fully lived.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Adam Scourfield)

An epoch before the civilizational cult of More metastasized in the grim golden age of Big Data and megaeverything, reducing human beings to data points in an immense scatterplot of corporate profit, Dr. Sacks considered what it would take to save humanity from itself.

When asked about his key concept for the near future, he answers in his warm English accent, New York Botanical Garden t-shirt, and passionate conviction:

In two words… human scale.

I think we have to preserve the human scale — in life, in building, in architecture, in technology. The human scale doesn’t mean we can’t have grand visions of the universe, it doesn’t preclude the development of physics and cosmology, but it does mean one shouldn’t be an anonymous person — an anonymous non-person, one of a thousand non-people — in a skyscraper.

I think the challenge is how can one preserve the human scale in great cities, in megalopolis, in corporations, in high technology… but, my God, we must do so — or there will be genocide, atomic bombs, and we’ll all perish and take the planet with us. Human scale is the thing that will save us.

Complement with the poetic naturalist Henry Beston on the sacredness of the small scale, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the three essential elements of creativity, the building blocks of personhood, and the power of music.


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