“Small is Beautiful” talk highlights value of downsizing

The Sigma Tau Delta English honor society hosted its third lecture focused on different literary perspectives of society or politics of the semester in the Harding Lounge.

For this lecture, the honor society invited associate professor of English Ken Cooper to give a talk entitled “Small is Beautiful.” Cooper previously delivered the talk for a conference in the fall of 2016, repurposing it for Sigma Tau Delta. The title of the presentation came from Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered, a 1973 book by E.F. Schumacher, which challenges the popular notion that “bigger” is always “better.” 

The presentation began with Cooper channeling Schumacher as he showed images from the post-apocalyptic Disney movie Wall-E. He continued talking about the flaws of infinite growth by using examples from the past decade, such as how Hummers and McMansions became popular in the 2000s partly because of these notions. 

The lecture then shifted to focus upon the movement to minimize, which has tried to counter the Hummers and the McMansions. Again using popular media, Cooper showed a clip of the hipster satire “Portlandia” to depict the “tiny house movement,” where people create a chic, compact living space inside trailers or mobile homes. The ecological impact of the tiny houses is much smaller than that of larger houses—but Cooper’s analysis doesn’t end there. 

The reasoning behind why people choose to surround themselves in larger or smaller things is of particular interest to Cooper. He emphasized the value of analyzing the meaning and subtext in order to understand the movements to his audience. 

“As English majors, I just want to underscore the importance of representation, language, metaphor and narrative to all of these kinds of questions,” Cooper said. 

Cooper found the meaning of the movements through the literary works of Henry David Thoreau and Philip K. Dick. In Thoreau, he saw the ecological emphasis people placed in small houses. People like small things because they take up less space and make less waste, as far as Thoreau and his followers were concerned. 

Cooper offers a counterpoint to that version of thought through Dick’s science fiction. In one book, the characters take a pill that makes them the size of a doll and they use those pills to have the ideal, minimized life. Cooper points out that people may resort to small things in an attempt to return to some simpler life with fewer nuances, like childhood. 

The audience appeared to absorb much of Cooper’s argument, although Sigma Tau Delta treasurer and English major senior Oliver Diaz did voice his critique on one point. 

“I think that some people were trying to do this minimizing because they were conscious of the impact,” Diaz said. “I think the focus of this presentation was about how it became a trendy thing, but the fact of the matter is that these people are living tough lives because they care about the environment.” 

Of the two main explanations for why people seem to like small things, Cooper does not choose a side. He instead ended on a note that returned to the notion of how to interpret the impulse to minimize. 

“It’s kind of easy to laugh at the tiny house people,” Cooper said. “I chose to see it instead as a desire that’s shaped by a miniaturized bourgeois desire to own your own home, but there are also some ecological motivations that might be useful. There’s a lot to unpack there.”