Small is Beautiful: The Lost Wisdom of E.F. Schumacher
Some old ideas are more relevant than ever as the world faces its greatest environmental challenge
Notes from a deep green conservative
FOR A NUMBER of footloose years as a student I carried around an old dog-eared copy of E.F. Schumacher’s best-selling classic in my several milk crates of books and other worldly possession that fitted neatly on the back seat of my old VW.
Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered was for me and millions of others a kind of blueprint of what society might dare to look like in the future.
As it turned out, we were all dead wrong.
Rather than science and technology moving toward “the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful” as Schumacher put it, we hurtled into a world where greed was good and economic and population growth ramped up to warp speed.
Now that we are, in one way or another, beginning a new transition phase in human history, perhaps it is time to revisit one of the most influential books of the late twentieth century.
Small is Beautiful is not an easy read. It is a dense, at times meandering, almost mystical meditation on the human and ecological aspects of economy.
The production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life
What made it unique, as it’s subtitle suggests, was Schumacher’s appeal for a move away from technological gigantism to smaller and more human scale technologies and economies.
He was also concerned that the environment be regarded as precious resource to be conserved rather than exploited. “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility,” he wrote.
This is now a common refrain, but when published in 1973 it was radical stuff.
ERNST FRIEDRICH SCHUMACHER was born in Germany in 1911, the son of a professor of political economy. He studied in Berlin, then at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and later at Columbia University in New York.
He returned to Germany, but his distaste for Nazism saw him migrate back to Britain before the war.
Schumacher’s subsequent career, given his later views on economics, was one of considerable contradiction.
While interned on a remote farm during the war the young polymath wrote a paper that caught the attention of John Maynard Keynes, one of the architects of modern global economics (and who ‘accidentally’ published some of Schumacher’s early work as his own).
Schumacher’s paper essentially outlined the financial mechanisms for a post-war multinational economy and the development of the International Monetary Fund to facilitate the change.
After the war he spent many years as Chief Economic Adviser to the British National Coal Board (NCB), then one of the world’s largest organisations with 800,000 employees.
But Schumacher, a man of wry humour who valued a knowledge of Shakespeare more than that of reductionist science, obviously had growing doubts about it all.
He once wrote he had a recurring dream of attending NCB board meetings. Every time a decision was made, a director left the table and plugged a chord into a nearby telephone switchboard.
Compelled to explore the phone contraption, Schumacher found it was attached to nothing at all.
Modern man talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side
Schumacher’s various consultancies (including at one time chief editorial writer for The Times), allowed him to travel widely throughout the developing world, particularly India and Burma.
It was here, as an adviser to the Indian Development Commission, that he proclaimed that the “production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life.”
Anyone who traveled to the subcontinent before the late 1980' will recall the difficulties involved in clearing customs as India tried to protect her economy from the the rising tide of global trade.
Schumacher was also impressed by what he described as ‘appropriate technology’ — generally defined as small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous.
By the early 1970’s the western philosophical zeitgeist was more than ready for Small is Beautiful, particularly Schumacher’s ideas of village based Buddhist economics derived from his own observations as well as his readings of Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophical anarchist Leopold Khor.
In later life Catholicism, particularly the Catholic Social Teaching movement deeply influenced his thinking.
So are Schumacher’s ideas still relevant today?
The world has changed dramatically since Schumacher’s death in 1977.
But I am reminded, ironically, of Donald Trump’s observation that a country that exports its manufacturing base to places where labour is cheap is going to end up with a serious unemployment problem at home — as has happened in the US during the past quarter century.
Although I am sure Schumacher would be no fan of Trump’s redneck conservatism, the same common-sense economic principles apply.
The continuing drive to invent labour-saving and environmentally “inappropriate technologies” only serve to concentrate wealth in the hands of global corporations at the expense of local communities, the environment and ordinary workers.
It is real work, wrote Schumacher, that forms human character.
In a world of hollow “bullshit jobs” as author David Graeber so eloquently puts it — where sitting in an office cubicle is valued more than working in a field, where automation of the production-line is valued more than individual craftsmanship - Schumacher’s views on economics as if people mattered are more relevant than ever.
Ultimately Small is Beautiful represents an existential call for humans to see themselves as being part of nature rather than driving themselves to dominate it.
He wrote: “[modern man talks] of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side”.
Well, it seems we’re fast approaching the losing side. E.F. Schumacher could once again offer a guide to the future.
Next week: What is Appropriate Technology and how is it relevant in today’s world.