The fight against pollution [cannot] be successful if the patterns of production and consumption continue to be of a scale, a complexity, and a degree of violence which, as is becoming more and more apparent, do not fit into the laws of the universe, to which man is just as much subject as the rest of creation.1
Schumacher was working on his ideas at a time when the dominant ideology was 'the bigger the better'. Large institutions, multinational corporations, industrial mergers, unlimited economic growth and ever increasing consumption, were considered symbols of progress. Schumacher said, 'We suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism.'2
In response to such idolatry, Schumacher encapsulated an alternative world-view in his seminal collection of essays, Small is Beautiful (1973), which became one of the most popular books amongst members of the British Parliament. The suggestion that many of the environmental and social problems facing the world were the result of idolatry to giantism intrigued Jimmy Carter, President of the USA, and consequently Schumacher was invited to the White House to advise the president in 1977. The Governor of California at that time, Jerry Brown, became so convinced by Schumacher's analysis that he initiated a number of measures embodying the 'small is beautiful' approach.
Ernst Fritz Schumacher was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1911. He came to England in 1930 as a Rhodes scholar to read Economics at New College, Oxford. After a short spell of teaching Economics at Columbia University, New York, followed by dabbling in business, farming and journalism, he became an economic advisor to the British Control Commission in Germany (1946-50), followed by a long career in the National Coal Board in Britain.
It was Schumacher's involvement in the economics of developing countries that challenged and changed his economic philosophy. He realized that the Western pursuit of unlimited economic growth on a gigantic scale is neither desirable nor practicable for the rest of the world. If anything, the West itself needs to learn the simplicity, spirituality and good sense of other cultures which are not yet in the grip of technological imperatives. 'In the excitement of the unfolding of his scientific and technological powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature, and a type of society that mutilates man.'3
The turning point came in 1955 when he was sent as Economic Development Advisor to the government of Burma. He was supposed to introduce the Western model of economic growth in order to raise the living standards of the Burmese people. But he discovered that the
Burmese needed no economic development along Western lines, as they themselves had an indigenous economic system well suited to their conditions, culture and climate. As a result of his encounter with this profound and practical Buddhist civilization, he wrote his well-known essay, 'Buddhist Economics' (1966). Schumacher was perhaps the only Western economist to dare to put these two words, Buddhism and economics, together. The essay was printed and reprinted in numerous journals and anthologies.
Recalling his time in Burma he told me that the Burmese needed little advice from him. In fact Western economists could learn a thing or two from the Burmese. They had a perfectly good economic system, which supported a highly developed religion and culture and produced not only enough rice for their own people but also a surplus for the markets of India. He further commented that when he had published his findings under the title of 'Buddhist Economics', a number of his economist colleagues had asked, 'Mr Schumacher, what does economics have to do with Buddhism?' His answer was simply that 'Economics without Buddhism is like sex without love'. Economics without spiritual values can only give temporary and physical gratification; it cannot provide lasting fulfilment. Buddhist economics includes service to fellow human beings and compassion for all life as well as making a profit and working efficiently. We need both economics and spirituality and we need them simultaneously.
During his time in Burma Schumacher encountered the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way. He wanted to apply it to technology. He saw that people are either stuck with the sickle or they seek a combine harvester, thus he developed the Schumacher Principle of the Disappearing Middle, referring to the way that when a new, advanced technology is developed it displaces its immediate predecessor. Consequently what is left is either expensive, sophisticated, state-of-the-art technology or very simple hand tools. Whereas what small farmers and manual workers require is a technology between these two extremes.
In 1970, after many years of gestation, Schumacher founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) with an article in the pages of the Observer newspaper. He received an overwhelming response from the general public. ITDG became the practical expression of respect for cultural diversity. It pursued economic development within people's cultural context, rather than looking at the non-industrialized world as 'under-developed'. Intermediate Technology was envisioned to be environment-friendly, non-polluting and non-exploitative of people or nature. Therefore it also became known as 'appropriate technology' or 'alternative technology'. The concept was initially applied to non-industrialized countries, but technologies of renewable energy, of recycling and of ecological restoration in the West, became part of the same movement of a technology for a sustainable future.
Complementary to Intermediate Technology was his involvement with sustainable agriculture; he spent much time on his organic garden and became president of the Soil Association. He believed that 'in the simple question of how we treat the land.our entire way of life is involved'.4 He had no doubt that 'a callous attitude to the land and to the animals thereon is connected with, and symptomatic of, a great many other attitudes, such as those producing heedless urbanization, needless industrialization, and a kind of fanaticism which insists on playing about with novelties—technical, chemical, biological and so forth—long before their long term consequences are even remotely understood'.5
For Schumacher, care for the land and for the soil was fundamental to caring for the whole of the natural world, as well as a way of creating a just and equitable society. In the 1960s and 1970s attention to 'Mind, Body, Spirit' was becoming popular amongst alternative circles. Schumacher found this too narrow, human-centred and individualistic. It was all about the human mind, human body and human spirit. It left out the issues of social justice and caring for the earth. The spiritual dimension for Schumacher was paramount: individual development and personal growth were necessary, but only in the context of social wellbeing and the wellbeing of the Earth. Therefore Schumacher's philosophy led away from the personal focus of 'mind, body and spirit' to the broader and more inclusive concerns of what I have called, 'soil, soul and society'.
Schumacher was a holistic and ecological economist. Modern economics looks at the world as a resource for ever-increasing profit, and at human beings as units of labour for the profitability and continuity of the economic system. Schumacher saw it the other way round. That is why he subtitled Small is Beautiful 'a study of economics as if people mattered'. Furthermore economics must be a way of sustaining, restoring and maintaining the immense diversity and complexity of the biosphere in addition to nourishing, nurturing and fulfilling appropriate human needs. Economics is to serve people and planet. In order to achieve this kind of economic system, it must remain under local control and within a human scale, not becoming subservient to the so-called 'economy of scale'.
The importance of small-scale and local production became crystal clear to him when Schumacher saw a lorry full of biscuits being brought from Manchester to London, and minutes later another lorry full of biscuits being taken from London to Manchester. Schumacher gasped: What could be the economic rationale of this activity? Having failed to see any good reason for this transportation which caused air pollution and wasted fossil fuels and human labour, Schumacher said in frustration: 'As I am not a nutritionist, I wonder if the nutritional value of the biscuits is increased by this transaction?! Otherwise, if Manchester has a special kind of biscuit it could simply send the recipe to London on a postcard, and vice-versa.'
To Schumacher it was logical and natural to produce, consume and organize as locally as possible, which inevitably meant on a smaller scale. Therefore to him the question of size was an overriding and over-arching principle. He refused to accept that largeness was necessary for prosperity: 'Small units are highly prosperous and provide society with most of the really fruitful new developments'.6 Again, he wrote: 'The question of scale is extremely crucial today, in political, social and economic affairs just as in almost everything else'.7
Beyond a certain scale the people involved are disempowered and a bureaucratic machine takes over. For example, in a school of 1,000 children, parents do not know the teachers, teachers cannot know all the children, the children cannot know each other, and the surrounding community is overwhelmed by the influx of pupils who do not belong to that community. In this situation children become numbers, and the aim of education becomes meeting the requirements of the system and the league tables rather than the development of the whole child.
Similarly, large hospitals, large factories and large businesses lose the purpose of enriching human wellbeing and become obsessed with maintaining and perpetuating the organization for its own sake. Therefore it could be said almost invariably that if there is something wrong, there is something too big. Also, big organizations will have big problems, and small organizations will have small problems, which can be solved more easily.
As in economics, so in politics. Schumacher was greatly influenced by the Austrian philosopher Leopold Kohr, whom he considered his mentor. In the book, Breakdown of Nations, Kohr outlines the case against giantism and against big nations. In countries such as Sweden or Switzerland, there is much more political participation and flexibility.
When people in these countries want to bring about change they can do so with greater ease than in countries like China, India or the USA. So Schumacher believed in small nations, small communities and small organizations. Small, simple, and non-violent were his three philosophical precepts.8 These were to determine all relationships—economic, political and cultural—within human societies, as well as between humans and the natural world.
Schumacher died in September 1977, in Switzerland. He wrote only two books, Small is Beautiful and A Guide for the Perplexed, the latter published posthumously. A collection of his speeches was later published under the title of Good Work. Yet his influence was vastly greater than the volume of his published work might suggest. He was more than an economist, he was also a very practical man. He inspired many people through his busy schedule of lectures, private meetings and through his support of grassroots projects. 'Pollution must be brought under control and mankind's population and consumption of resources must be steered towards a permanent and sustainable equilibrium'9 was his advice to the groups with whom he worked.
His legacy continues to be felt. Immediately after his death the Schumacher Society was established in Britain, which continues to promote the ideas of ecological economics. The Society holds annual lectures in Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. Some of these lectures have now been published. Schumacher Societies have also sprung up in the USA, Germany and India.
His writings have inspired people in different disciplines. In education a number of Small Schools have been established, where the emphasis is on 'education as if children matter'. A College named after him has also been established at Dartington, Devon, exploring an ecological world-view from many different perspectives, while students practise a lifestyle built around the precepts of small, simple, local and non-violent. In economics, the New Economics Foundation encourages ideas of local economies, local currencies and local trading. In the field of development, ITDG continues to promote indigenous and small-scale projects. In the field of energy, the National Centre of Alternative Technology, Wales, attracts thousands of visitors keen to see methods of renewable energy. Resurgence magazine, for which Schumacher wrote regularly, continues to examine and expound the 'small is beautiful' ethos.
1 Small is Beautiful, p. 247.
6 Small is Beautiful, p. 53.
8 Resurgence, January/February 1974.
E.F.Schumacher's major writings
Small is Beautiful; A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, 1973, London: Abacus, Sphere Books Ltd, 1988. Includes the essay 'Buddhist Economics'. A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977, London: Abacus, Sphere Books Ltd, 1989. Good Work, London: Jonathan Cape, 1979. A collection of speeches. This I Believe, Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 1997. A collection of twenty-one articles published in Resurgence; includes 'Buddhist Economics'.
Button, John, The Green Fuse, London and New York: Quartet Books, 1990. A
collection of Schumacher Lectures. Kohr, Leopold, The Breakdown of Nations, 1957, London and New York: Routledge
& Kegan Paul, 1986. Kumar, Satish (ed.), The Schumacher Lectures Vol. I and II, London: Blond &
Briggs, 1980 and 1984 respectively. McRobie, George, Small is Possible, London: Jonathan Cape, 1981. Wood, Barbara, Alias Papa: A Biography, London: Jonathan Cape, 1984.
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Global warming is a huge problem which will significantly affect every country in the world. Many people all over the world are trying to do whatever they can to help combat the effects of global warming. One of the ways that people can fight global warming is to reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy sources like oil and petroleum based products.