Trailblazer SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
E F Schumacher (1973)
Schumacher was an economist who struggled against the philosophy of materialism in economics. ‘Small is Beautiful’ is a collection of essays in which he challenges the philosophy of materialism and searches for the wisdom which could give peace and permanence to the world. In the epilogue to the book he writes:
in the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world. (p275)
In an essay entitled The problem of production, Schumacher argues that one of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that we have found the means to produce all the good things of life. He is concerned that modern man fails to see himself as a part of nature but instead considers himself to be an outside force which can dominate and conquer nature for his own ends. Referring to the economy of Spaceship Earth he says that modern man fails to distinguish between income and capital and is in fact rapidly consuming the capital of the Earth in a way that no businessman in a manufacturing company would conceive of doing. He cites as examples the gigantic exploitation of fossils fuels so that reserves are fast dwindling, the pollution hazards of storing radioactive wastes which will require future technologists to keep them safe for hundreds of years, and the preparedness to allow major changes in human behaviour to occur, such as increases in crime, drug addiction and mental breakdown, without taking adequate measures to safeguard what he terms ‘the human substance’.
In Peace and permanence he attacks the dominant contemporary belief that the soundest foundation for peace would be universal prosperity, on the grounds that such prosperity, if attainable at all, requires the cultivation of greed and envy, and these destroy intelligence, happiness, serenity, and thereby the peacefulness of man. He notes that Keynes in 1930 had written that ‘avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.’ Schumacher profoundly disagrees. He speaks of today's need for wisdom in economics, science and technology and suggests that since we have now become very successful, the problem of spiritual and moral truth becomes a central issue. He identifies the central concept of wisdom in economics as permanence:
Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be 'growth' towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth. It is more than likely, as Gandhi said, that 'Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not for every man's greed'. Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitude which rejoices in the fact that 'what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us. (p29)
Adopting the economics of permanence will entail a profound re-orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-¬violent, the elegant and the beautiful. Schumacher says that what we require of the scientists and technologists are methods and equipment which are sufficiently cheap to be available to virtually anyone, which are suitable for small scale application, and which serve man's need to be creative. He suggests that out of these three characteristics there is born non-violence and a relationship of man to nature which guarantees permanence. (p30)
In an essay entitled Buddhist economics Schumacher examined the contrasting views of work which might be taken by a western economist and by a Buddhist economist. He started from the position of universal agreement that human labour is a fundamental source of wealth, but that there is little agreement beyond.
The modern economist has been brought up to consider 'labour' or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the workman, it is a 'disutility'; to work is to make a sacrifice of one's leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment...
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence ... To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure. (p50)
Schumacher went on to show that a Buddhist economist does not comprehend the western view that standard of living is measured by amount of consumption, for his aim is to achieve the maximum of well being with the minimum of means. Further, production of goods from local resources for local needs is a more rational way of life to the Buddhist than to depend upon imports from afar. Unlike the western economist, the Buddhist economist distinguishes between renewable and non-renewable resources and will only use the latter with meticulous concern for conservation, for to use them otherwise would be an act of violence.
[W]hile complete non-violence may not be attainable on this Earth, there is nonetheless an ineluctable duty of man to aim at the ideal of non-violence in all he does. (p55)
He concluded the essay by saying that between the extremes of modern growth and traditional stagnation is the question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding Right Livelihood.
A question of size is an essay in which Schumacher argued that for his different purposes man needs many different structures, some small and some large, some exclusive and some comprehensive.
We always need both freedom and order. We need the freedom of lots and lots of small autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and co-ordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity of mankind and base our actions upon this recognition. (p59)
Schumacher suggested that today there is an almost universal idolatry of giantism and so it is necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness.
In Technology with a human face Schumacher identified three crises which simultaneously affect the world and each of which is associated with modern technology:
First, human nature revolts against inhuman technological, organisational, and political patterns, which it experiences as suffocating and debilitating; second, the living environment which supports human life aches and groans and gives signs of partial breakdown; and, third, it is clear to anyone fully knowledgeable in the subject matter that the inroads being made into the world’s non-renewable resources, particularly those of fossil fuels, are such that serious bottlenecks and virtual exhaustion loom ahead in the quite forseeable future. (p137)
Which of these three is the most deadly he doesn't know, but he asserts that a materialistic way of life, involving permanent, limitless expansion in a finite world, cannot last long. In its place he seeks a new life¬style, based on what he calls ‘technology with a human face’. Instead of making human hands and brains redundant, technology should help people to become far more productive than they have ever been before. It involves Gandhi's concept of replacing mass production by production by the masses.
The system of mass production, based on sophisticated, highly capital-intensive, high energy-input dependent, and human labour-¬saving technology, presupposes that you are already rich, for a great deal of capital investment is needed to establish one single workplace. The system of production by the masses mobilises the priceless resources which are possessed by all human beings, their clever brains and skilful hands, and supports them with first class tools. The technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and stultifying for the human person. The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralisation, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines. I have named it intermediate technology to signify that it is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer than the super-technology of the rich. (p143)
Schumacher spent the last fifteen years of his life (he died in 1977) in developing intermediate technology projects for third world countries.