Small is Beautiful

Beginning another series of posts, this time concentrating on E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

Schumacher was a mid-20th century economist, a student of Keynes, who advised the British National Coal Board (a far bigger deal than the name alone indicates) for decades.  Influenced by his study of philosophy, particularly the traditional social thought of the Catholic Church,1 and his travels around the world as an economic consultant (particularly to Burma), he formulated an understanding of economics and technology that is a vital corrective to prevailing attitudes both in his day and our own.  His book was surprisingly popular, yet the problems Schumacher critiques are still very much with us and his solutions sadly unimplemented, at least on any mass scale.

By and large I believe that Schumacher is correct both in his diagnosis of what is wrong with modern economic systems and in his prescriptions to resolve the problem, and his writings have greatly informed much of the “what is to be done” aspect of my thought on the environment/economy.2

Schumacher suggests that the core problem is a philosophical one, an unwarranted confidence that material advances have eliminated the problem of production.  This false confidence is rooted in a materialistic techno-centric outlook3 that is, at its very core, false and will thus lead inexorably to collapse.  This outlook leaves us blind to the ravenous consumption/destruction of three irreplaceable resources :

This illusion, I suggested, is mainly due to our inability to recognizes that the modern industrial system , with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected. To use the language of the economists, it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.

Small is Beautiful, 21

My eye is, of course, most drawn to the last of these, though Schumacher gives ample space to all three.

The problems related to the first are fairly obvious, no less so in our modern era of seemingly never-ending violent entanglement in the Middle East than in Schumacher’s own ecologically-troubled time.

The second points to the broader set of ecological stresses placed on the natural world by careless, over-scaled industrialization.  Conceive of the natural world as an exceedingly complex system that is, for the most part, able to absorb any number of shocks.  A single summer without much rain does not cause an ecosystem to collapse nor does an especially cold winter or even a more violent natural disaster, such as a hurricane.  However, these events do place pressure on the system and, if they accumulate dramatically, a point can be reached where the “safety margin” of they system’s resiliency is overcome, leading to rapid collapse.  Perhaps the most obvious case of this sort of thing is what happened to isolated island ecosystems after the arrival of man.  A population of only fifty people–who brought with them dogs, rats, etc.–was enough to guarantee the extinction of the Dodo in less than a hundred years.

The third category that is consumed by the modern industrial system is, to put it in even more severe terms than Schumacher, the human soul.  One needs to only think of the Satanic mills of industrial England, suicide nets outside iPhone factories, or the bleak dehumanizing horror of Soviet architecture, to say nothing of the terrible all-consuming atomization of modern America.  There is simply no point to industrial society if it deprives us of our humanity, and no point to any reform that does not confront this corruption/consumption head on.

In the next few posts, I’d like to continue this diagnosis, looking at both the moral character of the current crisis and the systems of thought that underlie it, before proceeding to Schumacher’s suggestions of how to fix these issues in the realms of education, technology, and, perhaps, social organization.

1. Schumacher eventually converted to Catholicism a few years before his death in 1977.

2. The two are, of course, inextricably linked.  One of the pervasive and obviously true contentions of Small is Beautiful is that economics cannot simply be an arena cordoned off from the rest of human activity.

3. Which I would define as the idea that the attitude towards nature of humanity is essentially one of control and domination


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