We enjoyed a lively discussion on 5th September about ‘Small is Beautiful’. Views about the book varied from insightful, spiritual and measured, to angry and contradictory. There was a general view that Schumacher was ahead of his time – writing in 1973 about issues such as economic externalities, ecosystem services, and bio-mimicry (although not necessarily using these terms). It would be fascinating if we could get his views 30 years on.
It is worth pointing out that he established a charity to promote intermediate (or appropriate) technology in the developing world – still going strong, and now called Practical Action (www.practicalaction.org). The main theme of the second-half of the book is about the perils of massive-scale development projects that are largely inaccessible to local people – hotly debated at the meeting.
For educators there is an interesting chapter called “The Greatest Resource – Education” where Schumacher argues that “mankind is in moral danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom”. Some at the meeting took Schumacher to be anti-science, but I linked this in today’s world more to the establishment of medical ethics panels, and also issues such as GM, and Geo-engineering.
My favourite quote comes from the chapter on Buddhist Economics where he is talking about how economics measures the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming that someone who consumes more is ‘better-off’ than someone who consumes less. He says that “a Buddhist economist would consider this approach to be excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” This is of course in direct contrast to the modern “get out and spend” mantra – to get the economy moving. I am left questioning today do we serve economism, or does the economic system serve us?
Taking the long view Schumacher philosophy is closely aligned with our last book by Tim Jackson, and very different in most ways to ‘rational optimists’ like Mark Lynas – our first book. All are concerned with the same problems however – human impacts on a finite planet.