Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher (1973)

1973 sounds like a long time ago but the message of this book, the warnings and advice are more relevant today than they were forty-six years back. I say this because it seems we did not listen.

In Small is Beautiful, Schumacher tells us about an ongoing crisis and warns that it will get worse “until or unless we develop a new life-style which is compatible with the real needs of human nature, with the health of living nature around us, and with the resource endowment of the world” (126).

P1010351The crisis he names stems from three problems:

  1. 1. human nature being suffocated and debilitated by the superabundant use of modern technology

2. the suffering environment

3. the depletion of non-renewable resources (exhaustion of fossil fuels)

Since the 1970s these problems have worsened as the world economies embraced globalization and the impossible prospect of eternal growth. Wealth was thought to be the answer to the problems.

Schumacher discusses a wide range of issues; the most important issue being the degradation of the environment and our disproportionate use of its non-renewable resources. He links the unequal distribution of natural resources to violence among men.

“As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men” (45).

P1010362And peace won’t come from what he calls ‘universal prosperity’ because wealth often elevates human drives such as greed and envy, which destroy “intelligence, happiness, serenity, and thereby the peacefulness of man” (19). A path to peace would mean making wisdom a priority while making material things secondary.

This ties into Schumacher’s notion of smallness, “with practical people in the actual world there is a tremendous longing and striving to profit, if at all possible, from the convenience, humanity, and manageability of smallness” (48).

He notes that smallness almost always does less damage to the environment than production on a vast scale. Schumacher takes a strong stance against the employment of modern technology, especially on a vast scale, whose effect on nature and risks are unknown or potentially catastrophic, as in the case of nuclear energy.

“No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make ‘safe’ and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime ever perpetrated by man. The idea that a civilisation could sustain itself on the basis of such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical monstrosity. It means conducting the economic affairs of man as if people really did not matter at all.”

Economics has become so disconnected from human nature and Nature and what is good for mankind. We need to reassess to what ends we are producing and consuming. What are our needs really and could they be minimized? What is enough? Schumacher concludes,  “what is most needed today is…the development of a life-style which accords to material things their proper, legitimate place, which is secondary and not primary” (249).

“To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now

Our environmental problems will not change without us. The rate and scale of our consumption in every aspect of life is out of proportion and it matters what we do, that we become more intentional and conscientious about our impact on the natural world. The following are some concepts and movements gaining ground that will help lead us to a sustainable and permanent future on earth. The business side of things, I leave to Schumacher.


What I underlined:

We preach the virtues of hard work and restraint while painting utopian pictures of unlimited consumption without either work or restraint. We complain when an appeal for greater effort meets with the ungracious reply: ‘I couldn’t care less,’ while promoting dreams about automation to do away with manual work, and about the computer relieving men from the burden of using their brains” (209)

It is of little use trying to supress terrorism if the production of deadly devices continues to be deemed a legitimate employment of man’s creative powers. Nor can the fight against pollution 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 (249)


Edition: Vintage Books 2011

Photos: all mine

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