Learning from Nature
E. F. Schumacher was writing and working 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.” (Schumacher 1973, 54).
In response to such idolatry, Schumacher encapsulated an alternative world-view in his seminal collection of essays, Small is Beautiful (1973). Intrigued by the book Jimmy Carter, President of the USA, invited Schumacher to The White House in 1977 to seek his ideas.
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 adviser 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.
The turning point came in 1955 when he was sent as Economic Development Adviser 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 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.
During his time in Burma Schumacher encountered the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way. He wanted to apply it to technology so, in 1970 Schumacher founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG). ITDG became the practical expression of respect for cultural diversity.
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.
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 overarching principle.
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.
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. As in economics, so in politics. So Schumacher believed in small nations, small communities and small organizations. Small, simple and nonviolent were his three philosophical precepts.
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. A College named after him has been established at Dartington, Devon (UK), exploring an ecological world-view from many different perspectives, while students practise a lifestyle built around the precepts of small, simple, local and nonviolent. Resurgence magazine, for which Schumacher wrote regularly, continues to examine and expound the ‘small is beautiful’ ethos.
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’. Also published in USA by Hartley and Marks, 1999.
- 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’.
- Kohr, Leopold, The Breakdown of Nations, 1957, London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
- McRobie, George, Small is Possible, London: Jonathan Cape, 1981.
- Wood, Barbara, Alias Papa: A Biography, London: Jonathan Cape, 1984.