The Illogical Religion of Economics

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Issue 257
November/December 2009
Resilience & Climate Change

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The Illogical Religion of Economics

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Cover: White Snakes Head Fritillary Photograph: David Hall/WWT

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Jane Macnamee is saddened that the economy is still devastating the planet over thirty years after E F Schumacher made a film to raise awareness of such madness. On the Edge of the Forest UK and Europe: £15, Nicola Schumacher Australia and US: through bullfrog films: ‘We do ourselves great harm when we lose the vertical perspective. We must always remain conscious of the fact that the world is a great system of levels: mineral, plant, animal, man, and, as all people in all parts of the world have known until quite recently, powers higher than man. Virgin nature always reminds us of those higher powers. It shows us marvels and mysteries far beyond anything man can do.’ E.F.Schumacher, On the Edge of the Forest

At the local cinema in our small coastal home town of Aberystwyth, west Wales, people are watching the first European screening of the only film written and presented by E.F. Schumacher, On The Edge of the Forest. Filmed thirty years ago, just a few months before Schumacher died on September 4th 1977, it is a powerful case study of the clear-felling of virgin forests in Western Australia. Up until last autumn it was only available in Australia. Now, thanks to Schumacher’s daughter, Nicola, who lives in Aberystwyth, it is being distributed in Europe. I asked Nicola what prompted her to get the film re-released on DVD, and why she thinks it is still relevant today.

“Richard St Barbe Baker who set up the International Tree Foundation said about the film that Schumacher said in forty-seven minutes what he had been trying to say for forty-seven years. Distributing the film now is important because many of our current responses to climate change are still piecemeal and address the symptoms of our environmental problems rather than the root causes – our behaviour and our value systems.”

Striking and poignant in its deceptive simplicity, the film takes us on a journey with Schumacher through forests as they are being clear-felled in the 1970s for ‘wood chips’ and ‘newsprint’; forests of magnificent towering giants such as the Jarrah which take 200 years to reach maturity. We observe in all its stark brutality the balanced ecosystem of the forest being destroyed for short term economic gain. How to address this behaviour and the value systems it is built upon is the question at the heart of the film. In documenting clear-felling, Schumacher highlights the illogical ‘religion of economics’ – one which is rapacious, commodity-driven, short-sighted, and ultimately as destructive for ourselves as for the environment.

He shows this in bleak contrast to the diverse and complex ecosystem of the forest which has taken two thousand million years to build; “the cradle of life, the cradle of civilization”, wiped out in a few moments. “The whole question of the forests,” he notes, “is a question for society at large. Will we be able to become a conserver society, or are we going to continue to remain a rapacious society?” And then, “ will not be easy to learn wisdom in our economic behaviour, but we still have some time and without learning it... I’m sure as a race we will be classified as one of the species threatened with extinction”.

With the recent release of The Age of Stupid, his words ring in concurrent alarm – another thirty years on, have we still learned nothing? I talked to Nicola again: “It doesn’t mean that nothing has been achieved in the last thirty years, indeed many important changes have taken place, albeit not yet in the mainstream; but On the Edge of the Forest deals with the most fundamental challenge humankind has to face: and that is not something that can be turned about in thirty years. It points to the fact that we need to know the limits to our cleverness, to recognise what is of true value, for the good of humanity in the long-term, as opposed to what is immediately gratifying.” This is what Schumacher refers to as understanding wisdom in economics and real progress, never losing sight of the fact “… that we mean to be permanent inhabitants of the world.”

Watching Schumacher bend down to plant a tree in one scene, encouraging us all to do the same, I was touchingly reminded of the shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier in Jean Giono’s 1950s tale, The Man who Planted Trees, who single-handedly reforested a barren wasteland in Southern France over a period of thirty years. It bears testimony to the potential greatness of the human spirit, which is what Schumacher recognises as our cause for hope. What Giono calls ‘the tenacity of benevolence’, Schumacher refers to as our capacity for ‘tenderness’ towards the natural world. There is a strong message of hope here. Rather than feel defeated under the weight of environmental degradation we can each make a difference through small benevolent acts. Our ability to do this, as he wrote in the concluding lines of Small is Beautiful, depends on our acknowledgement that “– we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.”

Since the making of the film, much of Western Australia’s remaining native forest has been protected and ten million new trees have been planted by volunteers.

Jane MacNamee is a writer and editor living in Wales. In Her Element – Women and the Welsh Landscape, edited by Jane MacNamee, was published by Honno in May 2008.

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