Small is Beautiful by E.F Schumacher is the daring work of a true philosopher-economist; an idealist who belongs to the down-to-earth stock of 20th century American thinkers. Schumacher has undergone the painstaking task of deciphering just about every important issue that plagues the modern world – inequality, climate change, politics, technology, and humankind’s place in the natural order. The result is dense, yet broad; complex, yet understandable, and academic, yet relatable. It is ‘a study of economics as if people mattered’.
Always bigger, always better, right?
Schumacher tackles the age-old assumption that there is a simple economic answer to all of our troubles, and that it lies in this: production. More is always better, isn’t it? The more things we have, the more things we need, the more people have jobs, the more people have money, the more people are happy. The size of an economy becomes the standard by which all things take their cue, and by which a country’s success is measured.
The model upon which we have built our world assumes that we can achieve and sustain a level of production sufficient to solve human problems. Schumacher likens this to treating capital as income. Our mindless production and rampant consumerism treat our world’s resources like an assured monthly allowance. We are running an infinite system on a finite planet.
The answer to our problems can never lie in economic gain, at least not in the current state of our capitalist society, which at its core encourages individualism – the kind that expands businesses on the basis of dominant power relationships, private ownership, cheap labour and effective marketing.
Marketing keeps us wanting more and more. It shows us the glamourous packaging of a sleek smartphone without showing us the child doing back-breaking work in a coltan mine in the Congo; an iPod without showing us the poverty-stricken child assembling its parts in China, or our favourite skincare product without showing us the blazing fires in Indonesia which make way for palm plantations. Both rich and poor are sucked into the self-validating, harassing lure of consumerism.
We need to ask ourselves this: just how fulfilling is it to be a part of this system? Social studies point to the exact opposite. All over the world, we see people bogged down by ‘keeping up’, living beyond their means, and constantly trying to service their debts. People are wallowing in debt. They are stressed. They are never satisfied.
Fixing a broken economic system
The crux of Small is Beautiful, however, is the comforting message that things do not have to continue this way. With simple logic, Schumacher looks at the world through the eyes of old principles so sorely needed in a modern world – principles of ethics, human spirituality, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with one another.
He asks the questions most economists seem unable to ask. Where do we draw the line on what is fit employment for a human being? Do we get enough leisure time? Are we educating people to deal with the inevitable crises of our future?
For an attempt at brevity, let us look at just one of these – the way in which we use our time. Schumacher asserts that ‘the most natural thing for every person born into this world is to use his hands in a productive way’. Let this not be confused with the earlier point of contention, where man is, at best, a cog in a machine. Schumacher’s emphasis is on creativity – the intrinsic capacity to create. Creativity is more than just being ‘artsy’ as schools have taught us to think; it is to live in such a way that acknowledges the freedom of man to choose, and moreover to make choices that enhance that freedom within ourselves and within others.
All people, regardless of education and background, ought to find something creatively productive to do with their time. By creatively productive, I mean intellectually-stimulating, life-affirming, and even challenging. We need to stretch our thought processes beyond our immediate surroundings and direct them towards a clarification of our central convictions.
When we live just to satisfy external demands, life becomes empty; soulless; meaningless. For so many people, the creative impulse has been crushed, little by little, by simply fitting in with a mad system.
We have a built-in need to live meaningfully and creatively. I would go so far as to say we have a duty. This is the part that is never stressed nearly enough. Metaphysically speaking, if humans are co-creators in the natural world, then our actions are not simply part of some pre-ordained divine plan over which we have no control. Philosophers have grappled to reconcile human choice with belief in the divine since time immemorial. Small is Beautiful is no thesis on Creation, and there is a basic assumption that human actions are critical to the future of our species and our planet. But there is also an understanding that every choice we make requires some sacrifice.
Schumacher gives the example of education. The Chinese were the first to calculate that economically speaking, it takes the work of about 30 peasants to send a child to university. Is education then then a right or a privilege? Or to put it in more nuanced terms: if it is a universal right, as has been established, is it entirely ours? Are we really free to decide what we do with our education? Do we not owe some service to our society for all the unknown sacrifices that got us there? These are the kind of questions that we ought to be asking ourselves, especially today when there is so much debate over access to education.
If we are co-creators, we are also directly responsible for our actions toward nature. There is such a thing as the human relationship with nature. It begins with acknowledging that humans are a part of nature, not over and above it. We may have special advantages, but we are still living beings who directly depend on the greater whole. This fundamental humbling of thought is crucial in a world that is fast becoming inhospitable due to our own arrogant behaviour.
A wake-up call
Would you purposefully knock down the walls of your own home if you could sell the rubble? Would you burn the only clothes you had if the smoke earned you money? Would you bash the very foundations on which you lived because some corporate showed special interest? The resounding answer to all of this is, of course, NO! Such actions would be absurd, self-destructive and no doubt would warrant suspicion of insanity. And yet this is what we do to our only home – Earth.
When you reduce all big issues to their simplest, most human form, the answers are clear. Without losing nuance, we need to radically change how we think. We need to question every, and I mean every, known system that has landed us where we are today. Clearly, something isn’t working.
To me, the scariest part of this book is that it was written in 1971. Nearly half a century on, every concern that is raised, every emphasis on transformed philosophy, every call to place what is good for humans above what is good for money, is just as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago. In fact, it is more so. Read this book.