Tuesday, March 13, 2012

E.F. Schumacher. A Voice for Wisdom in an Age of Folly

The economist E.F. Schumacher has served as a source of inspiration for many over the past half-century. His essential message is carried in two books published in the five years before he died, Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) and A Guide for the Perplexed (1977).

His ideas continue to be explored, developed and disseminated by such groups as the Schumacher Society in the UK and the New Economics Institute in the US as well as numerous individuals and groups in both the developed and developing world.

This post offers both an audio presentation drawn from two lectures given by Schumacher in the 1970s and a review of some of his ideas as presented in Small is Beautiful.

E.F. Schumacher. A Voice for Wisdom in an Age of Folly can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file is also available for download here.

Program Notes
E.F. Schumacher, "Decentralist Economics", Lindisfarne 1974 (Schumacher Society)
E.F. Schumacher at Michigan State University 1977 (Youtube)


Nico Di Stefano, "Slow March"
SaReGaMa, "One Thousand and One Nights" (Jamendo)
Endorphine, "Podroze:Kultura" (Jamendo)
Esbjorn Svensson Trio, "Bound for the Beauty of the South"
Dire Straits, "Telegraph Road"
Cat Stevens, "Where do the Children Play?"
John Butler Trio, "Treat Yo Mama"

Regarding Small is Beautiful

In this time of ageing empires and of fruitless opinions, it can only be helpful to reconsider the reflections of those who would show us ways out of the maelstrom that presently engulfs our civilisation. E.F. Schumacher was such a one.

Copies of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, first published in 1973, can still be found in many libraries. And it occasionally chances as an unexpected treasure on the shelves of second hand bookshops. Although the book was published as a small paperback, it remains one of the most important works of the twentieth century.

As an economist, E.F. Schumacher was more interested in determining how economics could be made to serve human needs than in detailing the adventurism of rapacious financial institutions and their pursuit of big profits. His work has had a profound influence on many who seek to restore the rhythms and capacities of an earth that has been sorely damaged by industrial civilisation and its destructive technologies. In his own words: 
“We must thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new life-style, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a life-style designed for permanence.”
 Schumacher identifies Keynesian economics as a primary driver of the politics of greed that has steadily consumed the latter half of the twentieth century. A few years before the collapse of the world-wide economic system in 1930, Keynes wrote: 
“For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”
 Pity, says Schumacher, that we listened to Keynes and not to Gandhi.

Eighty years after Keynes issued his decree, powerful nations and their financial institutions continue to insist on their freedom to exercise avarice and usury regardless of the effects of their actions on the lives of individuals and families, or on the health and stability of an increasingly ravaged planet.

We saw this expressed in the refusal by the Clinton and Bush Administrations in the US and the former Howard Government in Australia to support the implementation of the Kyoto Protocols during the 1990s and more recently in the covert corporate manipulations enabled by the deregulation of Wall Street – again under the aegis of the Clinton and Bush Administrations - that has seen millions of Americans dispossessed of their houses while managers of mortgage funds pocketed seven and eight figure salaries in return.

Regarding the obscene levels of energy consumption in the US and its aggressive promotion of nuclear power, Schumacher reminds us of the conveniently neglected fact that nuclear reactors have a finite life beyond which they become unusable and unserviceable. Every reactor in use today will become an incandescent monument emitting vast amounts of radiation for centuries to come. Flesh and blood simply cannot adapt to high levels of radioactivity because of the inherent nature of DNA. If the world does not end with a bang, the whimper of ghostly mutations will echo long through the lives of future generations.

We have witnessed this in the Ukraine and Belarus after Chernobyl and more recently in Iraq, where the widespread aerosol dispersal of over three hundred tons of depleted uranium used in weapon-piercing artillery during the first Gulf War has resulted in the birthing of monstrously deformed foetuses and children. We have yet to fully witness the tragic visitation of radiation-caused disease and genetic mutation on the people of Japan as a result of the Fukushima meltdowns.

E.F. Schumacher points to the essential malignancy of a technological civilisation which, in the guise of easing life's burdens, has in fact hastened the progressive poisoning of the earth and of humanity. When Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful four decades ago, he meticulously detailed the excesses and disparities that were tearing the world apart at that time. The situation has steadily worsened since the time of his writing. 

Schumacher called for a reversal of the gigantism and the obsession with globalisation that were beginning to overtake governments both North and South. His suggestions found no resonance in the dominant political and economic powers. These powers are more intent on driving the world towards more of everything than in restraining an empty consumerism that sweeps through the world in the name of economic growth.

Yet between the lines, Schumacher calls our attention to the fact that committed individuals and visionary groups have been quietly work towards developing ways of living and new technologies that are more in keeping with the needs of the earth and her people than with those of shareholders and their corporate minders.

E.F. Schumacher calls for the creation of educational systems in both the developed and the developing world that are more attuned to the perennial rhythms of the earth and which nurture the development of wisdom, compassion and skill rather than satisfying industry-driven demands to create new cadres of compliant technicians and robotic technocrats.

Such individuals as Satish Kumar and Vandana Shiva have become powerful advocates for Schumacher’s ideas. They, along with many others, have taken up the work of awakening and informing all who would hear that blindly continuing to pursue the goals of industrial civilisation does not bode well for humanity and its home. 

Strong Gandhian sentiments permeate Schumacher’s work. He bluntly demolishes the myth of limitless growth as the natural destiny of economies and nations. Yet the common sense spoken by Schumacher is still nowhere to be seen in the economic and political style of the present day. There has been little if any change in the way things are done since he delivered his message forty years ago.

A profound aesthetic sense is expressed in Schumacher’s thought. He continually returns to the criteria of beauty, of elegance, of non-violence and of human scale in his pursuit of a workable future for humanity during a time of growing uncertainties.

E.F. Schumacher remains an enduring source of wisdom in an age of madness and folly.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
March 2012

1 comment:

  1. Vince
    Great work. With carbon levels published today as being the highest since man arrived on the planet, small may be pushed onto us sooner than we think.