|From my library|
The Concord Monitor recently ran a column about the advantages of “learning to live with less” by Christine Platt who found: “Living more consciously has allowed me to regain control over my finances as well as my sanity. I have also learned to live more sustainably, which benefits me and the environment.”1
I wrote a column on this same subject a few years ago in the Monitor, in which I concluded: “Rather than looking for the salvation promised us by the capitalistic gods of advertising – only to be slowly crushed under the increasing weight of shoddy and superfluous material goods – wouldn’t it be nice to escape all that and, instead, surround ourselves solely with those few items, in thought and deed, that define the essence of who we are.”
Returning to this topic today triggers fond memories of my old love affair with “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,” a book written in 1973 by E. F. Schumacher – called at the time “a manifesto from a radical countercultural world.”2 Fortunately – after being first pooh-poohed – and then forgotten for 50 years – his thesis is gaining support that unlimited growth is terrible for average folks and the planet, backed up most recently in the NYT by the lauded economist Herman Daly.3
Schumacher was a truth-teller like the little kid in the Hans Christian Anderson folktale who was the only one to see that the emperor had no clothes on. Walter G. Moss has detailed how Schumacher was far ahead of his time:
“Already in the 1950s Schumacher had been warning the world, and especially the United States, of the dangers of an over-reliance on fossil fuels like oil. Not only was he concerned about exhausting non-renewable resources, but he also decried the increasing pollution that accompanied escalating economic growth and consumption. He was concerned with the types of air and water pollution that Rachel Carson wrote about in her 1962 book, Silent Spring…4”
Schumacher forcefully argued that bigness is impersonal, insensitive, and motivated by a lust for power; “smallness, on the other hand, is free, efficient, creative, enjoyable, and enduring –”5 in the spirit of local farmers markets today.
He wrote how modern society has reduced employees to anonymous cogs in a colossal machine, sacrificing craft skills and human relationships to the single-minded pursuit of profit.“What Schumacher wanted was a people-centred economics because that would, in his view, enable environmental and human sustainability.”6
Can we build such a society? Daly, in that recent NYT interview, was not sure. However, he was positive that unlimited growth was a recipe for disaster. Perhaps, part of the answer, he ventured, involved spiritual improvement. “That gets you into fundamental religious questions: What is the meaning of life? Where did I come from? What’s going to happen when I die? These are questions people used to think of as fundamental. Now they’re marginal, unscientific.”7
Schumacher’s philosophy also contains a strong spiritual component, suggesting the ultimate aim of life is about gaining wisdom. With regret, he noted, “the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world . . . [has] become virtually incomprehensible to modern man.”8
“He frequently refers to other religions or quotes varied religious thinkers and mystics like Buddha, the Muslim Sufi poet Rumi, Lao-tzu (founder of Taoism), as well as Christians like the medieval Thomas Aquinas and older Western philosophers such as Socrates, Plato [and] Aristotle. He even includes writers like Dante and Shakespeare as outstanding representatives” of traditional wisdom.”9
Technological fixes will only exacerbate our problems, not solve them unless guided by wisdom. “From an economic point of view,” Schumacher says, “the central concept of wisdom is permanence.” Such endurance comes not from advances in science and technology but from studying Nature, which is “self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing.” When it comes to uncontrolled growth, the only example in the natural world is cancer.
The major advantage of a human-sized society is that people matter, according to Schumacher. Conversely, I think much of America’s current discontent and polarization is because too many of us feel invisible and undervalued, lost souls in a mass society that richly rewards the elite while ignoring the human needs of the rest of us.
Luckily, following in Schumacher’s giant footsteps, the degrowth movement is now becoming a force again, unveiling intriguing economic alternatives that could make us ecologically sustainable while, at the same time, giving everyone a chance to live a fulfilling life. (For more on the degrowth movement, see my column from 4/20/22.)10
1 Concord Monitor. 7/20/22. Page A7.
4 “The Wisdom of E. F. Schumacher.” © 2010 by Walter G. Moss
5 E. F. Schumacher: Changing the Paradigm of Bigger Is Better by Roli Varma. BULLETIN OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & SOCIETY. P.1
8 “A Guide for the Perplexed” by E. F. Schumacher. Harper & Row. 1977. p. 13
9 “The Wisdom of E. F. Schumacher.” © 2010 by Walter G. Moss