“Small is beautiful” is a phrase beloved of headline writers. How many of them know that it was coined in 1973 by Fritz Schumacher as the title of a book that became influential within the green movement? Back then, many of Schumacher’s ideas about the wise use of natural resources seemed radical. Now his themes are much more familiar. Yet the book, reissued last year to mark the centenary of the author’s birth, richly repays revisiting. It’s about much more than environmental issues.
It’s also a critique of conventional industry and economics, and offers messages about philosophy, religion, education and ethics.
Schumacher wrote: “Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction.” So, for instance, large industrial enterprises should be split up and managed as smaller units with a more human face. And workers should be stakeholders.
He singled out as a model company Scott Bader, which was gifted to its workers by its founder. The shares in the chemicals company are owned by a “commonwealth” of the workers, which gives them a greater role in corporate affairs than normal. The commonwealth is a registered charity with, says the company website, “an obligation to the wider community, particularly those less fortunate”.
Schumacher didn’t just consider industry in the West – he cared passionately about developing countries, too. He argued that much Western technology is inappropriate in those countries, where mass unemployment calls for industries that provide productive work for as many people as possible rather than using labour-saving, capital-intensive machines. He developed the concept of intermediate technology: “superior to primitive technology of bygone ages but simpler, cheaper, and freer than the super-technology of the rich”.
These ideas led to his founding the charity Intermediate Technology, now known as Practical Action, which has improved the lives of many people in poorer countries by helping them to find sustainable and practical solutions. The charity’s ethos is to find out what people are doing and help them to do it better with appropriate technology, which could be anything from small-scale hydro-electric schemes for lighting villages and running machinery, to ploughs designed to be pulled by donkeys. This sort of work offers an important role for engineers.
Schumacher’s chapter on Buddhist economics challenges conventional Western thinking. Western economists assume that someone who consumes more is better off than a person who consumes less. Schumacher argued that a Buddhist economist would consider this irrational. “Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption,” he wrote.
His take on Buddhist philosophy should please proponents of renewable energy. He said that a Buddhist economist would consider an economy based on non-renewable fuels to be parasitic, living on capital instead of income. The exploitation of non-renewable fuels at an ever-increasing rate “is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men”.
But Schumacher condemned nuclear power: “No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make ‘safe’ and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages.”
- Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E F Schumacher. Vintage Books, price £8.99.