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Book Review: Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher

by mel starrs on November 12, 2008

in Book Review

Book cover of

Book cover via Amazon

So on my quest to read all those books we ‘green’ folks are supposed to have read, I mooched a copy of Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher and (more importantly) actually read it.

I have a couple of fuller formed posts to come out of reading the book (namely how businesses are set up and the thorny question of nuclear energy), but as an aide memoir to myself and a guide to you, the reader of my blog, I have my initial thoughts and comments on the book below.

The book is a collection of essays, but can be read as a book (with some repetition in sections). First, I’ll outline what the book is known for, and then what I thought of it.

So, the amazon blurb says (to give us some context and what we expect the book to be about):

First published in 1973, this controversial study looks at the economic structure of the western world in a revolutionary way. Schumacher maintains that man’s current pursuit of profit and progress, which promotes giant organizations and increased specialization, has in fact resulted in gross economic inefficiency, environmental pollution and inhumane working conditions. He challenges the doctrine of economic, technological and scientific specialization, and proposes a system of intermediate technology, based on smaller working units, communal ownership and regional workplaces, utilizing local labour and resources.

I should point out, I expected the book to be more about ‘how’, but in fact it is more about the ‘why’. I’m still searching for a manual on ‘how’ all this would work in practice (any recommendations out there?). That said, I was definitely ‘engaged’ with this book, veering from complete agreement to total and utter disbelief – always a good sign for a book which will make you think. It also has thrown up more questions than answers. Another good sign. I had also expected more of an explanation of zero-growth economics and how this might look. My expectations were misguided – this book does not answer this question.

Firstly, I’d like to point out how refreshing it is to read a book which does not one use the word sustainability. Worth reading just for some respite from that phrase and all it’s baggage. Instead Schumacher makes use of the term ‘permanence’ (pg: 26):

“From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence. We must study the economics of permanence. Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be ‘growth’ towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited generalised growth. It is more likely, as Gandhi said, that ‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed’. Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitude which rejoices in the fact that ‘what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us’.”

It worth remembering when assessing Schumacher’s views that this book is the same age as me. That makes some of his take on things somewhat quaint, though given it was written in the early seventies and not the fifties, maybe some of his views were already out of date (although he was 62 when he wrote the book). For instance, this one had me nicely seething (from pg. 47):

“Women, on the whole, do not need an ‘outside’ job, and the large-scale employment of women in offices or factories would be considered a sign of serious economic failure.”

Ouch. I don’t think Ernst and I would have agreed on this point.

My second niggle with Schumacher’s beliefs is in that humans need work, rather than leisure, for a good quality of life. Taking his first point, this raises some interesting questions regarding what equality he saw for women (was being chained to the kitchen sink equivalent to male ‘work’ (in his eyes, producing something for use in the local economy) – it’s not clear?). Secondly, this seems rather Calvinist to me, although a quick scan of Wikipedia reveals he had a fascination with Catholicism converting in 1971. At one point he bemoans the fact that no-one knows what the Seven Deadly Sins are anymore nor what the Four Cardinal Virtues are. Needless to say, he doesn’t list them (I had to go look them up: Sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride, and Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage, in case you were wondering). He also is preoccupied with metaphysics, which I won’t expand on yet as I am still trying to come to grips with what exactly he means by this? Nonetheless, he is wary of humanistic doctrines and especially wary of scientists (pg. 71):

“Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live. Even the greatest ideas of science are nothing more than working hypotheses, useful for purposes of special research but completely inapplicable to the conduct of our lives or the interpretation of the world. If, therefore, a man seeks education because he feels estranged and bewildered, because his life life seems to him empty and meaningless, he cannot get what he is seeking by studying any of the natural sciences, i.e.: by acquiring ‘know-how’. That study has its own value which I am not inclined to belittle; it tells him a great deal about how things work in nature or in engineering, but it tells him nothing about the meaning of life and can in no way cure his estrangement and secret despair.”

For those who have read James Lovelock‘s The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity (indeed a book which comes up as a recommendation on amazon given this one), it is interesting to see the polar opposition of opinions on science and it’s role. James has been an independent scientist for many years, an interesting observation given how Ernst then goes on to defend himself (pg. 118):

“To mention these things, no doubt, means laying oneself open to the charge of being against science, technology, and progress. Let me therefore, in conclusion, add a few words about future scientific research. Man cannot live without science and technology anymore than he can live against nature. What needs the most careful consideration, however, is the direction of scientific research. We cannot leave this to the scientists alone. As Einstein himself said, ‘almost all scientists are economically completely dependent’ and ‘the number of scientists who possess a sense of social responsibility is so small’ that they cannot determine the direction of research.”

So presumably Schumacher would have approved of Lovelock’s independence and his sense of social responsibility. An interesting question to ponder – would Lovelock have been able to develop his Gaia theory had he not been independent? How important a point is this?

Schumacher also has dim views of modern city living. Now, I have no problems with him having these views, but I question the basis of them, given that he makes no validation, either quantitative or qualitative. For instance from pg. 55:

“I think it is fairly safe to say that the upper limit of what is desirable for the size of a city is probably something of the order of half a million inhabitants. It is quite clear that above such a size nothing is added to the virtue of the city. In places like London, or Tokyo, or New York, the millions do not add to the city’s real value but merely create enormous problems and produce human degradation.”

Another observation is that, much like George Monbiot, Schumacher disapproves of travel (what he describes as a tendency for people to be ‘footloose’ given improvements in transport and communication), but only after he spent considerable time abroad, in his case Burma. The Burma references in the book are again rather unfortunate as he exalts the country as an example of how we should all be living given his experience of working there (unknowing of course how things would pan out in that country).

So how did E.F. Schumacher get out of bed in the morning, given that the economic reality of profit is so dismal to him? His conclusions (pg. 200):

“I thus come to the cheerful conclusion that life, including economic life, is still worth living because it is sufficiently unpredictable to be interesting.”

Ah, yes. May we all live in interesting times.

So has the book been hijacked and exalted to a position above it’s station by ‘green’ do-gooders? Does it still have relevance today? His primary message of self-sufficiency within local economies stems from his belief that (pg: 49):

“people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.”

Was that true in in 1973? Again, Scumacher offers no validation of this view. Even if it were true in 1973, is it still true today? I admire his pacifist tendencies, but yet? I would say I’m not convinced by his argument, but sadly he doesn’t argue – he just states it as fact. I’ve been convinced by arguments along the lines of democracy heralding peace? I found a reference from Keynes in the New Green Deal paper which expands on Schumacher’s points regarding full employment and self-sufficiency (Keynes rescued Schumacher from internment during the war):

“If nations can learn to provide themselves with full employment by their domestic policy there need be no important economic forces calculated to set the interest of one country against that of its neighbours. International trade would cease to be what it is, namely, a desperate expedient to maintain employment at home by forcing sales on foreign markets and restricting purchases, which, if successful, will merely shift the problem of unemployment to the neighbour which is worsted in the struggle, but a willing and unimpeded exchange of goods and services in conditions of mutual advantage.”

I obviously have more research to do on this point then…

Schumacher’s prescience regarding fossil fuels is undoubtedly what has kept this on the ‘green’ reading list for 35 years. His predictions of population are also very accurate.

My initial exposure to the book has previously come from bloggers such as Dave Pollard (fairly dark green Canadian) and references from Rob Hopkins’ Transition Towns movement. Both these camps and others seem to have taken Schumacher’s original idea and run further with it. I need to do some more thinking on where I stand on this but I suspect I veer away from their opinions. I’m still a fan of the global view for reasons which I hope to touch on in future post, but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.

I would recommend reading Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, for context if nothing else. It is fascinating looking back 35 years through the lens of hindsight and the book (with some exceptions as I have mentioned) stands up fairly well to the intervening years.

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  • Mark brinkley

    Thanks for a wonderful review, Mel. This was a must read when I was working in a wholefood shop in the late 70s and, needless to say, I have never read it. The nearest I got to it was reading the Ecologist magazine. It’s good to know it still excites, even though it’s bonkers.

  • http://markbrinkley@mac.com Mark brinkley

    Thanks for a wonderful review, Mel. This was a must read when I was working in a wholefood shop in the late 70s and, needless to say, I have never read it. The nearest I got to it was reading the Ecologist magazine. It’s good to know it still excites, even though it’s bonkers.