By Terence P Ward
The year 1973 was a year of notable events. George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for $12 million, days before the American League adopted the designated hitter rule. Gold surged above $1000 an ounce, and oil reached nearly $12 a barrel on the world market. Across the pond in England, E.F. Schumacher published a radical book on industrialization called Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. While the price of gold, oil, and the Yankees have all risen tremendously in the 43 years since, the value of Schumacher’s book has grown fastest of all, as his warnings and predictions have become more relevant with each passing day.
Madeleine Bunting wrote a reflection on this book and its significance in the Guardian in which she explained, “One of the recurrent themes through the book is how modern organizations stripped the satisfaction out of work, making the worker no more than an anonymous cog in a huge machine. Craft or skill was no longer important, nor was the quality of human relationship: human beings were expected to act like adjuncts to the machines of the production line. The economic system was similarly dehumanizing, making decisions on the basis of profitability rather than human need: an argument that played out most dramatically in the ‘80s coal miners’ strike. What Schumacher wanted was a people-centered economics because that would, in his view, enable environmental and human sustainability.”
Sadly, not only has that dream not come to pass, but also the populist uprisings in the presidential campaign make it clear that plenty of people believe things are worse now than even when those words were written. Opposition to vast trade agreements might puzzle economists in 2016, but in 1973 Schumacher was questioning the deference given to the followers of that discipline. One flaw he found in their reasoning was the notion that fossil fuels could be treated as income, rather than capital: in other words, if you didn’t make it, and can’t replace it, you probably shouldn’t use it all up.
Terms such as “globalization” and “peak oil” do not appear in this volume, but these are concepts that run throughout its pages. Schumacher made his mark as an economic adviser of the National Coal Board in Britain, and it was during that time that he began to understand that a crisis was unfolding before his eyes.
What also runs through these pages is an argument for local, small, human-centered economies. It describes a world in which education is the most important resource, and people are considered more than cogs in a vast machine. “If we talk of promoting development,” he writes, “what have we in mind—goods or people?” He interviewed the manager of an African textile factory where that question had been answered clearly in this statement: “Surely, my task is to eliminate the human factor,” because that causes errors. Schumacher found that to be the result of Western assumptions being imposed over cultural practices that otherwise led to highly sought-after, handmade textiles. The occasional errors and additional expense are the cost of supporting human beings, rather than economic systems.
In another chapter that also seems eerily predictive of today’s world stage, Schumacher argues that socialism has advantages for people that capitalism does not. “The businessman, as a private individual, may still be interested in other aspects of life—perhaps even goodness, truth and beauty—but as a businessman he concerns himself only with profits.” [Emphasis in original.] While it can be difficult to see the American capitalist system being replaced with more European-style socialism in the foreseeable future, there are models emerging today that are intended to shift that singular focus on profits, such as the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits found in B corporations and other sustainable business forms.
While Schumacher is largely an unsung hero, and imagining what the world might be like if he’d been heeded in the 1970s can be a tad depressing, in fact Small is Beautiful remains a message of hope. As long as thoughtful people are willing to try to put a human face on what are essentially human activities, there is a chance that we will find a way to avoid the temptation to quantify the unquantifiable nature of the human spirit. Perhaps in our lifetimes we will finally see that old slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” replaced with something a bit more uplifting: “It’s the community, friend.”