The Small, the Big and the Beautiful

Last week we celebrated the 101st birthday of E.F. Schumacher, the German gentle man and practical philosopher who became an economic advisor to the British government and National Coal Board, founded the UK Soil Association and the intermediate technology organisation Practical Action. But best known is Schumacher as the author of the groundbreaking book ‘Small is Beautiful, a study of economics as if people mattered’. In Small is Beautiful, Schumacher argues for the development of an ‘economy of permanence’; beyond ‘gigantism’ to right livelihood through appropriate scale and technology. Since its first publication in 1973, the book has inspired hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide, including myself.

To some who realise the enormity of the ecological and social challenges we face today, ‘small is beautiful’ may sound like a mantra of returning to the way things were, and thereby appear somewhat conservative, retractive, or unambitious. Their argument would be: when we talk sustainable development we need to think big! Get together the world’s most powerful business leaders and politicians in large international conferences, such as the COPs or more recently, Rio+20.

I cannot agree more that global issues need global attention. That international cooperation is key, at the political and business level. At the same time, man’s negative impact can also be reduced by individual changes in consumption patterns, or communities redeveloping their local economies. Therefore in Small is Beautiful, Schumacher does not simply argue for big or small solutions. He recognizes the value of appropriate scale of all economic development.

Perhaps then, the title of the book refers to the infinitely small. The invisible, intangible, metaphysical level, from which Schumacher believes all radical change emanates, both at the individual and at the global scale. In Small is Beautiful he shares the need for no less than ‘metaphysical reconstruction’. The development of a new perception of what is, and who we are.

He writes, “the key factor of all economic development comes out of the mind of man”. Our actions, transactions and interactions ultimately stem from our mental models; the way we perceive the world and ourselves within it. The darker side of this coin is that all economic destruction – whether it is a collapse of the financial system, serious damage to the worlds’ ecosystems, or the exhaustion of earth’s resources – are also fruits of the mind of man. It is our perception of separateness, from each other and from our natural environment, that has misshapen the concepts of wealth, value and wellbeing into individual rather than systemic qualities. It is for this reason that we find ourselves in a system in which economic gains are considered value-creating, even if they destroy the very source they sprung from. Fish, trees, oil, water, you name it.

According to Schumacher, human minds have a history of becoming narrow. “Cultures perish as they confront some failure of resources. Not material resources, as new civilisations arise at the same place”. If not a lack of material resources, then it must be a lack of creativity, imagination or – as Einstein would say it – an inability to solve problems from another level of awareness than the one in which they were created. Schumacher concludes therefore: ”If western civilisation is in a state of permanent crisis, there may be something wrong with its education.”

To Schumacher, education is ‘The Greatest Resource’. However, he does not ask for more education, as he observes that “the volume of education continues to increase, yet so do pollution, exhaustion of resources, and the dangers of ecological catastrophe.”  It is not a matter of quantity of education, it is a question of quality. “If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind: an education that takes us into the depth of things.’

‘Metaphysical reconstruction’ is a change at the minutest level, in the depth of our own minds. If it occurs – call it an epiphany, a stroke of insight, the dropping of the penny, or a shift of paradigm – it radically alters the source from which we create every moment of our lives. All our actions and all our relations, all our choices and all our work, what we call progress and what we call success. If the reconstructed metaphysics are a worldview of mutual dependence; of ecological, social and economic interconnectedness; of understanding planetary value creation, then our thoughts and actions will naturally support a healthily wealthy economy. Now that is big! Small, big, and beautiful.

– – –

The full text of Small is Beautiful is available here. The very popular chapter 4 on Buddhist Economics can be found here. A podcast with NEF’s Andrew Simms commenting on Small is Beautiful is available via this article. And for education that takes you into the depth of things, you can visit Schumacher College.

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6 thoughts on “The Small, the Big and the Beautiful

  1. That’s beautiful, Sarah. It begins with a view of what man is. Here’s Einstein’s following his involvement with Jan Smuts’ holism:

    “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

      – Albert Einstein

    • Thanks again Claudius. I’d love to know more about Einstein’s thoughts. The growing circle of compassion sounds like Naess’ process of Self-realisation.

  2. Yes, my thoughts and feelings run in this direction too… I hope the awareness in everyone work on its creativity to find together new ways of evolution and not destroying the good values inside… it takes time because we humans exist in time and everyone has a different need of time for its own process, like every drop of water in the ocean needs different ways to complete its whole self cycle of regeneration in nature… it feels great being connected with the molecules around sharing our space-and-time-living-odyssey and being aware of it. Thanks Sarah! (and thanks Fritz!)

  3. We are all connected, and so we can’t thrive without each other. The individualistic competition of all against all in which we struggle to achieve an upper hand in a zero-sum game has led us to crisis. Only a better world in which we, as Albert Einstein advises, free ourselves from our individual prisons can be sustainable.

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