Small is Beautiful: The Life and Work of E.F. Schumacher

It seems appropriate today to give thanks for the highly influential life and work of Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, who was born exactly a century ago on 16th August 1911. ‘Fritz’, as he was fondly known to his family and friends, was destined for a life in academia. He was the nomadic son of a professor of political economics, a discipline he himself studied, first at his home town of Bonn, and then at New College, Oxford and finally Columbia University in New York City. His career in Germany was interrupted during the run up to the Second World War when he returned to England to escape the Nazi reign of terror. Interned as an ‘enemy alien’, he was set to

work on an isolated farm, where he somehow found time to write a series of academic papers. One of these came to the attention of the famous English economist John Maynard Keynes, who immediately recognized the young’s man’s prodigious talent, and had him released from captivity so he could act as an economic adviser to the British government. By the time peace was declared, the ‘enemy alien’ had proved himself so valuable that he was placed on the board of the British Control Commission which had the monumental task of rebuilding the shattered German economy. After that he was made the Chief Economic Adviser to the National Coal Board, which at the time was one of the world’s largest commercial enterprises.

Many men may have intellectual gifts to equal those of Schumacher, but few have matched his integrity, honesty and originality. As a boy he was an atheist, like his father, but as he matured he became increasing religious, and six years before his death was baptised in the Catholic faith. While he was acting as an economic adviser in Burma, he came face-to-face with Buddhist teaching. This led him to realise that work should serve for the advancement of the individual as well as for the creation of wealth for the privileged few. ‘To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal,’ he later wrote ‘It would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion.’ Rather than favouring the construction of large conglomerate companies, he advocated that ‘production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life.’ This he dubbed ‘Buddhist economics.’ Some years later, while he was lecturing in India, he came under the influence of Gandhi, whom he described as ‘the people’s economist’, a spiritual leader whose economic policies were driven by humanitarian ideals rather than materialistic gains.

Schumacher loved the great outdoors and was throughout his life a keen gardener. Long before there was an environment movement, he warned of the risk of despoiling the countryside and becoming over dependent of the earth’s dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. Natural resources like oil and gas should not be treated as expendable income but as capital, he argued, because they are not renewable. He championed micro-production by the masses rather than mass production by the few, a strategy later pursued by the world wide chain of Grameen banks. All these ideas came together in his seminal book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), which the Times Literary Supplement rated as one of the most influential books to be published since WW2. One of the principles advocated in the book is the concept of ‘enoughness’. This was an integral part of the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi, who claimed that whatever wealth we have beyond that needed to satisfy our immediate basic needs belongs to the community at large. Our overall aim in life should not be to accumulate material riches for our personal use, but to enjoy – and spread – an abundance of love, joy, beauty, friendship and wisdom. This is an inspiring and thought provoking book which I can thoroughly recommend. If you’re currently a victim of hurry sickness it might help you slow down and find time to smell the roses, for as Schumacher writes: ‘The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity…..The aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption…. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful’.

© Donald Norfolk 2011

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