Ernst Friedrich Schumacher–the son of a university economics professor–was born in Bonn, Germany in 1911. He was educated in Bonn and Berlin and, in 1930, became a Rhodes scholar to England’s Oxford University. Schumacher also attended Columbia University in the United States.
In 1937, during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Schumacher emigrated to England and during the next few years worked at various jobs in the fields of journalism, business, and farming. He became a British citizen in 1946.
It was also in 1946 that Schumacher began a four year stint as economic advisor to the United Kingdom Control Commission in Germany . . . a group which played a major role in paving the way for the post-World War II German economic recovery.
Schumacher left the Control Commission in 1950 to become the chief economist for Britain’s National Coal Board . . . a nationalized industry and the largest business in the United Kingdom. He would serve on that board for the next 20 years. . .twenty years that would also see him develop his idea of “economics as if people mattered”.
The economic theory for which Schumacher is now becoming increasingly famous started to form in his mind in 1955, when he began a series of visits to Burma, India, and other developing countries. The trips were set up so that Schumacher could consult with the leaders of such nations and assist in determining exactly what kind of help they needed from the industrialized West.
“It soon became clear,” Schumacher says, “that most of thetraditional ‘aid’ programs were really only a means of collectingmoney fromthe poor people in rich countries to give to the richpeople in poor countries.” He was also dismayed to learn thatmost aid programs offered variations of just one quick and easy“solution”: Replace your primitive hoes with our tractors, fertilizers, pesticides, and computers.
“But the developing nations did not have the industrial base they needed to support such technologically advanced systems,” points out Schumacher “Which meant that this ‘answer’ we were trying–indeed, are still trying to force down their throats–was no real answer at all. To make the high technology we give them work, they need to make a tremendous capital investment–which they do not have–in fuels and fertilizers and pesticides and spareparts and training programs and complicated machinery . . . almost none of which are now available in such countries. If they want these high technology systems and equipment–and we do teach them to want them–there is only one place they can get such things: from us, and at our prices. What we are doing, you see, is offering the developing nations no real solution at all. We are merely, showing them how to trade one form of bondage for another. “
Schumacher soon realized that what the emerging nations really needed was an “intermediate technology” . . a technology that would greatly increase the productivity of primitive and agrarian cultures… but which unschooled people could understand, manufacture, and control on a village level. A technology that would not just deliver the have-nots of the world “from bondage to bondage” but which would help them find their way from the bondage of poverty to the freedom of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-determination.
As he became more and more involved with this concept, Schumacher’s speeches on the subject began to be picked up and printed as articles by MOTHER-type publications in England and other parts of the world. “Before long,” as he tells it, “I was faced with the choice of merely continuing to talk about intermediate technology . . . or actually doing something with it.”
And so, with less than $300 (which he had received for delivering a lecture), E.F. Schumacher founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) in London in 1965. The organization was set up to “facilitate the flow of practical information about these technologies, conduct original research into new tools and methods, and in some cases take on the actual manufacture of IT equipment”
Schumacher is justly proudofhis group’s revival–among other activities–of a pre-Industrial-Revolution metal-bending tool which costs only about $20 and can be worked by two people with no electricity, gasoline engines, or other supplemental sources of power.
Another example of IT at its best is the Schumacher organization’s answer to the problem of a Zambian egg packer. The firm needed a machine that would produce egg trays. But when it asked a Western company to design the equipment, it received a proposal for the constructionofa monster that would stamp out one million trays a month. “This was far beyond the needs or the resourcesofthe Zambian packer, so we designed a mini-plant that was just what the firm wanted. And our little plant was soon ordered by other Third World countries… then by the Canary Islands, Spain, Ireland, Canada, and even the United States. This and similar experiences soon taught us that the so-called ‘advanced’ nations frequently need as much help in scaling down their technologies as the emerging countries need in scaling theirs up. ..
Great numbers of people in the advanced nations abruptlyreached that same conclusion on October 6, 1973. . . the day theArabs “turned off the oil” : That single action by a handfuloftill-then relatively unimportant sheiks suddenly and unceremoniously rubbed our advanced” noses in the folly of organizing ourwhole society around machines (instead of people) andofbasingit on distant and non-renewable (instead of local and renewable) resources.
Interestingly enough, E.F Schumacher was one of the very few citizens of the Western world who were not surprised by the oil embargo. As a matteroffact, he had predicted the possibility of exactly that sort of action more than 15 years before it took place. In a paper delivered to the Federation of British Industries Conference on April 10, 1958, Schumacher had said:
The forecasts made by responsible agencies of Western European fuel consumption during the next few decades point to an ever growing gap between requirements and indigenous supplies, a gap which could be closed only by oil imported mainly from the Middle East. Quite apart from the balance of payments created thereby, a development of this kind–I suggest–would mean the end of Western European independence. The whole Western European economy would become so vitally dependent on Middle Eastern oil that anyone in a position to withhold or even to disturb these supplies would be Europe’s master. If present plans are carried through, the position will be irretrievable within twenty years from now. Western Europe will then have attained a position of maximum dependence on the oil of the Middle East precisely at the moment when the first signs of a world oil famine become visible.
Perhaps it was because of this ability to forecast the future so accurately, or maybe it was first a matter of fortunate timing. Whatever, E.F: Schumacher’s book of collected essays, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, was published in1973. . . within weeksofthe oil embargo. And thanks in part to that joltingly firsthand and painfully personal example of the frailtiesofour “bigger has to be better” way of life, Schumacher’s following mushroomed throughout the developed world.
E.F. Schumacher now spends muchofhis time traveling around the planet as the itinerant prophet of what he is convinced is the inevitable dawningofa new human-scale society. One man who recently talked to him says:
“The man twinkles and has a winning way with the language as he speaks his fluent British English with a pronounced German accent. He is manifestly a happy person. He enjoys his life. He’s cheered by his thoughts. He is confident in his being. He projects an optimism in the face of the most discouraging facts. His grandfatherly shock of white hair contrasts in an interesting way with his eyes, which sparkle brightly with the idealism of a newly minted teenager. Perhaps these are the reasons the man beguiles so many different audiences in such widely scattered parts of the world. “
The following interview is a composite of a 1974 talk that Bruce Williamson had with “Fritz” Schumacher on the west coast, another discussion that Roger Albright recently conducted with the man on the east coast, and a great deal of supplemental information supplied to MOTHER by Schumacher’s devoted followers in England, California, and other parts of the world.
Dr. Schumacher, you’ve been one of the “fair-haired boys” of the economics profession for as long as you’ve worked in it. John Maynard Keynes, father of today’s prevailing school of economic thought, championed one of the first papers you wrote. And you’ve held responsible positions in the field throughout your career.
But the whole economics profession, from top to bottom, is positively steeped in the understanding that “bigger is always better”. Whatever possessed you, then, to begin saying that “small can be beautiful”?
I did not deliberately set out to develop this idea. No. Any economic ideas I’ve had have come from my larger search for meaning in life.
My father was a professor of economics and I had what was basically a rationalist-scientific upbringing. But that education didn’t answer the questions that I, as a human being, struggled with: “Why are we here? What is the meaning of it all? Am I just an accidental collection of atoms,” as Bertrand Russell used to say, “or do I have a specific purpose?”
I wanted to know these things so I spent many years studying the whole of what is called “philosophy”. But neither my rationalist scientific upbringing nor my study of philosophy gave me the answers I wanted. Nor did my experiments with psychical research.
And then I happened onto a book about Buddhism and that was what I was looking for. I dropped everything else and read all I could find on the subject. And I kept noticing repeated references to a school that had been set up in Burma, sometime around 1900, from which a great revival of Buddhism had gone out to the world. So I thought to myself, “I must go to that school.” But I was a family man who had migrated from Germany to England and it was just not possible for me to uproot myself again and go to Burma. These things have a way of working themselves out, however, and in 1955 1 was requested by the Burmese Government to come and advise the Prime Minister there. So I went and while I was in Burma I studied at that school.
There, for the first time, I realized that you do not find clarity in the mind . . . but in the heart. And the heart will not speak to you unless you quiet yourself and liberate yourself from such masters as greed and envy. But if you can do this you will find, in the stillness that follows, insights of wisdom that are obtainable in no other way. You will begin to see things as they really are. You will become enlightened. The Buddhists call this vipassana.
Well I don’t claim to have attained vipassana, but I did come away from Burma with a different view of things. And in the beginning, as I saw my life in this new light, I was very unhappy. The things I had been doing had ceased to make sense.
But then I realized that “life must go on” . . . that I must apply my new insights to what had become my life’s work. And as I struggled to do that, I gave various lectures and wrote papers. And they were compiled eventually into the book, Small Is Beautiful.
So I did not set out to change economic theory. I set out to find the answers to the metaphysical questions that bothered me.Small Is Beautiful just happened to be one of the outcomes of that very personal quest.
Well the fruit of that quest does seem to have influenced your thinking. One of the most famous chapters in your book is titled “Buddhist Economics”.
Yes, but that’s purely incidental. I could have derived the same ideas from the teachings of the Christian, Judaic, Islamic, or any other great religious tradition. I have spent many, many years studying them and I find that the great religious traditions are all fundamentally the same. And now that I know this it no longer bothers me that religion has become split up in so many ways. I joined the Roman Catholic Church because it was the most practical one for me . . . not because it was better than any of the others.
As I understand it, your 1955 trip to Burma, and the travels which followed, were also educational to you in other ways.
Yes, they taught me many things. I learned, for instance, that statistics can be very misleading. I had looked at the figures before going to Burma and found that it was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual per-capita income of only $50. And being totally ignorant, I expected to find poverty there as I had never seen it before. Instead, I found the happiest people I’d ever met. They were well-fed, beautifully dressed, and lived in houses that were suited to the climate. And they had time! They had no laborsaving machinery, but they had great bags of time in which to relax and be happy. There seemed to be no strain in Burma. The people there were the most joyous you could possibly encounter. They were living life as it should be lived. This contrasted sharply with what I found in the United States and Germany. There, in the two countries most cluttered with laborsaving machinery, life was a constant agitation. I loved America but I was bothered by the terrible pressure, the nervous strain, the number of people on psychiatrists’ couches. England, I realized, was somewhere in the middle. It was industrialized, but its equipment was not as modern and not as laborsaving as the machines in Germany or the United States. And its pace was really quite agreeable. Kindly and safe. This led me to formulate an idea that I was tempted to release as the first law of economics: The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of laborsaving machinery it employs.
But why were the Burmese you met so happy? How could they take so much joy from life when they were so poor?
I asked myself that question. Which led me to a closer inspection of all the conditions we call “poverty”. And I quickly realized that the sheer amount of money an individual earns in a year does not necessarily tell you how happy that person is.
During the Great Depression, for example, I saw unemployed workers in England whose whole gait showed they were broken men. Yet their actual cash income from unemployment insurance was more than the income of a Spanish peasant whose eyes shone with manliness, who greeted you with open arms, and who asked you into his hovel to share everything he had.
Eventually I decided that the absolute bottom level of existence–where you don’t have enough to even begin to keep body and soul together–should be called misery. The next level up — where people can reach the fullness of humanity but in a modest and frugal way with nothing really to spare–is actually what should be known as poverty. Then comes sufficiency. . . where you do have something to spare. This was the normal condition of Western Europe for centuries during the latter half of the Middle Ages when, as we know, great cathedrals were built and many advances were made in the arts and sciences. And finally, there is surfeit. . . which is limitless.
And if you had your choice?
I would say that the bottom layer of misery and the top layer of surfeit are both very unhealthy. But between sufficiency and poverty, I don’t really argue which is better.
That’s not what our prevalent economic theory tells us. It very clearly states that more is always better.
Oh yes. The implicit doctrine of development, which has been drummed into our ears for the last half century or so and upon which all of modern society is founded, holds up material wealth as the be-all, end-all of existence. “Do you want to be happy?” it asks. “Then become rich. And do you want to be happier still? Then become even richer. In fact you have not only the right to become rich . . . but the duty! The faster the better. And what is rich? Why material possessions–goods!–of course. The more and the bigger of everything you possess–and the faster you do it!–the better off you’ll be. There is no such thing as `enough’. You must always have more, more, more!”
This tenet of life, if anything, is applied even more stringently to nations than to individuals. Which is why we now have this terrible fetish of measuring the gross national product of a country and dividing it by the number of people who live there to get the average income per head. And that figure then becomes the final indicator of the nation’s status in the world . . . while the prime object of admiration is not the income level that has already been attained, but its current rate of growth. In other words, more is always better . . . and it’s even better yet if you can get that “more” faster than the next country.
This is a rather simplistic way of looking at things, isn’t it?
Of course. My work with developing nations quickly showed me the fallacy of this line of thought. You simply cannot assume that raising a country’s GNP will raise the standard of living of every individual in that country. In actual fact, the development programs that have been implemented in the emerging nations during the past few decades have almost universally produced quite a different result. They have substantially increased the incomes of a fortunate small minority and drastically lowered the incomes of the rest. And not only lowered their incomes, but destroyed their culture and plunged them from poverty into misery.
Because of our preoccupation with–and greed for and envy of–steadily increasing material wealth as measured by a country’s gross national product. The systematic cultivation of this greed and envy makes us anxious to increase a developing nation’s GNP as rapidly as possible. Which leads us–usually erroneously–to insist that we equip the emerging country with only the latest and the highest mass-production technology available.
“This country wants goods,” we say, “so let’s not fool around with small-scale production. Let’s build it some factories that will really pour out the merchandise . . . and the faster they turn out those products, the better.”
But this is probably the last thing the emerging nation needs. You can’t just drop a highly automated factory into a very poor country and expect it to run itself.
That sophisticated plant is not a magic self-contained wealth machine. It’s more like the small visible tip of a vast submerged iceberg. If it is to function properly it needs the support of trained technicians, energy and transportation and communication systems, standardized raw materials, and an efficient distribution network for the great quantities of finished goods that eventually will spew from its production line. It needs a thousand things that are taken for granted in the United States or Germany or Japan . . . but which simply do not exist in the country you are working with except, perhaps, in rudimentary form in a few of its biggest cities. So you build the new factories in those cities.
And in the beginning, you put them into operation as best you can by importing the high technology support they need. But this sophisticated support is costly so, as soon as possible, you develop your own refineries and pipelines and training schools and all the other things you need to make those first few factories function the way they’re supposed to.
And pretty soon the mere logistics of figuring out the paychecks for all your new factory hands and refinery operators and school teachers and of scheduling shipments in and out of the plants become complicated. So you decide that you might as well handle the growing mountain of paperwork in the most efficient way possible and you import a few computers and set up yet another school for computer operators. And so on and so forth.
That all seems logical enough.
Oh there’s no flaw to this logic at all . . . once we’ve made the original error of concentrating only on goods and their production.
We’ve been concentrating on goods when we should have been thinking about people!
Precisely. So let’s think a little about some of those people and see what has happened to them while we were getting our factories set up. I’ll give you an actual example: The people of one poor country I know used to support 5,000 shoemakers. And many other individuals earned a living by supplying hand tools, leather, cotton laces, wooden lasts, and other materials to those craftsmen.
The government of the country then imported two plastic injection molding machines that cost close to a hundred thousand dollars. And since the country had no plastic industry to support such equipment, all the PVC used in them had to be–and still has to be–imported too. But the molded plastic shoes cost less than the leather ones they now replace and they wear longer too. In the long run the poor nation is better off, isn’t it?
No, unfortunately, it is not. The new factory employs 40 well-paid people but it has put more than 5,000 out of work. The PVC for the plant must still be imported, and that adversely affects the poor country’s balance of payments . . . which it can ill afford. There is now a smaller market within the nation for the native leather, cotton, and other materials which used to go into shoes . . . so the farmers who live there now earn less too. All in all, there has been a real loss of income for the country. A few–forty–people are making more money than they ever did before. But 5,000 have plunged from poverty into misery.
Is this an unusual situation?
Not at all. We see this pattern develop time and again in the emerging nations that are newly equipped with automated factories. The machines of mass production soon begin to dump goods into a country’s hinterland so fast that the economic structure of the nation’s rural areas is destroyed. The peasants then abandon the land and flock to the cities in hopes of finding jobs. But, of course, only a very few of them are able to fit into the highly technological production system that has been set up. The rest become slum dwellers, sell themselves as prostitutes, resort to crime, swell the welfare rolls, and so on.
Yes, I know. One variation or another of this same story has been taking place in nearly every developing country in the world.
And not just in the poor countries, but in the rich ones too. In fact in some highly advanced nations, such as the United States, this displacement of people from the rural areas and the smaller towns to the big cities has–if anything–been worse. It has caused what can only be called a “pathological growth” of a few areas.
The word metropolis is no longer big enough to describe the 60 million population projected for the Boston-Washington area or the 60 million forecast for the region around Chicago or the 60 million expected for the area reaching from San Francisco to San Diego. We now call such a buildup of people a megalopolis.
And what do we find as industrial production is increasingly concentrated into these supercities? In the highly advanced countries, just as in the emerging ones, the outpouring of mass-produced goods from the cities systematically destroys the economic structure of the hinterland. And that hinterland increasingly takes its revenge by mass migration into the cities, making them utterly unmanageable.
And as we are learning to our sorrow, the way of life which follows is one of unemployment, unemployables, inflation, alienation, stress, social breakdown, crime, widespread drug addiction, “dropouts”, and fear of the future.
I call this the “process of mutual poisoning”. First the cities poison the countryside and then the countryside takes its revenge.
And this is what we get when we think of goods first and people second.
Yes. These are the real riches that our preoccupation with material goods and their production have brought us. After 30 years of the most astonishing and unprecedented economic growth imaginable, we find both the rich countries and the poor countries of the world left in a state of discontent. Our new wealth most certainly has not bought us happiness. There are more miserable people living on earth today–both absolutely and proportionately–than ever before. The pot of gold we have been promised at the end of the rainbow is there all right . . . but it is largely filled with fool’s gold.
Then you’re saying that economic growth is bad.
I’m saying nothing of the sort. Economic growth is like any other kind: it can be either good or bad. Is physical growth a good thing? Yes, of course. When my children grow I am very pleased. But if I should suddenly start to grow again, it would be a disaster.
So I am not saying that economic growth is always bad. What I am saying is that we must stop pretending that such growth is always good.
But that concept–the idea that growth is always good–is the very foundation on which all modern societies are based!
Of course. Your country’s own Walter Heller, former chairman of the U.S. President’s Council of Economic Advisers, was only expressing the view of his profession when he said, “I cannot conceive a successful economy without growth.” Dr. Mansholt, the vice president of the European Economic Community, was doing the same thing when he stated that, “More, further, quicker, richer are the watchwords of present-day society.” And he added that “there is no alternative”, that we must “make this adaption”.
Wait a minute. What kind of adaption are we talking about? Just how much growth have we actually experienced during the past 30 years . . . and how much is projected for the future?
Economists generally consider the world’s total consumption of steel to be a very good indicator of industrial activity. And the consumption of steel was insignificant up until about 100 years ago. Everyone in the world used only a half million tons of steel in 1870. That consumption had climbed to 100 million tons a year by 1935 . . . but it leveled off there and stayed close to that figure until the end of World War II. Then it really began to grow. By 1950 it had doubled to an annual consumption of 200 million tons, and it had trebled again to 600 million tons by 1970. This growth, of course, continues right now as we are talking and the annual consumption of steel is expected to pass one billion tons by 1980.
That’s a lot of steel.
These figures affirm a fact that is sometimes difficult to grasp and even more difficult to accept: In terms of sheer quantity, the industrial way of life is only 30 years old. In comparison with what is going on now, all the industrial activities of mankind–up to and including World War II–are as nothing. Currently, every four or five years, we produce as many manufactured goods as all of mankind produced from the dawn of history right up to 1945. We now matter-of-factly consume the earth’s resources at a rate that is whole levels of magnitude beyond the wildest imagination of former civilizations. And we routinely double and redouble that rate of consumption.
“Don’t ask for a bigger slice of the cake,” we say. “Just get busy and promote our economic and industrial growth and everybody’s slice will be bigger.” This boosterism, as typified by Dr. Heller’s and Dr. Mansholt’s remarks, is now pursued with a fervor and a devotion that the older religions might well envy. Indeed, growth economics has become the religion of this age.
And yet, as we’ve just discussed, all this new-found wealth hasn’t brought us happiness. We’ve flooded ourselves with a surfeit of material goods but we’ve most certainly found, as you said, that they leave us “in a state of discontent”. At least I haven’t noticed many people living the joyous lives you found in Burma 20 years ago.
Oh there’s no doubt that our neglect of the spiritual aspects of life in favor of the deification of material goods has eaten into our very substance. By so single-mindedly cultivating an ever-expanding greed and envy, we have debased ourselves. We have made our lives far less than they could be. We have destroyed our intelligence, happiness, and serenity.
And we’ve done more. We have also debased the living environment of this earth. We’ve used its air, water, and soil as sewers. Turned the land upside down. Wantonly wiped away entire species of plants and animals. Our scientists and technologists have learned to compound substances unknown to nature. And precisely because they have no natural enemies, these compounds–once released–tend to accumulate into extremely dangerous and lethal concentrations. As a result of all this, the living environment–upon which human life is absolutely dependent–everywhere aches and groans and shows signs of partial breakdown.
And we’ve done more yet. We’ve plundered and sacked and raped this planet’s capital assets. Clear-cut its forests. Mined away the soil with intensive agricultural practices. Rifled its storehouses of minerals and fossil fuels.
I do not know which of these three increasingly insistent crises–human, environmental, or capital resource–is most likely to be the direct cause of our society’s collapse. But I do know that a society which seeks fulfillment only in mindless material expansion does not fit into this world for long. There simply is no place for infinite growth on a finite planet.
A great many of the establishment economists, of course, do recognize all or part of this developing threefold crisis you’ve just outlined. They even use it as a major justification for further growth of the world’s industrial economy. Walter Heller, for instance, has said, “We need expansion to fulfill our nation’s aspirations. In a fully employed, high-growth economy you have a better chance to free public and private resources to fight the battle of land, air, water, and noise pollution than in a low-growth economy.”
Ah yes. The ultimate folly. Trying to cure a disease by intensifying its cause. Such a line of reasoning is entirely representative of our age. We have, with our idolatry of wealth, molded a “system” . . . and this system now molds us and our thinking. It makes us think absurdities.
But let us say that black is white, day is night, and that the cure for the triple crises brought about by industrial growth is indeed more industrial growth. Just how much longer can that growth go on when it destroys and consumes for all time the very capital resources on which it depends’?
Such as the fossil fuels which now provide almost all the primary energy upon which our society is increasingly hooked?
Especially the fossil fuels.
Well the commonly given answer to that one, as you know, is that “something will come up”. Or, to be more. precise, that we’ll probably discover new reserves of coal and natural gas and oil as fast as we use our known reserves . . . and that, besides, we’ll be switching to nuclear energy pretty soon anyway.
I know. When it comes to future supplies of energy–whether based on fossil fuels or the atom–many people manage to assume a position of limitless optimism, quite impervious to reason.
I won’t bore you with the calculations since you can find them in the “Resources for Industry” chapter and other sections of Small Is Beautiful. But the simple fact is that even if you accept the fossil fuel industry’s most starry-eyed projections of future coal, natural gas, and petroleum discoveries . . . you cannot show any way that our consumption of such resources can continue to grow much past 1980.
Our use of these fuels will simply have to level off. If not sooner, later. And if not because we’ve exhausted them, then because we are trying to burn them so fast that we’re changing the thermal balance of the planet.
What about nuclear energy?
Criminal. Criminal. We are prepared to go to the last degree of violence to satisfy our greed.
The terrible thing about nuclear fission is that its radioactive elements are deadly and, once created, there is absolutely nothing we can do to “uncreate” them. Only time can reduce radioactivity to a safe level. In the case of plutonium, which is produced in very large quantities by the new breeder reactors, the time involved is 500,000 years.
And it’s not just the lethal fuel and by-products of the reactors we must worry about, but the reactors themselves. Each one works for only 20 or 30 years, you know, before it too must be sealed and treated as radioactive waste. Fission reactors, in short, are satanic devices which endanger this and the next 20,000 generations for only the slightest fleeting economic gain.
Because of these appalling dangers, there is now a good deal of talk about fusion reactors, which produce no radioactive wastes. The difficulty is that fusion will take place continuously only at the temperature of the sun . . . a fact which is sure to have its own adverse effect on the earth’s environment. Luckily for us, the practical feasibility of a fusion reactor has in no way yet been established.
But nuclear energy–especially fusion–has such an irresistible appeal for the “growth at any price” people. It totally fascinates them . . . hypnotizes them the way a flame mesmerizes a troth. It looks like such a neat way to put unlimited energy into our hands so we can go right on expanding our economy for the next 100 years the way we have for the past 30.
Well, just as the moth perishes in the candle flame, we shall perish if we succeed in developing such a source of energy. Thirty years of unlimited growth have left us in such bad psychological shape that our society could never stand another 100. And it has damaged the living environment so badly that the earth could never stand it either.
But there is another point I would like to make. Our materialistic society will not substitute nuclear energy for the fossil fuels we have been using. Instead, it will use the new to whip up its appetite for more of the old. The more nuclear energy there is, the more oil we shall need to satisfy our ever-increasing thirst for petroleum. You cannot cure the disease by intensifying its cause. What the advocates of nuclear energy hold tip as our salvation is only the road into absolute perdition. It is only the road into hell.
And how are we going to get off that road?
We must strive for a wisdom that will no longer allow us to do the foolish things we have been doing. We have developed a very clever technology but, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we do not have the wisdom to use it properly.
We are justifiably proud of what we call “know-how”. We “know” a great deal about “how” things work. We have devised very effective sciences and technologies. And, within their proper limits, every science and all our technology can be beneficial. But these things become evil and destructive when they are allowed totransgress their proper boundaries.
Our sciences and technologies are valuable tools. They can be used to explore and measure and probe the physical world. We are proud that they give us what we call “hard facts” . . . facts we can observe and rub between our fingers and be sure of.
But by themselves, facts mean nothing, prove nothing, and lead to no conclusions. Facts need to be evaluated–that is to say, fitted into a value system–to be of use.
There are some questions–metaphysical questions–which science cannot answer. Science can tell us how we got here-it can explain evolution and survival of the fittest–but it cannot tell us why we are here. Science can tell us how to do almost anything–grow two grains where one grew before or build a nuclear reactor–but it cannot tell us the ultimate purpose of such an act.
Science cannot produce ideas by which we can live. Even the greatest concepts of science are nothing but working hypotheses which are useful for purposes of research but entirely inapplicable to the conduct of our lives or the interpretation of the world. Science can tell us nothing about the meaning of life.
We are, as the American Indian has said about the white man, “smart, but not wise”. But how do we develop wisdom?
As I learned in Burma, wisdom can only be found inside. One has first to liberate oneself from such masters as greed and envy. Then, in the stillness which follows, are found the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way.
These insights enable us to see the hollowness of a life which neglects the spiritual to pursue only the material. Man must live on both planes and it is folly to try to meet his need for the limitless freedom of the spiritual realm with the finite resources of the material. Man assuredly needs to overcome–to rise above–this world. But he must do it by moving toward saintliness . . . not by building up a monster economy or landing on the moon.
I’m afraid it’s no longer very fashionable to talk about striving toward saintliness or exploring the spiritual aspects of life.
No, it’s not. The prevailing mood of modern society is set by what I call “the people of the forward stampede”. And, like the devil, they have all the catchy tunes.
“We cannot stand still,” they say. “Standing still means going down. There is nothing wrong with modern technology except that it is not yet complete. We must go forward. Ever further. Ever faster. There is no alternative.
“What? The environment is being damaged? We will make laws against pollution and speed up our growth faster yet to pay for their enforcement. There are problems with natural resources? We’ll turn to synthetics. The fossil fuels are being exhausted`? We’ll move from slow reactors to fast breeders and from fission to fusion. People are beginning to protest and revolt? We’ll hire more police and equip them better. There are no insoluble problems. A breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay!”
These are the people who will resort to any degree of violence in the name of “progress” . . . in the name of “need”. In your own country, these are the people who recently launched Project Independence with a vast and horrifying nuclear program, no holds barred.
The forward stampeders are in power and they think that everything can be solved by purely material means.
Yes, and look at the results. The evidence is all around us: We have become a society that is rich in means and poor in purpose. We now have the means to do almost anything. But we no longer do a thing because it has any higher purpose. We no longer do a thing because we should do it or because it makes sense to do it . . . but only because we can do it. Quite frequently because, “Well if we don’t, someone else will. And we can’t let them get ahead of us.”
And so we heedlessly plunge on into a hell of our own creation. A hell of human debasement, environmental debasement, and the wanton depletion of our God-given natural resources.
“Never mind the consequences! Full speed ahead!”
Yes. This is the philosophy of the people of the forward stampede. But on the other side there are now a growing number of people who realize the utter folly of this idea. These people remember what life is really about . . . that it should be something more than just mindless activity and running about and the creation of ever-increasing confusion and despair.
These other people–I call them “the home-comers” remember that life should have a purpose . . . and they see that our modern way of life has no purpose except “more”, which is no real purpose. They know that a life which single-mindedly pursues only more and more and more material things is no life at all . . . especially when this pursuit destroys the very basis of our existence. They know that such a life is hollow and can never be satisfying because it never answers the question, “Why?” It never tells us the meaning of life. It doesn’t even admit there could be a higher meaning to our lives.
Well the “people of the forward stampede”, as you call them, know how to handle your “Home-comers”. They dismiss them as “anti-growth” and “anti-progress”.
Ah, but the home-comers are not anti-growth and they are not anti-progress.
In a sense everyone believes in growth, and rightly so, because growth is an essential feature of life. But growth is not automatically good . . . remember the comparison of my children’s physical growth versus my own.
The home-comers believe in growth, but not mindless growth for its own sake. They know that, at any given time, many things ought to be growing . . . but that many other things ought to be diminishing. They ask only that we evaluate and use some judgment. So that those things which are required, those which are healthy, and those which are good should grow . . . but those which are not required, those which are not healthy, and those which are not good should diminish.
It is the same with progress, which also can be said to be an essential feature of all life. The home-comers can see that what we now call “progress” is heavily weighed in favor of ever-greater size, ever-more complexity, ever-higher speeds, and ever-increasing violence. And they have taken stock and they have seen that this bias is destroying the very basis of our existence.
The home-comers know that man cannot live without science and technology any more than he can live without nature. But they see that our technology has taken a wrong turn and they simply ask that it be redirected. The home-comers want to go forward–they want to “progress”–just as much as anyone else. But they see that we can only go forward with, rather than against, the natural order of things.
Well you and your home-comers are asking a lot. After all, it’s very easy to just join the prevailing crowd and mindlessly chant that growth is good. It’s a hell of a lot more difficult, though, to decide which growth is good and which is bad and which is somewhere in the middle.
Oh, as I’ve just said, the people of the forward stampede have all the catchy tunes . . . but the genuine homecomers have the most exalted text: nothing less than the Gospels. And if they’ll listen to what nature and the Gospels have to say, they’ll find it quite easy to make those decisions.
There are two great teachers in life. One is nature and the other is revelation or the traditional wisdom of mankind as manifested in all the world’s important religions. And the very reason that the forward stampeders are leading us in a plunge into hell is because they’ll no longer listen to either one.
We have become a society of townsmen. The people who now control our destiny almost universally have a city orientation. They spend most of their time on concrete. They have little chance to study nature directly . . . and when they get the chance, their lack of experience and lack of interest make them misinterpret what they see.
These townsmen also consider it fashionable to ridicule anything of the spirit. They “don’t believe” in revelation, they say. They only believe in what they can see and touch and measure.
Well. It is little wonder that such people speak gibberish, spend hours on the psychiatrist’s couch, fill the beds of mental hospitals, feel anguished and alienated, and develop obtuse theories that lead us all into hell.We are only in this world for a brief period . . . far too short a time for each of us, thrashing about on our own, to answer that most important of all questions: Why? If we are to find the meaning in our rives, we need guidance. We need the guidance that we can receive only from  nature and  revelation or the traditional wisdom of mankind.
But if we have cut ourselves off from both of these great teachers, what are we to do? Where can we turn for help? Only to ourselves and to others who are as lost as we are. And so we descend into anguish. And so we develop obtuse theories. And so we join the mindless forward stampede. And so we cast ourselves into hell.
I wonder if you’d care to expand on this idea a little. What teachings from nature, for instance, are we failing to notice?
The whole of human life, it can be said, is a dialogue between us and our environment . . . a sequence of questions and responses. We pose questions to the universe by what we do, and the universe, by its response, informs us of whether or not our actions fit into its laws. When we husband the earth and manage it wisely, we are rewarded with health, beauty, permanence, and productivity. But when we abuse and degrade the earth, we reap disease, ugliness, impermanence, and barren harvests.
Our smaller transgressions evoke limited or mild responses. But large transgressions evoke general, threatening, and possibly violent responses. And now, the very universality of the environmental crisis indicates the universality of our transgressions. It is no less than the philosophy of materialism which is being challenged . . . and the challenge comes not from a few saints and sages, but from the environment.
Now this is a new situation. At all times and in all societies and in all parts of the world, the saints and sages have warned against materialism and pleaded for a more realistic order of priorities. The languages have differed and the symbols have varied, but the essential message has always been the same.
In modern terms, the message is, “Get your priorities right.” In Christian terms, it’s, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things–the material things which you also need–shall be added unto you.”
Today that message reaches us, not from a few saints and sages, but from the universe itself . . . a universe which speaks the language of pollution, breakdown, exhaustion, terrorism, genocide, drug addiction, and so on. Everything in nature cries out for us to develop a way of life which accords to material things their proper and legitimate place . . . which is secondary and not primary.
Nature is a very wise teacher if we will but listen. And the environment, in its own way, is telling us that we are moving along the wrong path. It is telling us that further acceleration down the senseless, vulgar, and violent course we have chosen will not put us right. It is telling us that Enough is good but that More Than Enough is evil.
We have willfully disregarded the laws of the universe–or the “Tao”, as the ancient Chinese would say–and nature herself is now warning us in physical terms. She’s warning us in the only language which modern men have ears to hear . . . yet “hearing they hear not, neither do they understand”.
And, of course, we find this same message in the traditional teachings of mankind . . . especially our moral and religious teachings.
Of course. In fact, in the Christian tradition, the doctrines of the Four Cardinal Virtues provide a marvelously subtle and realistic insight which is completely relevant and appropriate to the modern predicament in which we now find ourselves.
The Latin names of the Four Cardinal Virtues –prudentia, justitia, fortitudo, and temperantia –denote rather higher orders of human excellence than their English derivatives . . . but we can see at once that those derivatives are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
It also should be apparent that if we had the prudentia to silence our selfish greed and envy, enough love of justitia to put ourselves into our proper place in the universe, and the fortitudo to be temperantia . . . that we wouldn’t be in the fix in which we now find ourselves. Instead of increasing anguish, despair, brutality, and ugliness, we’d find ourselves surrounded by health, beauty, gentleness, and happiness.
Is there any other single religious teaching which sums up, for you, what our society’s outlook on life should be?
The great Christian saint Thomas Aquinas laid down what he called The Foundation. And it says:
Man was created topraise, reverence, and serve God our lord, and by this means to save his soul.
And the other things on the face of the earth were created for man’s sake, and in order to aid him in the prosecution of the end for which he was created.
The Foundation, in the most precise logic, then goes on to say:
From whence it follows that man ought to make use of them just so far as they help him to attain his end.
And that he ought to withdraw himself from them just so far as they hinder him.
That sounds a great deal like what you’ve said in your book about a Buddhist economist: A Buddhist economist would feel that, “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.”
Exactly. The logic is impeccable in both cases. We of the modern materialistic world, who pride ourselves on our self-proclaimed “logic”, would be much wiser if we applied this kind of logic to our everyday affairs. If we did, we’d first try to clarify what we want to achieve. Then we’d study the means at our disposal for accomplishing the task. And, finally, we’d use those means just so far as they helped us to attain our objective. And whenever it appeared that we were overdoing things, we’d withdraw from those means just so far as they hindered us.
I believe this. I believe that we have been put in this world for a higher purpose and that, as tar as the goods of this world are concerned, we should strive to use them just so far as they help us attain that purpose. And that we should strive to withdraw from them just so far as they hinder us from that goal.
For this reason, I find the economist’s preoccupation with gross national product to be meaningless. The mere fact that some evil-minded statisticians have added together everything we did last year and announced that our gross national product rose or fell should be of absolutely no concern to anyone with any sense whatsoever. That which is good and helpful ought to be growing and that which is bad and hindering ought to be diminishing. Whether the aggregation of these two processes yields a higher or a lower grand total is of no interest at all. We need to be concerned with the direction of our movement and not merely to measure its speed.
Ha! You’ve just reminded me of an old Andy Griffith line: “If speed was all that counted, rabbits would surely rule the earth.” You’ve made your point. The quality of what we do is more important than its quantity. It’s not enough to mindlessly demand “more”. We must judge and evaluate and strive only for more of that which serves our higher purposes in life . . . and less of that which doesn’t.
But this is, perhaps, easier to think about in theory than it is to put into practice. What can we do specifically, right now, today to set ourselves and our whole society on this new and higher road?
We must redirect our science and technology. Not abandon, but redirect them. As things now stand we have foolishly shaped a technology which drives us into giantism, infinite complexity, vast expensiveness, and violence. We must devise a new technology that will help us move in the opposite direction . . . towards smallness, simplicity, low cost, and non-violence.
Let’s take these ideas one at a time. Why is small better than big?
Ah, I do not say that small is always better than big. I say only that we have shaped a technology which always arid forever drives us into giantism. We tend too easily to admire the grandiose, to marvel at super technology, super medicine, supersonic speeds, and super organizations. “The bigger, the better,” we say.
But small can be beautiful too . . . and each size in between. For every activity there is a certain appropriate scale, and I ask only that we recognize this fact. I ask only that we restore this balance to our lives.
But haven’t we come to prefer larger and larger organizations and factories and so on because of the economies of scale? Isn’t it more efficient to make things big, rather than small?
Yes. In the narrowest material sense, large-scale organization is very efficient. But in human terms, it is inefficient to a degree that surpasses our ordinary powers of imagination.
The bigger our institutions become, the more lost and powerless and alienated most of us feel. The larger our assembly lines grow, the less satisfaction we take in our work. The more our farms are consolidated into agribiz conglomerates, the less taste and nutrition there is in our food.
The simplest things, which only 50 years ago could be done without difficulty, now-in the name of “efficiency”–cannot be done anymore. They “cost too much”. They “take too much time”. It seems that the richer we become, the less we can afford.
When you really stop to think about it, the most striking thing about modern society–which we constantly tell ourselves is supremely organized for “efficiency”–is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little that we really want to accomplish. It is safe to say that the human race has never known an economic system in which the relationship between the input of irreplaceable resources and output of human satisfaction has been so unfavorable as it is now.
This is what our constant parroting of “the bigger, the better” has brought us. But let me state once again that big is not always bad. It isn’t. But neither is it, as our prevailing dogma would have us believe, in and of itself always good. For everything we do–for each of our activities–there is a “critical size” that is best. I merely suggest that, in most cases, this critical size is much smaller than most people in our society have been led to believe.
All right. I certainly can’t argue with you on that point. But what about the question of simplicity versus complexity?
Karl Marx was right 150 years ago when he said, “Be careful. If you build too many useful machines, you will soon have too many useless people.”
We now have cars which are so complicated that you do not even have to subject yourself to the indignity of turning a handle to wind their windows up and down. Instead you press a button and–bzzzzzzz–a little electric motor runs the glass up and down for you. But of course these things break and cost a lot to repair and–unless someone fixes them for you–you can’t even open your automobile’s windows anymore.
Everything has become too complex. And, just as foreseen 150 years ago, this complexity and sophistication has made us useless. It has taken us away from ourselves. It distracts us and puts so much strain on us and makes us so narrow-minded and so bothered and so specialized that we no longer have time to become wise.
Thomas Aquinas said that, “The smallest knowledge of the highest things is more to be desired than the most certain knowledge of the lower things.” But the complexity of modern life forces us to become so specialized that we have no time to consider the higher things at all. We have no time to realize our true potential. Life becomes an agitation and a strain which crowds out the spirit.
Well, I can’t argue with you on that point either. What about the expensiveness of modern life as opposed to the inexpensiveness you would rather see?
The giantism and complexity we have just discussed are closely accompanied by a sharply escalating need for capital. You could live quite well in many primitive societies with no money at all and you can still live a pleasant–even a fulfilling–life in some underdeveloped societies, such as I found in Burma, with very little money. But everything in our modern society has a price tag on it and, if you want to get along at all, you’d better be in command of some capital.
This is especially obvious if you want to go into any kind of production . . . if you want to set up a job for yourself. With rare exceptions, only people who are already rich and powerful can create a job in our society. All others are excluded. All others must try to find a job that has been created by the rich.
The effect is, as has been said, that capital employs labor instead of the other way ’round. And this, of course, makes a mockery of the lip service we pay to the ideas of “self-help” and “self-reliance”.
If we are really serious about restoring human dignity to our society, we must turn this situation around. We must develop a technology that is labor- instead of capital-intensive. We must make it possible for the “have-nots”–those with only labor to sell–to create their own employment. We must make it possible for the non-rich to admit themselves to the dinner table.
And what about violence versus non-violence?
The technology of the modern world is utterly steeped in a violence of the most appalling magnitude. And this violence is just as apparent in what we call “peace” as it is in war.
There is absolutely no limit to the violence that modern man will permit himself in the name of “peaceful economic progress”. We are cheerfully prepared to explode nuclear devices underground in order to release a bit of natural gas. We constantly stand ready to curse the earth with the most diabolic and horrifying poisons merely to rid it of anything we choose to consider a weed or pest. For the sake of immediate profits, we increasingly treat even our friends in the plant and animal kingdom–our livestock and food crops–with a callousness and degradation that defies description. We rip the earth apart, turn it upside down, and ruin it for all time with ever-bigger machines for the sake of the same immediate, and fleeting, profits. We increasingly brutalize and debase even ourselves–eliminate the joy from our work, turn ourselves into mere machine tenders, and surround ourselves with ugliness, intolerable noise, and fear of the future–all in the name of “progress”.
I do not pretend that we can realize perfect non-violence in this imperfect world. But I do say that it does make a difference in which direction we strive. I say that we should strive towards non-violence rather than violence. Towards an harmonious cooperation with nature rather than a warfare against nature. Towards the noiseless, low-energy, elegant, and economical solutions of nature rather than the noisy, high-energy, brutal, wasteful, and clumsy solutions of our present-day sciences.
Any intelligent fool can use large enough means to solve a problem after he has blundered into creating it in the first.place. But this approach to life has turned even our medicine–with its radiation treatments and chemical therapy and other “breakthroughs”–into a thing of violence.
A clever chap has asked, “If one of our ancestors visited us today, what would he find more astonishing: the skill of our dentists . . . or the rottenness of our teeth?” Instead of solving this very personal problem in the gentle way with proper diet and other good habits, you see, we choose to live with ever-more rotten teeth and the greater and greater skill of our dentists. We even pride ourselves on this decision.
But the world doesn’t need for us to develop greater skill in the handling of problems that our heedlessness has created in the first place. The world would be much better off if we’d just develop the use of TLC–tender loving care–in everything we do.
Agreed. But let’s be very practical for a moment. The changes you’re talking about would–if implemented–completely stand our society on its head. Do you really think it worthwhile to do that?
Well, first of all, I am not suggesting that we stand society on its head. That would be violent in itself. I’m talking about turning our thinking around gently, bit by bit, bit by bit . . . until one day we wake up and say, “Goodness. Look how satisfying and fulfilling life has become. How did we ever survive that period when we thought we needed so much?”
And yes, of course, I think that such a change is worthwhile. As I said a few minutes ago, we have now become so rich that we no longer seem able to afford to do any of the really humanly satisfying things in life. We’re no longer even able to develop a meaningful culture. I’d like to see that change.
Think about it for a minute and you’ll realize that what we now call “culture” is really no more permanent than the throwaway beer can. We simply do not build things like the Taj Mahal or the cathedrals of Europe anymore. We can’t afford them.
I had the privilege of going to Florence recently, and there I saw a magnificent cathedral. And opposite this fantastic building was a statue of Arronulfo, the architect. And on the statue’s pedestal was an inscription which said, “This is Arronulfo, who–instructed by the municipality of Florence to build a cathedral of such splendor that no human genius can ever surpass it–on account of the splendid endowment of his mind, proved equal to this gigantic task.”
Now this was not the Medicis who instructed Arronulfo. This was the Republic of Florence, in a pre-industrial age, when the whole gross national product of Italy was only a tiny fraction of what it is now. This was also before electricity and steel and cement. This was before any of the commonly accepted resources of our modern world. Yet Arronulfo proved equal to the task.
Compare his feat to what our society–with its tremendous GNP and overwhelming technology–chooses to build: intercontinental bombers and nuclear bombs and moon rockets. I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to find a statue of the architect opposite one of the new high-rise office buildings now going up in London. It would probably say, “This is Mr. R.W. Smith, member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who–instructed by the Greater London Council to create an office block of such superlative cheapness per square toot that no human genius can ever underbid it-on account of his superb endowment with computers, proved equal to this mean task.”
We have, you see, in a way advanced into hell. We have become a society rich in means but poor in purpose . . . and I do indeed think it worthwhile to change that situation.
Yes, Dr. Schumacher, but you know as well as I do that the average Joe doesn’t care a whit about “culture”. He’s living in a hell of his own. He’s got a family to feed and he hates his job and he’s worried about tomorrow. What would the changes you propose do for him ?
They should improve his life rather dramatically. I’m quite convinced that our prevailing attitude that work is somehow a hateful thing is directly attributable to the fact that we have, indeed, made it a hateful thing.
Human beings have both brains and hands and enjoy nothing more than being creatively and usefully productive, rendering service, and acting in accordance with their moral impulses. Unfortunately, modern technology increasingly frustrates them in fulfilling all three of these very basic needs. It is most successful in reducing and eliminating the skillful, productive work that human hands can do. It buries individuals in giant corporations and organizations where they have less and less chance to render direct, face-to-face service to their fellow brothers and sisters. And the very rules necessary for the operation of these giant organizations thwart their workers’ moral impulses . . . increasingly cause them to say, “I’m sorry. I know what I’m doing isn’t quite right, but these are my instructions.”
I believe that a gentler technology–a technology with a human face–could once again take control of work away from the machines and put it back into the hands of the average worker. This should give Joe a great deal of satisfaction and make him very confident about his future.
I’m afraid that some people are going to be frightened of your ideas for taking control of work “away from the machines” and putting it “back into the hands of the average worker”. That sounds very much as if you’re advocating the overthrow of all modern advances in favor of a return to some sort of difficult and primitive hand labor.
Not at all! I’m talking only of returning our society to a human scale . . . of putting people in charge of their own destinies once more. I’m talking about overthrowing the machine in favor of the tool. And I do make this distinction between machines and tools:
Tools serve man while machines demand that man serve them. Tools enhance a man’s skill and power while machines, which are supposed to be man’s slave, sooner or later wind up enslaving the men who build and tend them.
As Ananda Coomaraswamy has said, “The craftsman himself can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers . . . but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”
So we are not talking about dropping our man-dominating and nature-ravaging modern technology for a return to the primitive, brutish hand labor of our distant ancestors. We’re talking about trading both of those extremes in for something in the middle. We’re talking about the development of something new . . . an intermediate technology. A technology that we can all own a part of and which will allow us to realize our highest human potentials while helping us nurture and tend and preserve the earth.
As Gandhi said, we do not need mass production . . . but production by the masses.
Mass production is sophisticated, highly capital-intensive, and gulps down ever-increasing amounts of energy. It concentrates the people who use it into crowded cities, is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in its demands on natural resources, and stultifying for the individuals who must make it work.
Production by the masses, on the other hand, is simple enough for everyone to understand, inexpensive, and conservative in its need for energy. It is conducive to decentralization, inherently gentle, and compatible with the laws of ecology. It preserves scarce resources and is designed to uplift, fulfill, and serve the people who use it.
The intermediate technology which makes production by the masses possible is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but much simpler, less expensive, and less oppressive than the supertechnology which now dominates our society. One might call intermediate technology a “self-help” or a “democratic” or a “people’s” technology. I call it the hope of the future.