Some ramblings from "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered"


Progress Namibia - Some ramblings from
12 June 2020

I am busy reading (surprisingly, for the first time) "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered" by EF Schumacher, written in 1973 - and deemed one of the 100 most important books of the past 70 years. A lot of the book I have been motivated to note down as I read, because its content is more relevant now than ever before.

This will likely not be my only entry about this book. I urge everyone to read it.

Here are some summaries and paragraphs that I felt the need to copy down as I read:

We are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves.

Look at fossil fuels. No one will deny that we are treating them as income items although they are undeniably capital items.

If we squander our fossil fuels, we threaten civilisation, but if we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself.

We assume (1) that universal prosperity is possible, (2) that its attainment is possible on the basis of the materialistic philosophy of 'enrich ourselves', and (3) that this is the road to peace.

But what does prosperity mean? And is there enough to go around? What is enough? Who can tell us? Certainly not the economist who pursues economic growth as the highest of all values and therefore has no concept of 'enough'. There are poor societies that have too little - but where is the rich society that says Halt! We have enough. There is none.

The idea that unlimited growth, more and more until everyone is saturated with 'wealth', needs to be seriously questioned on at least two counts: the availability of basic resources, and/or the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference imposed.

Economic growth is only obtainable if we employ the powerful human drive of selfishness, which religion and traditional wisdom universally call upon us to resist. The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy. If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed and envy loses the power of seeing things as they really are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures. If whole societies become infected by these vices, they may indeed achieve astonishing things but they become increasingly incapable of solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence.

The foundations of peace cannot be laid by universal prosperity, in the modern sense. Because such prosperity (if attainable at all) is attainable only by cultivating such drives of human nature as greed and envy, which destroy intelligence, happiness, serenity and thereby the peacefulness of man.

Noone is working for peace unless he is working primarily for wisdom. The hope that the pursuit of goodness and virtue can be postponed until we have attained universal prosperity and that by the single-minded pursuit of wealth, without bothering our heads about spiritual and moral questions, we could establish peace on Earth is unrealistic, unscientific and irrational hope.

The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tend to increase one's dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear.

Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate cause of strife and war.

The economics of permanence implies a profound reorientation of science and technology, which have to open their doors to wisdom and, in fact, have to incorporate wisdom into their very structure. Scientific and technological solutions which poison the environment and degrade social structure and man himself are of no benefit.

Ever bigger machines, entailing every bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment do not represent progress - they are a denial of wisdom.

War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe. Never think that wars are irrational catastrophes: they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.

Economically, our wrong living consists of primarily in systematically cultivating greed and envy, and thus building up a vast array of totally unwarrantable wants.

It is greed that has delivered us over into the power of the machine. If greed were not the master of modern man - ably assisted by envy - how could it be that the frenzy of economism does not abate as higher "standards of living" are attained, and that it is precisely the richest societies which pursue their economic advantages with the greates ruthlessness? How could we explain the almost universal refusal on the part of the rulers of the rich societies to work toward the humanisation of work? It is only necessary to assert that something would reduce the standard of living and every debate is instantly closed. That soul destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which which must necessarily and inevitably produce either escapism or aggression, and that no amount of 'bread and circuses' can compensate for the damage done. These are facts that are neither denied nor acknolwedged but are met with an unbreakable conspiracy of silence - because to deny them would be too obviously absurd and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity.

What is wisdom? Where can it be found? It can be read about in numerous publications but it can be found only inside oneself. To be able to find it, one has to first liberate oneself from greed and envy. The stillness following liberation - even if only momentarily - produces the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way.

They enable us to see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends to the neglect of the spiritual. Such a life necessarily sets man against man and nation against nation.

It is chimerical to build peace on economic foundations which, in turn, rest on the systematic cultivation greed and envy, the very forces which drive men into conflict.

How could we begin to disarm greed and envy? Perhaps by being much less greedy and envious ourselves; perhaps by resisting the temptation of letting our luxuries become needs and perhaps even scrutinizing our needs to see if they cannot be simplified or reduced.