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Papa Smurf

10.20.2005 | ENVIRONMENT

The New York Times recently reported on a curious conference held in Nova Scotia. The pow-wow brought together economists, social scientists, CEOs and government officials to inquire into the sources of human happiness, and why there seems to be a shortfall of this precious product in so many countries. Discussion focused on how governments might quantify and increase this contentment, once its elements were isolated and some sort of formula worked out. Participants all shared the assumption that the metrics of traditional economics--G.D.P., rates of growth and employment--were useless in gauging well-being. In determining quality of life, as opposed to mere standard of living, they agreed that the usual stats hid as much as they revealed about a society. The star of the conference was thus the only current government attempt at such a project--the Gross National Happiness Index maintained by the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, which was heavily and happily represented in Nova Scotia.

The idea of a Gross National Happiness index--of measuring such economic "externalities" as a healthy environment, time spent with family, enjoyment of work, quality health care, spiritual life--is, as the Times writer pointed out, straight from the playbook of the German-born British economist and social critic E. F. Schumacher, most famous for his bestselling 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.

The lack of such human-centered statistics as a Gross National Happiness Index was just one piece of evidence presented in Schumacher's case against classical economics and industrial-consumer society. It was a critique that drew from a long tradition of European social criticism, some of it utopian, some not, from Charles Fourier to the young Marx to Richard Tawney. Schumacher's twist was to add equal parts Buddha, Aquinas and (William) Morris, resulting in a sweet smelling recipe whose countercultural vapors eventually snaked their way through the windows of editorial boards, academic departments and the world's most powerful financial institutions. Happiness--and, crucially, survival--could only be ours, argued Schumacher, if we abandon the blueprint that has led to a gigantic turbine of global consumption and growth for growth's sake. We must move beyond a worldview that values quantification without qualification, in the words of Lewis Mumford, one of Schumacher's intellectual godfathers.

If Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index is right out of Small is Beautiful, conferences like the one in Nova Scotia are themselves right out of the era of Schumacher's peak influence, namely the mid to late 1970s. It's perhaps no coincidence that interest in Schumacherian ideas seems to be emerging from the margins just as talk of looming permanent oil shock gets louder. For while E. F. Schumacher's assault on traditional economics is at heart a humanist-spiritual one, its urgency and appeal have always shared their roots with harder stuff. Small is Beautiful proposes a scaled-down, resource-thrifty version of modernity not just because the author thought we'd all be happier (much), but because he felt it would eventually be forced upon us anyway, the result of a forceful revelation Schumacher had in the 1950s.

While chief economist at the British National Coal Board, studying the energy consumption patterns of Western Europe, it occurred to Schumacher that the obsession with growth that was the religion of both the Western and Eastern blocs failed to take into account the finite resource base upon which their economies rested. As his peers all proudly proclaimed a Golden Age of Never-Ending Growth, Schumacher found himself doubting the dominant sense of optimism engendered by the swift recovery of the continent after the war.

Alarmed by the glibness with which planners took natural resources for granted, he told an uninterested audience of professional economists in 1954, "We are living off capital in the most fundamental meaning of the word... Only in the last 100 years has man forcibly broken into nature's larder and is now emptying it at breathtaking speed." The "problem of production" had not been solved, he warned, because modern production in anything like its current form would not be possible in 100 years, possibly much sooner. He concluded that the current arrangement could not last; was, indeed, insane. Before the phrase existed, Schumacher began to publicly explore what sustainable development might look like. For two decades, Schumacher tried to tap his profession on the shoulder, to little effect. He continued to hone his vision of a more modest, spiritually centered, ecologically sensitive society in the smaller journals on both sides of the Atlantic (eventually including his own quarterly bible of alternative economics, Resurgence: The Journal of the Fourth World).

His following grew during the 1960s, but despite the sudden glut of paperbacks examining affluence and its discontents, it wasn't yet Schumacher's moment. Though his vision aligned with most of what Paul Goodman, Erich Fromm and other 60s celebrity humanists were saying, there was still little market for Schumacher's elegant, avuncular warnings over the suicidal contradictions of a consumer civilization. There was even less general interest in his detailed ideas for what the tools and shape of an alternative society should look like. (In the west, anyway. More than one government in the developing world sought his advice.)

Then came the 1973 oil shock.

"The party's over," Schumacher immediately declared, sensing the opening OPEC had created. He was not alone in thinking the politically triggered crisis would result in profound and permanent change in the way we produced and consumed, lived and traveled. He was in more limited company in thinking this to be a good thing. As it happened, the oil shock and the worried conversations it sparked occurred almost simultaneously with the publication of Small is Beautiful, Schumacher's first book. The timing could not have been more perfect, and before the first Pintos rolled off the Ford assembly line, its author would be famous around the world as the man with a post-party plan.

With the oil shock as backdrop, Small is Beautiful's attention to the planet's finite natural resources dovetailed with the buzz created by both Paul Ehrlich's bestselling doomsday prophecy, The Population Bomb, as well as 1973's equally pessimistic Club of Rome report, The Limits of Growth. Three years after the celebration of the first Earth Day, everyone, it seemed, was talking about the possibility that an overpopulated planet based on industrial-scale consumerism was cruising toward an iceberg. "Growth" might be just another God that failed. With Third World development another hot topic, Schumacher's time had arrived. Surely, the world would have no choice but to begin a thoughtful shift toward less energy intensive local production and scaled-down consumption; to use technology more appropriate to the size of man and within reach of more of them; and to begin the inevitable switch toward energy sources that neither polluted nor ran out.

Alas, Schumacher's "party over" prediction was premature. So, too, the dire warnings of Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, which predicted a global population of 20 billion and the collapse of a mineral depleted civilization by 2000, respectively. After a swift rise to celebrity and influence that included standing-room only speaking tours and visits to both Jimmy Carter's White House and World Bank headquarters, the 1980s would see a return of cheap oil, a passing of the sense of crisis, and a re-marginalization of Schumacher's ideas. The man himself died of heart failure in 1977, age 66.

* * * * *

Thirty-two years after the publication of Small is Beautiful, the world faces the prospect of a permanent oil-shock to make the jolts of the 1970s seem like ripples in a pond. Analysts are warning that the party might soon be over, and it does seem increasingly fantastical that cheap plentiful oil will return on the wings of Caspian basin or Iraqi output. Even if surprise sources of crude do come online, surging global demand guarantees there will not be another quiet disappearance of the energy question from the front pages anytime soon. If the more pessimistic time-frame predictions come to pass, new fuels and renewables will lack both the capacity and infrastructure to stave off a severe breakdown of the global economy in its current form.

Just as he did 32 years ago, E.F. Schumacher has much to say about how we might approach an energy crisis, which is also a civilizational crisis, and hence a civilizational opportunity.

Schumacher thought the answer to man's spiritual and ecological crisis lay in what he called "intermediate technology"--energy-light, human-sized technology controlled by man instead of vice-versa, technology that would find reflection in smaller, self-sufficient human organization at every level. Simpler and cheaper, intermediate technology is superior to "primitive industrial technology" because it is "democratic or people's technology." In Schumacher's ideal new communities powered by intermediate technology, hierarchies would be relatively flat, allowing for control, empowerment and greater equality. To pick just one example in the developing world, intermediate technologies such as drip-irrigation and foot-operated treadle pumps have displaced massive irrigation projects to enormous success. The Intermediate Technology Development Group, newly renamed Practical Action, continues to develop this idea around the world, from clean water to electricity production.

In the developed world, Schumacher's interest in decentralization is currently finding reflection in a number of post-9/11 corporate and community initiatives to decouple themselves from a fragile and vulnerable centralized energy grid powered exclusively by fossil fuels. These efforts may not be heralds of a gleaming bioregionalist future as Schumacher imagined it, but they are auspicious signs of change in the right direction. Schumacher at his dreamiest:

I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction. And what is the cost of a reorientation? We might remind ourselves that to calculate the cost of survival is perverse. No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worth while: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear.

Against and above the doomsday crowd, Schumacher speaks to us through his books, the organizations that work in his name and the work of the thousands he influenced. These thousands include many of those laboring hardest to make sure our post-party plans are up to date and at-hand. Such spawn includes influential energy theorists-consultants like Amory Lovins and Bruce Piasecki, two important Schumacherians with both feet in mainstream policy debates. "E.F. Schumacher helped me choose my battles and arguments. He set the table upon which many of us still feast," says Piasecki, founder and president of the forward-thinking American Hazard Control Group.

* * * * *

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was born in 1911 in Bonn, Germany, the son of a well-known economist. At 18 he left for Oxford, where he took to his father's discipline with precocity. At 23 he was appointed a lecturer of finance at Columbia University--the youngest on faculty--leaving that post only to join the inner circle of John Maynard Keynes. During WWII, Schumacher was briefly interned on a farm in England, during which time he developed a fondness for manual labor, kept a rigorous meditation regimen and began to read widely in the study of comparative religion. After the war, he was given a senior position in the Allied government overseeing the reconstruction of West Germany.

Throughout the first stages of his career, Schumacher remained attached to the orthodoxies of his era: mixed economy, growth, balance of trade. Despite his personal idiosyncrasies and private search for the (non-economic) meaning of life, there was little in Schumacher's work to suggest a radical future.

Schumacher's mature philosophy would find full flower in 1955, soon after his revelation at the National Coal Board. Invited by the government of Burma to help craft that poor nation's development plan, Schumacher fell in love with the Burmese and their Buddhist culture. He could not in good conscience provide his hosts with a standard modernization formula of heavy industry and export-oriented production, as did his fellow advisors. He urged them to instead follow a middle path consistent with Buddhist principles and Burmese culture, and to develop in a way mindful of the size and scope of the traditional village, the only important social structure for most of the country. In making these recommendations (which the Burmese government took to heart), Schumacher did not think he was condemning a nation to poverty and misery. Since the industrialized west was not the happiest place in the world, and since in any case it was headed for an ecological reckoning, Schumacher saw in the Third World a laboratory for a better way, one defined by the development and use of intermediate technology for the local production of goods to be consumed locally. He called this "Buddhist Economics." As explained in Small is Beautiful:

[P]roduction from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale. Just as the modern economist would admit that a high rate of consumption of transport services between a man's home and his place of work signifies a misfortune and not a high standard of life, so the Buddhist would hold that to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than from sources nearby signifies failure rather than success.

In an age of cheap oil and stable levels of carbon in the atmosphere, this might be written off as soft-headed, if not utopian. In an age of peak oil and rapid climate change, it lays a strong claim to the mantle of common sense. Though Schumacher's economics is fueled by a spiritual furnace, one needn't fully buy into his pseudo-Gandhian fusing of economics and religion to appreciate its relevance. The current regime of energy-intensive global trade, of Chinese trinkets and Honduran fruit in Oklahoman Wal-Marts, is based on an energy reality that is quickly passing into history. It may be that small will only be embraced as beautiful when it becomes necessary.

Consider food. According to the World Policy Institute, the U.S. food system uses as much energy as the total annual energy consumption of France. But the actual growing of food accounts for only 20% of this energy. The other 80% is used to move, process, package, sell and store the food after it leaves the farm. The Organic Consumers Association (U.S.) estimates that the average item of food travels 1,600 miles from farm to fork, while processed foods travel an average of 3,600 miles from farm to fork. As the cost of the fuel needed to power refrigerated trucks and jumbo jets that bring food across continents goes into orbit and stays there, the increase in transportation costs will be reflected in the cost of food. The application of Schumacherian principles thus finds expression in the more than 3,000 farmer's markets across America. (Even if non-fossil fuel based gasolines are eventually developed, most of the leading candidates are based on grains and syrups, so in a way we will still be choosing between food and transportation if we insist on sending food around the world. Local, small-scale food production also allows for more use of non-petrochemical fertilizers.)

Schumacher wasn't just concerned that we use less energy, but where we got it and how we distributed it. In an age of mega-terrorism and freakish storms, the argument against a centralized energy system is self-evident, and indeed the market for micro-turbines to produce and distribute clean energy is growing.

One hopes that the intellectual market for Schumacher's ideas is also set to grow. In the coming years, we are likely to see a lot of prophets stepping forward claiming to hold answers to the big questions now opening up before us and threatening to separate us from any future worth having. In E.F. Schumacher we have a prophet ready made, whose ideas have been test-driven by three-decades of history and continuously honed by scores of realistic and highly intelligent practitioner-followers. Not everything Schumacher has to say will please everyone, but we could do worse than to accept his challenge and ask ourselves anew what exactly an economy is good for, where it leads, what it is meant to serve, and who, and how. For reasons that Schumacher himself predicted 50 years ago, small looks set to become beautiful again. This time may it stick.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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