It remains painfully obvious that this book is written by a crank. Only a crank would tell us that we need to rethink our consumption patterns, how we manage our economy, and our relationship with our environment. Going against conventional thinking is pretty fashionable today, but to do so in 1973 and still be so relevant is testimony of a crank who knew what he was talking about. E.F. Schumacher wrote this book in response to what he saw as the quickening and centralizing nature of modern society. He saw governments and businesses getting bigger and losing their essential and natural sense of scale, which is human friendly or simply “small”. Thus prompting the title of the book.
It was through this book that Schumacher is credited with influencing green economic thinking from the 70s and afterward. He articulated the fundamental question about growth: “How much further growth will be possible, since infinite growth in a fine environment is an obvious impossibility”. Such thinking was radical, yet not socialist. Instead his thinking was the basis of humanistic, or human-centred economics.
This book helped shift the tired and largely irrelevant debate of Left wing vs Right wing economic politics or big government standing up to big business. Small is Beautiful infused the debate with the question of size, saying that both smaller business and smaller government was healthier for us and our environment. This position was and still is revolutionary. In many ways, Schumacher’s ideas were a further refinement of anarchist thinking.
Yet Schumacher was not simply a political agitator. He asked metaphysical questions of economics, something few have done, and echoed Gandhi’s disapproval of economists that spend time… “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” His criticism of the market being the “the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility…. To be relieved of all responsibility except to oneself means of course an enormous simplification of business.” I would have to disagree with his blanket opinion here. Institutional thinking in the world of business, is no different that institutional thinking in the world of government. He is accurate that there is an abdication of responsibility, but it happens everywhere, not just in the world of business.
His anti-big-technology stance may prompt his critics to label him a Luddite, but Schumacher did believe in technology. His vision of technology is that like his view of economics, it must be small and human-scaled. Too much technological dependence puts people in a position of weakness. The allows the people who control the technology to centralize matters, which tends to lead to bigness. We can see this in the automobile manufacturing industry; it is located in just a small part of North American and is controlled by a handful of companies. It is also hopelessly inefficient and harmful to our ecology.
Schumacher also helped define work-life balance. He states… “to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.” This was a person who understood the importance of living life fully. A radical economist he was!
Schumacher may have denied that he was a prophetic person, but it is striking that he has written a book that continues to define the meta-issues facing us. Not only did he help define the issues of small vs big, but did so with poetic simplicity. Small becomes beautiful especially when being big poisons our ecology and society. He rightfully anticipated that our future will be full of conflict when the power elites are in a deadly race for scarce resources like petroleum. The problems we face have many others asking what can be done. Schumacher at least was kind enough to provide the answer: Small is beautiful. Unfortunately, many people appear to not be willing to listen.
(4.5 stars out of 5 – defining an era & philosophy)