Small Is Beautiful

by Bob Schwartz

Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.
E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

The trail began with an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Higher Ed’s Cult of Growth: An expansionist mind-set could lead to a disastrous future.

Which mentioned a new book, The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism.

Which led back fifty years to a seminal work, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher (1973).

The article and the new book are not what I am talking about here. I will comfort those who want to learn and teach that, in the odd event that colleges stop growing, there will still be plenty of places to learn and teach. As for post-capitalism, should it ever arise, don’t be put off. You will still have things—nice things—and you will still be able to make money—lots of money.

What I am talking about here is Small Is Beautiful, which was hugely popular and influential fifty years ago. The thought was going around in some circles that through the development and application of wisdom and discernment, we might temper our natural inclinations towards bigger, better and more, benefiting ourselves and humanity.

Following are excerpts from the Epilogue to Small Is Beautiful:


In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modem world in relation to which all other goals, no matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place. The highest goals require no justification all secondary goals have finally to justify themselves in terms of the service their attainment renders to the attainment of the highest.

This is the philosophy of materialism, and it is this philosophy – or metaphysic – which is now being challenged by events. There has never been a time, in any society in any part of the world, without its sages and teachers to challenge materialism and plead for a different order of priorities. The languages have differed, the symbols have varied, yet the message has always been the same: “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and these things (the material things which you also need) shall be added unto you.’ They shall be added, we are told, here on earth where we need them, not simply in an after-life beyond our imagination. Today, however, this message reaches us not solely from the sages and saints but from the actual course of physical events. It speaks to us in the language of terrorism, genocide, breakdown, pollution, exhaustion. We live, it seems in a unique period of convergence. It is becoming apparent that there is not only a promise but also a threat in those astonishing words about the kingdom of God – the threat that ‘unless you seek first the kingdom, these other things, which you also need, will cease to be available to you’….

We shrink back from the truth if we believe that the destructive forces of the modern world can be ‘brought under control’ simply by mobilizing more resources – of wealth, education, and research – to fight pollution, to preserve wildlife, to discover new sources of energy, and to arrive at more effective agreements on peaceful coexistence. Needless to say, wealth, education, research, and many other things are needed for any civilization, but what is most needed today is a revision of the ends which these means are meant to serve. And this implies, above all else, the development of a life-style which accords to material things their proper, legitimate place, which is secondary and not primary.

The ‘logic of production’ is neither the logic of life nor that of society. It is a small and subservient part of both. The destructive forces unleashed by it cannot be brought under control, unless the ‘logic of production’ itself is brought under control – so that destructive forces cease to be unleashed. It is of little use trying to suppress terrorism if the production of deadly devices continues to be deemed a legitimate employment of man’s creative powers.

Nor can the fight against pollution be successful if the patterns of production and consumption continue to be of a scale, a complexity, and a degree of violence which, as is becoming more and more apparent, do not fit into the laws of the universe, to which man is just as much subject as the rest of creation. Equally, the chance of mitigating the rate of resource depletion or of bringing harmony into the relationships between those in possession of wealth and power and those without is non-existent as long as there is no idea anywhere of enough being good and more than enough being of evil….

It is hardly likely that twentieth-century man is called upon to discover truth that had never been discovered before. In the Christian tradition, as in all genuine traditions of mankind, the truth has been stated in religious terms, a language which has become well-nigh incomprehensible to the majority of modern men…

The type of realism which behaves as if the good, the true, and the beautiful were too vague and subjective to be adopted as the highest aims of social or individual life, or were the automatic spin-off of the successful pursuit of wealth and power, has been aptly called ‘crackpot-realism’. Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.