Heroes of Sustainability: E.F. Schumacher

One of the hundred most influential books published since World War II, according to The Times Literary Supplement, E.F. Schumacher’s internationally known Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered has informed thinking on Western economies since 1973.

The German-born economist and statistician was more than just a numbers guy — he was an environmental champion. In Small Is Beautiful, he argued that technological production shouldn’t mean damaging our finite natural capital and thus ruining it for future generations. “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” he said. “It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

Excessive Growth
The title of the book itself fought back against the idea of “bigger is better” — small can be beautiful, and enough is enough. Rather than using gross national product as an indicator of human well-being, Schumacher thought another model may be more appropriate. “The aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well-being with the minimum amount of consumption,” he wrote.

For 20 years, from 1950 to 1970, he served as chief economic adviser to the National Coal Board in Britain, during which time he championed coal over petroleum. His reasoning was that oil was a finite resource that would eventually be depleted and rise astronomically in price. Plus, he noted that the biggest reserves of oil were in some of the most unstable countries.

Up until his mid-40s, Schumacher was a proponent of unfettered economic growth, like most good economists. He came to realize, however, that modern technology was far exceeding human need. A trip to Burma inspired him to coin the term “Buddhist economics,” which referred to economic principles he created on the tenets of renewable resources and individuals doing good work to further human development.

Nature’s Potential
Instead of looking at natural resources as expendable income, they should be looked at as capital, Schumacher argued, since they can’t be renewed and will eventually disappear. He believed that sustainable development should be a priority, as the earth can’t protect itself against pollution forever. His controversial opinion that industrialism full speed ahead — with no concern for the impact it had on nature — wouldn’t stand up in the long run set him apart from his contemporaries.

While his ideas were fairly radical in economics circles, they made him popular with proponents of environmentalism, a movement that was gaining steam at the height of Schumacher’s career. A thoroughly readable collection of essays that stand the test of time, Small Is Beautiful still informs thought today on eco issues.

As Schumacher said: “There is incredible generosity in the potentialities of Nature. We only have to discover how to utilize them.”

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