The more I read about sustainability, the more obvious it becomes that everything we need to know to avoid ecological disaster has been around since the 1970s. We may have wasting time and muddying the waters for thirty years, but those ideas are now coming into their own. That legacy of innovative thinking includes permaculture and the steady state economy, and the work of Fritz Schumacher.
Schumacher was the chief economist at Britain’s national coal board, and one of the first people to highlight resource depletion as a threat to industrialisation. In his spare time he wrote two books, founded the charity Practical Action, and served as director of the Soil Association.
‘Good Work’ was published after his death, and brings together a series of lectures. It’s easier reading than his books, ‘Small is Beautiful’ and ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’, written in a more relaxed and free-wheeling spoken manner. It takes in a number of topics, including intermediate technology, education, and cooperative ownership.
The title comes from Schumacher’s lifelong pre-occupation with work. In an industrial society, jobs become tailored to the machine, and become soul-destroying, meaningless and depressing. Although he became famous for writing about natural resources, he claimed that the “most important of all resources” was in fact “the initiative, imagination, and brainpower” of human beings. Much thought goes into the health and safety of the body at work, keeping us from injury, but almost no thought goes into mental health and safety, keeping us from tedium:
“Mechanical, artificial, divorced from nature, utilizing only the smallest part of man’s potential capabilities, it sentences the great majority of workers to spending their lives in a way which contains no worthy challenge, no stimulus to self-perfection, no chance of development, no element of Beauty, Truth, or Goodness.”
Technology is not “ideologically neutral”. The machines that we use in everyday life shape the way that we see the world, and the sorts of people we become. The main problem for Schumacher was that technology was too big, too centralised, too complex. When our machines are bigger and smarter than we are, they cease to be our servants and become our masters. I wonder what Schumacher would make of computers and the internet.
The solution for restoring dignity and autonomy to our work lies in the idea of intermediate technology – tools that come between the primitive tools of history and inaccessibly huge products of industry. For example, the machine-driven, oil dependent agricultural practices that we currently use are unsustainable, but we don’t want to return to using oxen. Intermediate technology takes modern design ideas and technology, and uses them to create new, smaller solutions. In this real-life example, design students took up Schumacher’s challenge and developed a stationary engine that pulls a plough across a field by cable. It is efficient, cheap, and highly portable.
“I know of no better way of changing the system” Schumacher writes, “than by putting into the world a new type of technology – technologies by which small people can make themselves productive and relatively independent.”
I will have to write in some more detail about intermediate technology – it’s an idea that has lost none of its relevance. The world continues to get larger, more complex, and less human. We can’t solve major problems such as peak oil and climate change with more of the same. Everything that brings the world back towards actual size is a step in the right direction.
“Experience shows that whenever you can achieve smallness, simplicity, capital cheapness, and nonviolence, or indeed, any of these objectives, new possibilities are created for people, singly or collectively, to help themselves, and that the patterns that result from such technologies are more humane, more ecological, less dependent on fossil fuels, and closer to real human needs than the patterns (or lifestyles) created by technologies that go for giantism, complexity, capital intensity, and violence.”
If you come across a copy of ‘Good Work’, pick it up. It’s short, inspiring, generous, and deeply human. It’s also a very spiritual book. Schumacher sees no lines where his economics stop and his catholic faith starts, and freely mixes in Buddhist ideals, the occasional communist principle, a wide pallette of compassionate ideas. “My only business” he summarises, “the only real job we have, is to look after, to the best of our ability, the little people who can’t help themselves.” That’s a vision I’d agree with, and I’ll end with the quote from ‘Good Work’ that I wrote on the front of a notebook a long time ago: “We must do what we conceive to be the right thing and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we’re going to be successful.”