Several years ago I came across a book in a second hand shop: ‘Small is Beautiful: economics as if people mattered‘. I bought it on the title alone, and having never heard of Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, I read it with no pre-conceptions. It was rambling, patriarchal and a little dated in style, but full of wisdom, compassion and vision. It was holistic, freely mixing economics with spirituality, ethics and sociology. And while the figures were out of date, the message was strikingly relevant.
Schumacher was able to draw on diverse schools of thought without being beholden to any particular ideology. He described a ‘Buddhist economics’, but extrapolated economic principles from the Sermon on the Mount. He drew on Keynes, Marx, the Distributists, or Gandhi’s ‘village economics’, without identifying himself with any one stream. This could have led to a pick and mix bag of half-baked ideas, but it was unified into a coherent philosophy by Schumacher’s guiding questions: what is economics for? Who is served? Does it work for the poor? Is nature respected?
Of course, I soon discovered that I was late to the party. Everyone knew E F Schumacher. My parents had read Small is Beautiful. Every other book I read referenced him somewhere. His influence was all over the environmental movement, progressive economics, and development. He founded Practical Action, one of my favourite charities. The New Economics Foundation was directly inspired by Schumacher, continuing his work ‘economics as if people and the planet mattered’. His influence is clearly visible in the Transition movement, in community energy projects, local currencies, and countless other places, right down to the coalition government’s community strategy.
You wouldn’t want to take on board everything that Schumacher said. In an age of climate change, it seems rather inappropriate that a founding father of the environmental movement should have been an apologist for the coal industry. With hindsight, his enthusiasm for Burma looks a little misguided, especially for a man passionately committed to non-violence. Nevertheless, his thinking has been hugely influential, and his ideas are being applied in a huge variety of places and situations.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Fritz Schumacher’s birth, and I thought I would mark the occasion in some small way. This blog is an exploration of the connections between social, environmental, and economic sustainability, and Schumacher did that better than anyone. So this is Schumacher week on Make Wealth History, and every post this week will investigate Schumacher’s life and legacy in some way.