economics environment transition towns websites

The Schumacher legacy

On monday I posted a short biography of E F Schumacher. Today I want to look at what happened to his ideas, and how his thinking has continued to evolve.

Schumacher’s work did not end with his death. It has carried on through numerous organisations, societies and individuals, some directly inspired by him, others incorporating his ideals and taking them in new directions. At the heart of the movement is the Schumacher Society, a group of friends and supporters that formed in the late 70s. The group included Satish Kumar and Schumacher’s eldest son Christian and his wife Diana. The Society has had a hand in all kinds of projects ever since, and many of the projects and organisations below have spun off from the Society.

Since Schumacher had such a wide range of interests, it’s hard to know where to start in hunting down his influence today. In no particular order, here are some places where Schumacher’s thought continues to influence the world around us:

Transition Towns
When Schumacher was invited to Burma to advise the government on development, he essentially suggested that Burma forego the development path towards heavy industry and exports, and instead focus on local self-sustaining villages and regions. A focus on sufficiency and non-violence would not just be sustainable, he argued, but culturally appropriate for a Buddhist nation. Burma chose to listen to competing World Bank advisors instead, but that vision is all over the Transition Towns concept: creating resilient communities that take responsibility for their own food, energy and money. Time will tell, but the Transition movement may turn out to be biggest driver of Schumacher’s ideas so far.

New Economics
The New Economics Foundation formed in 1986 out of ‘The Other Economic Summit’, and has become a respected ‘think and do tank’. Their work builds on the foundations of Schumacher’s thought, constructing an economics that is fit for purpose and based around human flourishing. Projects range across banking, social services, environmental accounting, and human wellbeing. The organisation has also pioneered new metrics, including the Happy Planet Index that shows how efficiently countries deliver good lives to their citizens. The idea that GDP isn’t everything has filtered through to David Cameron, who has commissioned a happiness index.
The need for a new economics is epitomised in the the antithesis of the ‘small is beautiful’ ethic: ‘too big to fail’. And while I don’t know what Schumacher’s opinion on direct action was, it’s no surprise to find Schumacher’s slogan at the Occupy protests both on signs and enshrined in agreed principles. The London group’s call for “a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations” has echoes of ‘economics as if people mattered’.

Alternative currencies
As far as I’m aware Schumacher never specifically advocated local currencies, but they are a natural evolution of his theories. It is no surprise that it was the Schumacher Society in the US that were the force behind Berkshares, one the most successful local currencies and one that many others have looked to for inspiration. In Britain, nef is one of the partners behind the Brixton Pound.

Post-growth Economics
The idea of growth as a goal in and of itself seems to emerge in the 1950s. Post-growth economics arrived 25 years later as the limits to growth began to appear, but some economists were in at the ground floor. Schumacher recognised the destructiveness of the trend from the start. (J K Galbraith was another) “Progress is only good to the point of sufficiency”, Schumacher wrote in 1954. “Beyond that it is evil, destructive, uneconomic.”

Renewable energy
Schumacher warned that industrial nations based on non-renewable fuels were doomed, and did much to popularise the idea of renewable energy. One of the early pioneers in practically demonstrating renewable energy was Gerard Morgan-Grenville, who read Small is Beautiful and was inspired to set up the Centre for Alternative Technology. Progress is slow, but the renewable energy revolution is underway.

Small-scale technology for development
The primary organisation that Schumacher set up himself was the Intermediate Technology Development Group, established to explore the possibilities of small scale technologies to improve people’s lives in developing countries. The group became the charity Practical Action, which remains a leader in innovative technologies that can be maintained by local people or built from local materials. A sister organisation, Jeevika, pursues appropriate technology in India, and the idea has also been widely adopted by other agencies, such as SolarAid or ColaLife.

Inspiring the environmental movement
The environmental movement was just taking off when Schumacher died, but many of Schumacher’s own early contributions continue. Much of Small is Beautiful first appeared as articles in Resurgence Magazine, which Schumacher briefly edited. He appointed Satish Kumar, who is still the editor.
Kumar and the Schumacher Society also set up Green Books, the publisher behind the Transition series, the Schumacher Briefings and plenty more besides. (Green Books were kind enough to send copies of Alias Papa and Small is Beautiful in the 21st Century to help with this week’s project.) They remain the go-to publisher for progressive green thinking.
On the more academic side, The Schumacher Institute carries out research, organises lectures, and runs education projects around sustainability and systems thinking.

Alternative education
I told you Schumacher’s influence was esoteric – among his less well known interests is education. He believed schools were too big and education was too narrow and too impersonal, and some of his own children were enrolled at a Steiner school. The Small School was set up in 1982 to experiment with some of these theories, a village school with a maximum capacity of 40. Children grow their own food and prepare their own lunches, and the school aims to teach practical skills as well as academic disciplines. The school has inspired a small following called the Human Scale Education movement.
More recently, Schumacher College opened in Devon in 1991. Its courses range across ecology, education, and economics, and it has been a forum for creative thinking and new ideas and perspectives. It is now accredited through Plymouth University, and offers courses up to MA level in pioneering subjects such as Holistic Education or Economics for Transition.

Organic farming and forest gardening
Schumacher experimented with organic gardening at home, and took a passionate interest in the subject. He eventually became president of the Soil Association, the country’s leading organic organisation. The Association was well established, but a little in the doldrums. He encouraged it to be much more outward-looking, to be a champion of organic farming. He also donated the royalties from Small is Beautiful to the organisation, and as the book went on to be a worldwide bestseller, it build a solid financial platform for them to work from. Today the Soil Association is Britain’s leading certifier of organic farming.
Schumacher was also a enthusiast of forest gardening and tree planting. The only film he made, On the Edge of the Forest, was about deforestation in Australia (more about that on Friday). He was a friend of Richard St Barbe Baker, founder of the International Tree Foundation, which combines environmental action with poverty alleviation through tree planting. TreeAid is a charity with very similar aims, and Diana Schumacher is a trustee.

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