Thursday, May 17, 2012

Economics as if Life Matters


There are a few books that are life changers, that make a lasting difference in the course of society. For me, E.F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered is one of those books.

I read Small Is Beautiful in 1973, when it was first published. At the time, it didn't seem particularly radical. This was the normal course of things. This is what we were doing: dismantling the status quo society and building the new with what later became known as appropriate technology. The New Alchemy Institute was foremost in this endeavor, providing an exciting glimpse into the future of solar buildings, renewable energy systems, organic gardening and sensible transportation choices.

Jeremy Williams' article,  E F Schumacher: A Wealth of Inspiration tells the story of E.F. Schumacher's arrival on the renewable energy scene as an economist, including his choice of title for the book, The Homecomers,  for which his publisher chose a different, soon to become famous title.

Despite the widespread popularity of Small is Beautiful, and the still resonating influence of it and its followers, the concepts recognized and thoroughly explored by Schumacher were subsumed and co-opted into the modern sustainability movement. 

Sustainability does not mean the same thing as Small is Beautiful. Sustainability is an excuse for maintaining the status quo and pretending one is doing something different, something more desirable, something... sustainable. Sustainability is the prestidigitation used to draw attention away from economic development, the continuing growth economy, trans-national corporate domination, and Big Business as usual. Sustainability is the ineffective chemotherapy applied to the growth philosophy of the cancer cell.

In order to circumvent the truly revolutionary ideas proposed by Schumacher, that economic growth and technological development risk destroying the basis for human life, the concept of sustainability was brought to the fore to forestall the realization of necessary limits to growth.

Thus, sustainable development is defined as economic growth that can be maintained into the future indefinitely without limiting potential development for future human populations. It is an entirely anthropocentric concept that short-circuits the inconvenient revelations of Schumacher and the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s. 


Today, in the 2010s, we know that even Schumacher's 1970s revelations fall short. We can have small and beautiful appropriate technology that still causes harm to non-human species, that still pollutes and still reduces critical habitat and biodiversity. Sustainability for humans is insufficient, when human action limits well-being for future non-human populations. All life must thrive in order for any species to continue.


We should extend Schumacher's original premise to include all life, in effect saying: Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if Life Mattered