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Forty years on – Small is Beautiful – revisited
|by Mark T. Jones|
Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher
L.P. Hartley in the opening line of his novel The Go-Between (1953) famously wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Whilst some in the modern parlance would take this as a given, is it so very true? If we take a brief look back at 1973 and all that we soon to discover that there many similarities between our own time and the world of forty years ago. The Arab – Israeli Crisis was in full swing, there was conflict over oil, tensions between India and Pakistan were as acute as ever and much of a sizeable part of the world was in the grip of profound economic malaise. Russia and the US glared at each other, China was profoundly mistrusted and Britain was wracked with division over Europe. Much of Africa’s post-independence promise was being stolen by kleptomaniac leaders, whilst in South America economic and social unrest was resulting in repression and in the case of Chile a violent military coup.
Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1911-1977) was born in Wilhelmine Germany. His childhood spanned an age of German Imperial swagger, the horrors of the First World War (1914 – 1918), Germany’s defeat, the threat of revolution, the devastating hyperinflation of the 1920s, mass unemployment and the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists. For all the maelstrom of political and economic events going on around him Schumacher managed to apply himself to his studies and in 1936 was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.
Essentially Schumacher’s approach to economics was a spiritual one based upon acumen, empathy and restraint. He was concerned about a number of fundamental questions:
Eager to disseminate his ideas he wrote various papers and articles some of which he decided to collect and publish in 1973 in the book Small is Beautiful – Economics as if People Mattered. This remains a seminal work that continues to act as a clarion call to those concerned about unfettered Capitalism. Schumacher himself acknowledged that he had been greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi as well J.C. Kumappa. In 1973 whilst delivering the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at the Gandhian Institute of Studies at Varanasi (Benares), India, Schumacher described Gandhi as the greatest “People’s economist”.
Schumacher challenged received economic wisdom and in so doing inspired others on their journey to find a more sustainable economic model. The legacy of Small is Beautiful is that it continues to shape attitudes to natural capital. Even 40 years on this collection of essays manages to act as a dissenting voice that is a rallying point for those who are uncomfortable with established economic orthodoxies.
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