A small, beautiful legacy

His vision shaped our perceptions. Geoffrey Lean on an economist we should read again
Click to follow
Never have people been so oppressed by global economics, the unseen forces that keep the "haves" in frantic consumption and the "have- nots" in desperate poverty. It is a far cry from Economics As If People Mattered, the little-known subtitle of a famous book by E F Schumacher, who died 20 years ago this week.

The title, of course, was Small Is Beautiful, and this, too, seems to be a losing cause, even among environ- mentalists to whom Schumacher is still one of the most potent green icons. On Thursday, the very anniversary of his death, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will be celebrating the acquisition of its millionth member, a doubling of its size within 10 years.

The RSPB will be claiming a "million-member mandate" to fight its ecological corner. Big, it will argue with some justice, is powerful. And the occasion is, indeed, an important sign of the rapid rise of environmental consciousness and concern.

Yet Schumacher, who denounced large organisations as "anti-human" and disapproved of counting on principle, warned against seeing size as "a symbol of success", denouncing "the idolatry of giantism". Big organisations, he said, are inevitably bureaucratic and frequently immoral because their rules cramp their staff's better impulses.

He has a point. As green groups have grown they have become more bureaucratic, less quick-footed, and often more concerned with their own prospects than with the causes they were formed to fight. The RSPB, in fairness, is one of the better-run. But if even it and other green groups (internationally, Greenpeace now has a worldwide annual income approaching pounds 100m) have so comprehensively abandoned the principle of small is beautiful, what hope is there now for Schumacher's philosophy?

It is hard to be optimistic. Globalisation is dominant, overwhelming the "localisation" focusing on local communities that Schumacher advocated. The world's cities grow unstoppably: within 20 years over 500 will contain more than a mil- lion people, double what he believed should be "the upper limit". And intensive agriculture and capital-intensive industry continue to squeeze out the small-scale, labour-intensive farms, firms and technologies he supported, thus aggra- vating mass unemployment.

"IT IS not a success story," admits Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence, the magazine that expounds Schumacher's philosophy. " 'Small is beautiful' has entered the language. The concept has lodged in people's minds. But it has not guided their hands. Schumacher will be disappointed."

But then he always swam against the tide. His daughter-in-law, Diana Schumacher, in the foreword to a new collection of his essays, This I Believe (Resurgence Books pounds 9.95), remembers that he was "an outsider for most of his life". This brought him both "personal sorrow" and "analytical strength and objectivity".

German-born and brilliant, he was mainly educated in England and America between the wars, never fully integrating with his peers. His meteoric rise to a professorship at the age of 23 sharpened the distinction. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he was treated as an alien in Britain: he was interned and then worked as a farm labourer. When he first began writing for newspapers such as the Observer and the Times he was asked to adopt pseudonyms for fear that his German name would offend readers. And yet, when he returned to Germany after the war, many of his friends and family saw him as a traitor. "I am," he once said, "a fellow without a fatherland."

He received no official acknowledgement for important contributions to the Marshall Plan and the Beveridge Report. And he remained a maverick during 20 years as economic adviser to the National Coal Board, studying comparative religions while commuting to and from his home in Caterham (journeying from Marxism, via Buddhism to Christianity). He was often called a crank, a description he came to relish, because, as he once told me, "a crank is a piece of simple technology that creates revolutions".

It was only in his last four years, after the publication in 1973 of Small Is Beautiful - which sold 4 million copies worldwide - that his ideas became fashionable. But they laid the foundations for much of modern environmentalism. He was among the first to advocate organic farming and to caution that felling trees caused soil erosion. He warned of the dangers of nuclear waste in the 1960s (and was denounced by the government), when many environmentalists welcomed the atom as a clean source of energy.

He was an early opponent of "the throw-away society", one of the first economists to question unlimited growth for its own sake, and a pioneer of the "sustainable development" which the world's leaders solemnly endorsed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, but have failed to practise. He pointed out that the world is living off its capital of natural resources (rather than its income), insisted on the importance of fighting global poverty, and inveighed against the Western obsession with quantity rather than with quality.

That is what put him off counting. As a farm labourer, he had to tally the cattle each morning. One day a neighbouring farmer, watching him, said cryptically: "If you count them every day, they won't flourish."

He dismissed this as the ramblings of a "country yokel" until his count revealed a cow missing, which he found dead under a bush. His daily totting up, he realised, had not saved the cow: it would have been better to have looked at every beast to check it was well. "Quantity had filled my mind instead of what really mattered, which is the quality of things."

This led to his questioning the large and promoting "the virtues of smallness". That in turn led to his most enduring legacy - the concept of "intermediate technology".

Developing countries need better technology. But Western techniques, mainly devised to save labour often do more harm than good: the number of people needing work in the Third World is growing four times faster than the number of jobs. Schumacher's answer was to seek labour-intensive technologies which are much more productive than traditional ones, but far cheaper and simpler than those in the West.

INSTEAD OF imposing their techniques on the poor, Western experts should "find out what they are doing and help them to do it better". Where farmers hoe by hand, for example, the appropriate technology might be draught animals rather than tractors which put people out of work and need expensive fuel and unobtainable spare parts.

The theory caught on. Within ten years over 500 organisations world-wide were committed to it. But the practice has lagged far behind - despite Schumacher's insistence that this technological revolution was "not a long, expensive or particularly difficult task". And the organisation he founded to implement it, Intermediate Technology, has, on its own admission, never taken off and is undergoing redundancies of which he, with strong views on the work- place, would have surely disapproved.

And yet there have been some successes. Despite many false starts, improved cooking stoves which save precious wood fuel have spread rapidly, for example, in western Kenya and Sri Lanka. Small hydro-electric schemes have succeeded in Peru, Sri Lanka and Nepal, as have earthquake-proof houses in Peru. Intermediate Technology's offices in Third World countries, often staffed by local people, thrive.

There are other, appropriately small, successes. More than 1,500 people from 70 countries have attended courses at Schumacher College in Devon. Up to 1,000 people attend the annual Schumacher lecture.

On a larger scale, even giant aid organisations, such as the World Bank, now say that their most successful projects are those that are implemented on a small scale, fully involving local people. Micro-credit schemes for the Third World poor have proved stunningly successful. And Schumacher's insistence that the costs of environmental destruction and resource use should be taken on board by economists is showing the first signs of realisation.

Straws in the wind? Schumacher would have been sniffing the breeze. For he wrote: "I can't myself raise the winds that might blow us into a better world. But I can at least put up the sail, so that when the wind comes I can catch it."