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Celebrating Ernst Schumacher

Centenary of Ernst Schumacher's birth

A brief look at his books: A Guide for the Perplexed & Small is Beautiful
16 luglio 2011 - Gerry Blaylock

Centenary of E. Schumacher  

E.F. Schumacher (August 16th, 1911 — Sept 4th, 1977)

We are celebrating the centenary of Dr. Schumacher's birth because he reminded us that to be completely human means striving for higher things, and he tried to help us understand what we should aim at to fulfill our potential and gain true happiness. Also because he tried to show us that in economics there is no “one size fits all” and that the right direction to go in was to move away from giant organisations towards appropriate use of technology on a small scale.

His book “A Guide for the Perplexed” was dedicated to the first, and, of course, “Small is Beautiful” proposed the second.


A Guide for the Perplexed

Published posthumously (1977), this book sets out his view of the world with the aim of helping the reader to regain a lost dimension. His thesis is that in the West, as he was writing, education had succumbed to teaching only what was deemed orthodox and utilitarian. Further, the “rigorous application of scientific method to all subjects and disciplines has destroyed even the last remnants of ancient wisdom”. He pointed out that after hundreds of years of theological imperialism, now we find ourselves in the middle of 'scientific imperialism'. It is this which is responsible for the missing dimension. Traditional wisdom saw the world as a three-dimensional structure, where 'higher' and 'lower' had a place. Man's happiness, for instance, depended on his developing his highest faculties.

The quantitative, utilitarian approach that was subsequently put forward effectively erased the vertical dimension.

Schumacher's book, therefore, is an attempt to show how important it is to regain the vertical dimension and understand the hierarchical structure of the world so that we can find out “where everything has its proper and legitimate place”.

The hierarchical structure of the world, the level of being, is as follows, from the bottom up: mineral, plant, animal, human. If mineral = m, plant = m+x, animal = m+x+y, human = m+x+y+z. He develops this simple formulation in various fascinating ways and then puts forward the next one: human = mineral+life+consciousness+self-awareness. Therefore, we can see that according to this scheme of things self-awareness is the highest level in humanity.

Now, if we ask ourselves whether education as we know it leads us to this level, or whether our life and society are geared to helping us reach this level, it would seem the answer has to be 'very rarely', or 'no'. We fall short of our potential, we do not manage to reach the highest happiness.

After long discussions on 'adequate' understanding, the four fields of knowledge and two types of problem he reaches the final conclusion about the threefold task which “constitutes the true progress of a human being”.

Dr. Schumacher was a thinker, and also a 'doer'. For example, he came up with the idea of the Intermediate Technology Development Group whose notions were put into practice in developing countries from the mid-sixties on. This aspect of his work is dealt with, among other things, in the following sections.


Small is Beautiful

His most famous work was first published in 1973. It is an anthology of writings and talks adapted to the book form spanning a period of 10 years from 1961. It is divided into four parts dealing with the modern world, resources, the third world, and organisation and ownership.

Among his many remarkable gifts one was to be able to stand back and see clearly what was taking place in the four areas mentioned above -- and not only –, foresee the trends and warn us about any dangers lying ahead. With a few exceptions, not much heed was given to his warnings by those who could have intervened to avoid the dangers inherent in a view which maintains that even though we live on a finite planet, the resources are infinite. He was called a crank. His aim in publishing the book was to “reconnect economic behaviour with the basic concerns of human life.” Economics as if people mattered, as the subtitle says. The next section on local economics and intermediate technology illustrates how he applied his ideas to the situation in hand.


Buddhist economics and Intermediate Technology

His visits to Burma taught him much about what he calls “Buddhist economics”. It dawned on him that a buddhist way of life would need a buddhist form of economics. The criterion of success for the average modern economist would be “the total quantity of goods produced during a given period of time”, so he would be inclined to consider whether full employment 'pays'. In other words, goods over workers, which is shuffling the aforementioned levels of being around. Buddhist economics would consider first the person: the function of work is 1) to give a person the chance to use and develop his/her faculties, 2) to help the person overcome his/her egocentredness by working with others on a common task, 3) to produce the goods and services needed using the appropriate tools. This leads us to intermediate technology. The IT group came into Dr. Schumacher's mind while he was in India, having been asked by the Indian planning commission to advise them on rural development. Intermediate, or appropriate, technology for use in developing countries was to be small, simple, capital saving and non-violent. The partner with whom he set up The Intermediate Technology Development Group in 1965 recounts in a recent BBC Radio 4 programme the story of manufacturers selling very expensive tractors to farmers in East Africa who could not afford them, nor did they possess the know-how to fix them when they broke down. The IT group suggested the farmers make their own small-wheeled equipment, which turned out to be suitable for the task.


Another success mentioned in the same radio programme was the “African egg tray” scheme. The Zambian government had decided to increase the production of eggs to boost the population's intake of proteins. But the problem was getting the eggs to market when all they had were paper bags. The IT response was 'you need egg boxes, or trays'. The machinery available on the market produced a million boxes a month, whereas a country like Zambia needed a million boxes a year. The solution was to come up with a design for a smaller, simpler machine for smaller communities; it was produced, the machinery made and the whole scale of production was slimmed down. The control of the machine was left up to the skill and judgement of the operator instead of using an automated system. This is an example of humanising technology: it is the operator that controls the machine, not the other way round. There we have it: small is beautiful. The IT group has since developed into an organisation named Practical Action.


Dr. Schumacher was also President of the Soil Association, Britain's largest organic farming association, and Director of the Scott Bader Company. In “Small is Beautiful” there are two chapters relevant to the above: a chapter on The Proper Use of Land in which he reminds us how “civilised man has despoiled most of the lands on which he has lived for long”. Schumacher points out that land has topsoil, and topsoil is teeming with an enormous variety of living beings, us included. One of our errors which has led to ravaging the land has been that it was seen as a means to an end (production) rather than an end in itself.

In New Patterns of Ownership we learn how Ernest Bader transformed his company, which he set up in 1920, into a 'commonwealth' in an attempt to “1) organise or combine a maximum sense of freedom, happiness and human dignity in our firm without a loss of profitability, and 2) to do this by ways and means that could be generally acceptable to the private sector of industry.”

Finally, humour! Dr. Schumacher had a very dry, piercing wit. Here are two examples from a recently digitally remastered talk he gave at Findhorn (October 1976), a community in Scotland, care of the above-mentioned radio programme about him, “It is very hard for people to admit that they're on the wrong track. I was in eastern Germany not so long ago and they were telling me there that western civilisation is like an express train which at ever-increasing speed is running towards an abyss. ... 'But we shall overtake it', they said.”

The second is his reply to being called a crank. This allowed him to make use of word play, “[a crank] is a small instrument, it is very simple, there is not great capital investment involved and … it causes revolutions.”




E.F.Schumacher – A Guide for the Perplexed, Small is Beautiful

BBC Radio 4 programme, June 2011 – Schumacher's Big Society. Producer: Chris Eldon Lee. A Culture Wise production for BBC Radio 4.