Some books are so well observed, so prescient, that even their supporters are seemingly overwhelmed by their material implications, and turn away from the truths they annunciate: ‘Small is Beautiful’ is such an example.

View the YouTube video of this post

Published fifty years ago, ‘Small is Beautiful’ was a highly influential book that, sadly, fell out of favour. It was not only Schumacher’s left-leaning view of economics that became unfashionable; its calls for restraint and technological simplification did not fit into ideology of ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ consumerism which dominated the Western ecological debate from the early 1990s.

I can remember reading it around the mid-1980s: It chimed with my gut feelings about the ecological crisis; while at the same time, allowing me to see that there are matters which operate beyond any ‘shade’ of economic theory – because all economic theory cannot possibly capture the complexity of human existence.

As Schumacher says near the beginning of the first chapter:

“Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realise what this means for the continued existence of humanity.”

Schumacher was not only writing before the realisation regarding climate change or biodiversity loss. He published the book well before the Oil Crisis hit in October of that year – at a time when Western states were still triumphal about their conquering of, ‘the problem of production’.

On that point, Schumacher addresses the sudden rise of ecological consciousness in parallel to, ‘The Technological Society’:

“…why it is that all these terms – pollution, environment, ecology etc. – have so suddenly come into prominence. After all, we have had an industrial system for quite some time, yet only five or ten years ago these words were virtually unknown. Is this a sudden fad, a silly fashion, or perhaps a sudden failure of nerve? The explanation is not difficult to find. …we have indeed been living on the capital of living nature for some time, but at a fairly modest rate. It is only since the end of World War II that we have succeeded in increasing this rate to alarming proportions.”

Schumacher’s economic points have largely been superseded by events. What has not dated, however, is his analysis of how technological change is failing humanity; becoming an alienating force for those trapped within it’s machine-like logic, because it has grown larger than our natural stature.

As he says:

“I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development… and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for gigantism is to go for self-destruction. And what is the cost of a reorientation? We might remind ourselves that to calculate the cost of survival is perverse. No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worth while: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear.”

I haven’t read this book for about fifteen years. Re-reading it now, I see how applicable its ideas are to the current debate around renewable energy and ‘Green New Deals’; and how that debate simply apes the underlying logic of human expansionism, rather than trying to find an ‘appropriate’ level of development to meet our needs.

Schumacher’s words are prescient:

“The technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and stultifying for the human person. The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralisation, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines. I have named it intermediate technology to signify that it is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer than the super-technology of the rich.”

Today, as younger-generations move further to the left than their parents, the debate over socialist politics has become popular once more. For that reason alone I urge everyone to read this book, because in the context of that same debate in the 1960s and 1970s, it highlights why neither ‘wing’ of the political spectrum really grasps our ecological predicament.

As he says:

“Economics and the standard of living can just as well be looked after by a capitalist system, moderated by a bit of planning and redistributive taxation… Socialists should insist on using the nationalised industries not simply to out-capitalise the capitalists… but to evolve a more democratic and dignified system of industrial administration, a more humane employment of machinery, and a more intelligent utilisation of the fruits of human ingenuity and effort. If they can do that, they have the future in their hands. If they cannot, they have nothing to offer that is worthy of the sweat of free-born men.”

To be honest, I can’t summarise this book in five minutes. Fifty years after its publication, it’s insights still have so much to say to us today – and that can’t easily be put into a simple summary. All I can do is urge people to read it, and transpose its ideas into the seemingly identical conflicts which are playing out in the present-day – albeit, the stakes of which are even higher than in Schumacher’s time.

Afterthoughts on, ‘Small is Beautiful’

Someone commented on my recent video about ecomodernism, noting my point that, “‘ecomodernists’ believed higher efficiency would enable economic competition due to higher productivity, and hence profitability” – and why that was a fallacy. I can’t claim ownership of that: I read the basic framework of that idea almost 40 years ago in ‘Small is Beautiful’.

I feel ‘blessed’ to have been young in the 1970s. Admittedly, not a things that’s readily said in Britain these days!

I was able to absorb the ecological criticism of that time before it was corrupted by consumerist values and neoliberal economics; before the environmental movement compromised is ecological vision with the demands of the mass market. And as I interacted with people at peace or protest camps, and free festivals – which would soon be suppressed with first the Public Order Act, and then the Criminal Justice Act – I was not only able to freely discuss those ideas; but, spending time outdoors with people living simply on the land, those ideas seemed easily realisable.

In the 1980s, I was involved with national campaign groups during that transition to the ‘green’ agenda; and witnessed those contested arguments play-out, and fail under the pressures of the right-ward shift in politics and the neoliberal consumer boom. As the OG ‘green guru’, Jonathon Porritt would later say in his 2005 book, ‘Capitalism as if the World Matters’:

“Incremental change is the name of the game, not transformation. And that, of course, means that the emerging solutions have to be made to work within the embrace of capitalism. Like it or not, capitalism is now the only economic game in town. For fear, perhaps, of arriving at a different conclusion, there is an unspoken (and largely untested) assumption that there need be no fundamental contradiction between sustainable development and capitalism.”

All the major social movements that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s – from anti-colonial movements, to indigenous people’s struggles, to sexual equality, to LGBTQ+ rights – have seen at least some measure of ‘progress’ since the 1970s. The environmental movement is the only one where the situation has not only failed to ‘progress’, but has massively worsened.

The environmental debate has become an adjunct to technology and consumerism, not a movement for the liberation of the natural environment from the destructive ideology of human expansionism. I know that statement grates upon many in the movement; but only because it is a truth that is readily apparent, and so not openly spoken within the movement. If people can’t confront that, then it is because they have fully internalised the cognitive dissonance of ‘green consumerism’, and are no longer willing to live for those fundamental truths that the ecological movement sought to realise from the 1960s.

Re-reading ‘Small is Beautiful’, I generally remembered the big ideas. What I failed to appreciate was how Schumacher’s ‘Technological Revolution’ versus ‘ecological destruction’ debate of the 1960s has been revivified by the debate over climate change. Specifically, how the promise of mystical economic ideas such as ‘efficiency’, ‘growth’, or ‘innovation’, are used to distract attention from our inevitable self-extermination. The current ‘Green New Deal’ debate is a perfect example of this; and the reasons why that debate will fail are bound-up within those innate truths, which people cannot or will not address, as we progress towards ecological collapse.

Schumacher’s advocacy of ‘intermediate technology’ would see a new kind of global aid movement emerge in the mid-1960s – rebranded in the early 2000s as ‘Practical Action’. It also saw spin-offs such as ‘Tools for Self-Reliance’. Schumacher’s work has also spawned various societies and institutes, which seek to popularise his ideas. And perhaps indicative of changes in the environmental movement, The Schumacher Society in the UK, founded in 1978, would falter in 2013; but has now been re-established once again as his ideas seem more relevant than ever.

We need to dust-off all those old paperbacks of ‘Small is Beautiful’ from cupboards and charity shops, and start loaning them to friends again. We need to resurrect Schumacher’s critical arguments, paring apart not just economic ideology generally, but how we seek to define the scale and depth of human ‘needs’; and yes, that means confronting the leading figures in the ecological debate, over their past and present failures to annunciate these truths, to a political and economic class whose descent into a self-justifying ideology has removed them from any sense of objective reality.

Or as Schumacher says:

“We might remind ourselves that to calculate the cost of survival is perverse.”

I knew I wanted to review ‘Small is Beautiful’ this year, to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. After planning which books to review, though, it is just so overwhelmingly on-message within the context of the ecological debate, that it had to be the first one of 2023.

We face a very simple choice: It’s not about carbon markets or BECCSrewilding or home insulation; very simply, it’s a choice between a low-energy ‘human-scale’ systems for providing for our basic needs, versus an ‘in-human’ scale of technological change that is reducing all of humanity – as well as the global environment – to an expendable resource in the seemingly Medieval-style clan conflict of today’s economic oligarchs.

If we’d have heeded the message of Schumacher and others fifty years ago, then perhaps the transition process towards ecological sustainability could have been more ‘civilised’. We passed that point in the late 1980s. Today, we are not in a situation of having ‘problems’ with ‘possible solutions’; we are in a ‘predicament’, with only a few, mostly unwelcome ‘outcomes’ to choose from. Unless people internalise that reality, and act from that simple statement of truth, then at an individual, ‘human’ level there is no certain future to peg our existence upon.