In Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, she wrote about the dangers of pesticides, herbicides, and spraying. She saw circa 1950, what pesticides and spraying would do to Mother Earth – the air, water and soil would be poisoned. She was right.
I’m now reading small is beautiful, a study of economics as if people mattered by E.F. (Ernst Friedrich) Schumacher. The book was published in 1973.
Schumacher writes about the benefits of an economy driven by essentially Buddhist economics, where the guiding principles are simplicity and non-violence.
Schumacher saw then, what’s happening now, that technology is killing more jobs than it’s creating. “Small” is where I learned of this quote, from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi:
Gandhi said, “I want the dumb millions of our land to be healthy and happy and I want them to grow spiritually…If we feel the need of machines we will certainly have them. Every machine that helps every individual has a place. “…but there should be no place for machines that concentrate the power in a few hands and turn the masses into mere machine minders, if indeed they do not make them unemployed”.
Schumacher took note of how modern economists “measure the standard of living by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumers more is better off then a a man who consumers less”. Schumacher tied the modern economists view to materialism. He wrote that “While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation….It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things, but the craving for them”.
Schumacher endorsed the Buddhist economist view, that “A Buddhist economist would consider this approach extremely irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption”.
Schumacher also wrote about fossil fuels, non-renewable and renewable energy. “Non-renewable goods must be used only if they are indispensable, and then only with the greatest care and the most meticulous concern for conservation. To use them heedlessly or extravagantly is an act of violence, and while complete non-violence many not be attainable on this earth, there is nonetheless an ineluctable duty on man to aim at the ideal of non-violence in all he does”.
“Just as a modern European economist would not consider it a great economic achievement if all European art treasures were sold to America at attractive prices, so the Buddhist economist would insist that a population basing its economic life on non-renewable fuels is living parasitically, on capital instead of income. Such a way of life could have no permanence and could therefore be justified only as a purely temporary expedient. As the world’s resources of natural gas — are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men”.
I’ve been saying for years, before I read “small”, that if we’re to make our country strong, the effort should be focused in the poorest and most economically run-down parts of our country.
People like Rich Roll have podcasts that are basically 90 minutes of celebration — of themselves and their friends. Their self-absorbed message connects to no-one except those in their bubble. Rich and his friends claim to be making a difference. But the net of their efforts is bigger walls for the disadvantaged. Rich Brooks writes as much in his insightful piece last week, How We Are Ruining America.
Schumacher was in alignment with my thoughts. He wrote that modern economics wasn’t going to help the poor, that it was only going to make the rich richer. He wrote that development should be centered in rural and economically disadvantaged communities. He wrote about the effects of machines, automation, and even social media — the results of lost “intimate contact with actual people”.
“In the poor countries in particular there is no hope for the poor unless there is successful regional development, a development effort outside the capital city covering all the rural areas wherever people happen to be.
“If this effort is not brought forth, their only choice is either to remain in their miserable condition where they are, or to migrate into the big city where their condition will be even more miserable. It is a strange phenomenon indeed that the conventional wisdom of present-day economies can do nothing to help the poor.
“Invariably it proves that only such policies are viable as have in fact the result of making those already rich and powerful, richer and more powerful. It proves that industrial development only pays if it is as near as possible to the capital city or another very large town, and not in the rural areas. It proves that large projects are invariably to be preferred as against labour intensive ones. The economic calculus, as applied by present-day economics, forces the industrialist to eliminate the human factor because machines do not make mistakes which people do. Hence the enormous effort at automation and the drive for ever-larger units. This means that those who have nothing to sell but their labour remain in the weakest possible bargaining position. The conventional wisdom of what is now taught as economics by-passes the poor, the very people for whom development is really needed. The economics of giantism and automation is a left-over of nineteenth-century conditions and nineteenth-century thinking and it is totally incapable of solving any of the real problems today. An entirely new system of thought is needed, a system based on on attention to people, and not primarily attention to goods — the goods will look after themselves!. It could be summed up by the phrase, ‘production by the masses, not mass production’. What was impossible, however, in the nineteenth century is possible now. And what was in fact — if not necessarily at least understandably — neglected in the nineteenth-century is unbelievably urgent now. That is, the conscious utilization of our enormous technological and scientific potential for the fight against misery and human degradation — a fight in intimate contact with actual people, with individuals, families, small groups, rather than states and other anonymous abstractions. And this presupposes a political and organizational structure that can provide this intimacy.
“What is the meaning of democracy, freedom, human dignity, standard of living, self-realization, fulfillment? Is it a matter of goods, or of people? Of course it is a matter of people. But people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups. Therefore we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small scale units. If economic thinking cannot grasp this it is useless. If it cannot get beyond its vast abstractions, the national income, the rate of growth, capital/output ratio, input-output analysis, labour mobility, capital accumulation; if it cannot get beyond all this and make contact with the human realities of poverty, frustration, alienation, despair, breakdown, crime, escapism, stress, congestion, ugliness, and spiritual death, then let us scrap economics and start afresh.
“Are there not indeed enough ‘signs of the times’ to indicate that a new start is needed?”
Today, it’s evident that consumption is by no means a view into the health of a society. All around we see people who’re consumed — with tech, shopping, eating, so much more. This shouldn’t be any measure of happiness, yet that’s what it’s become as advertising continues to pound on us that we need new phones, cars, and just about everything else. Nor is consumption is a path to liberation — even the richest man answers to someone. The myth of the Golden Touch is also a reminder.
It’s clear that our thirst for progress at all costs, capital over people, is a path to ruin. The unrest in Syria was ignited by climate change, because the Syrian people had been starving from years of drought. What does climate change track back to? Non-renewable fuels. Now we’re seeing “violence between men”, just as Schumacher wrote.
Joni Mitchell wrote Big Yellow Taxi in 1970.
Joni sung then, about protecting the environment. She wrote about tearing up soil, to “put up a parking lot”. Now, all the black pavement is absorbing the sun, one cause of the earth’s warming. If we had any sense we’d be painting all roofs and parking lots white, to reflect the sun.
I’m with Schumacher, in that “a new start is needed”. Where we are today was proffered years ago. It stands to reason the path forward is there as well.