An alternative view of technology and economics was sketched in the much-loved book, “Small is Beautiful”: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) by E.F. Schumacher. The book is a classic but one which is highly relevant to the “out of control” world which we now face, like prisoners in Max Weber’s “iron cage of capitalism”.
This book was one of the first to recognise that scale, the size of institutions and mechanisms, could have profoundly alienating effects. Indeed, increasing size and complexity is one way that civilisations can collapse, as theorists such as Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (1988) proposed. Schumacher observed that contrary to the “one world” and global government crowd, large political units tend to be breaking up into smaller units – an observation confirmed by the breakup of the Soviet union over a decade after Schumacher’s book was published, and possibly by the breakup of other dinosaur nations such as the United States and China, in the future. And big is not necessarily richer as political entities such as Singapore well show.
As far as scale goes, what is important is that scale be appropriate, or human scale. There may be no set exact size which is best for a city, but it is well known that after a certain vaguely-defined point, the city becomes dehumanised, and as its size increases so does its vulnerability to collapse. By way of an analogy, a mass of water the size of the sun, would collapse in upon itself by gravitational attraction, and would form a new sun, ceasing to be water.
The illusion of giganticism led Schumacher to embrace what he called “Buddhist economics”, seeking right livelihood and living simply and humbly. From this perspective labour is not merely a factor of production, which makes labour subordinate and of lesser importance than production. Rather, la bour is the work of people, beings of real spiritual value and it is production which should be subordinate to them.
As for work, Schumacher quotes Indian philosopher and economist J.C. Kumarappa who said: “If the nature of work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best that he is capable of. It directs his free will along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality”.
People are more important than goods or production – indeed, in a world without people goods and production is of no importance at all. From the perspective of Buddhist economics, much of our capitalist and consumer culture can be seen as irrational, economically irrational, and wasteful, solely for short-term profit maximisation.
Further, economic globalisation, now seen by the Establishment as the only game in town, is fundamentally ecologically destructive. Localism, “production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale”.
Our present economic and technological system is highly destructive of both the environment and community. Schumacher quotes the French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel who sums this up better than any of our contemporary greens: (“The modern economist) tends to count nothing as expenditure, other than human effort; he does not seem to mind how much mineral matter he wastes and, and far worse, how much living matter he destroys. He does not seem to realise that all human life is a dependent part of an ecosystem of many different forms of life. As the world is ruled from towns where men are cut off from any form of life other than human, the feeling of belonging to an ecosystem is not revived. This results in a harsh and improvident treatment of things upon which we ultimately depend, such as water and trees”.
Very much more could be said about Schumacher’s wholistic and ecological localism. It stands opposed to the economic world which has been created today of giant nations, giant organisations and global markets. His is the world of the organic small scale farmer, the backyard gardener, or even more romantically, the bushman living off the land. Re-reading Schumacher today is almost like reading history, and reflecting on times long past. But, an increasing number of thinkers believe that the days of tech-industrial society are numbered, so as the alternative, we must seek to find a new philosophical foundation for the new world and new mind to replace the crumbling framework of modernity.