After Nearly 40 Years – E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful
— by Sean Keller, Timebank Media’s intern, 2011-2012
In 1973, economist E.F. Schumacher published Small Is Beautiful, a fabulous collection of essays on economics, though not the “economics” our society has become so familiar with over the past several decades. Even today, it remains a visionary book, with many of its hopes and dreams still unfulfilled. Though published nearly 40 years ago, Small Is Beautiful reads like nothing less than an economic (perhaps even a spiritual) manifesto for our dawning century.
Schumacher wrote that the first goal of economics should not be maximizing efficiency, but maximizing well-being. In other words, the aims of most contemporary economists –ever-increasing growth, more efficient (i.e. work-reducing) technology, and large-scale production – are distracting at best, and ruinous at worst. “In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man,” he writes in the epilogue to Small Is Beautiful.
The material solutions Schumacher called for – human-scale technologies, local ownership of businesses, and resilient landscapes and communities – may ring very familiar to us involved in the Timebank. But it is Schumacher’s articulation of the mindset we need to achieve these goals that rings loudest. No one, I think, has ever said it quite so well.
The heart of the matter is that we need to center ourselves in the face of growing disconnection. “All subjects,” Schumacher writes, “no matter how specialized, are connected with a centre; they are like ways emanating from a sun.” In order for our actions to consistently serve the greater purposes we’ve set for ourselves, we need to have an encompassing, compassionate ethical framework, one grounded “in the traditional wisdom of mankind,” to guide our movements. Though the problems of the modern world definitely require time and money to solve, it is even more important to re-evaluate our society’s materialist worldview. With the proper frame of mind, we may find that our seemingly ‘overwhelming’ problems require less money, and less time, than we at first thought. I’ll quote this passage from Schumacher, since he is so eminently quotable:
The truly educated man is not a man who knows a bit of everything, not even the man who knows all the details of all subjects…but he will be truly in touch with the center. He will not be in doubt about his basic convictions, about his view on the meaning and purpose of his life. He may not be able to explain these matters in words, but the conduct of his life will show a certain sureness of touch which stems from his inner clarity.
We need not know everything ourselves to be wise. We need not do everything ourselves to be whole. That is why we have friends and neighbors and Timebanks. We must simply know why we are doing what we are doing, and where our individual actions fit into the tapestry of our communities, and each of our contributions will find its place.
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