Quidnovi: Economics as if People Mattered    
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picture7 Sep 2003 @ 13:49, by Quidnovi

Illustration: © J.P. Ferté
September 7

E. F. Schumacher observed
(1911 - 1977)

E. F. Schumacher was a prophet in the guise of an economist. He spent a lifetime mastering the principles of growth, savings, and the “invisible hand” of the market. Yet ultimately he became one of its most effective critics, alerting the world to the catastrophic consequences of the Western experiment in materialism. He wrote, “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 the mutilates man.” And yet he was not content to denounce. He inspired hope that it was not too late to fashion an alternative society modeled on the human scale and responsive to the moral, aesthetic, spiritual, as well as material needs of human beings.

Schumacher was born in Germany in 1911. In the 1930s he went to England as a Rhodes Scholar and was detained there as an enemy alien during World War II. He spent the war working on a farm in the north of England, an experience of common productive labor that played an important role in his formation. He also became a Roman Catholic. After the war he worked as an economic advisor to the British Control Commission in Germany. For twenty years he was the top economist and head of planning at the British Coal Board.

Through these experiences he came to believe that traditional economics, despite its scientific pretensions, was really a kind of religion, and an inferior one at that. It was based on a materialistic view of reality in which growth, efficiency, and production were the ultimate measures of value. In this fashion economists ignored the spiritual dimensions of human beings while promoting a civilization headed for catastrophe.

In the 1960s and 1970s Schumacher began to publish his “heretical” opinions in obscure alternative publications. But in 1973 he achieved wide recognition with the publication of his work Small Is Beautiful, subtitled, “Economics as if People Mattered.” The book caused an appropriately modest sensation arriving just at the time when ecological consciousness was beginning to catch up with the deadly perils of pollution, unbridled growth, and the depletion of the earth’s nonrenewable resources.

One of the most popular essays in the book was called “Buddhist Economics,” which reflected Schumacher’s experience as an advisor to the government of Burma. Most economists, he claimed, were utterly unaware of the degree to which their programs for economic “development” reflected Western metaphysical presuppositions. In this essay he imagined what an economy would look like that reflected the Buddha’s idea of “Right Livelihood.” In describing an economy regulated by concern for permanence, equality, the reduction of desires, the alleviation of suffering, respect for beauty, and the dignity of work, he implicitly called into contrast an economic system sustained by waste, short-term savings, and the stimulation of avarice and envy. (He later observed that he might just as well have written an essay called “Christian Economics,” but then “no one would have read it.”)

In his second book, A Guide for the Perplexed, Schumacher was even more explicit about the spiritual and theological concern behind his work. He traced the problems of our civilization to a failure of metaphysics, the loss of a “vertical dimension,” which meant that while we have the answers to all kinds of technical questions we no longer know how to answer the question, “what am I to do with my life?” Science, he argued, cannot produce the ideas by which we can live. “the task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction.”

Not everyone could follow Schumacher’s erudite appeal to the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas. But his lucid writings and speeches on the virtues of decentralization, appropriate technology, renewable resources, and “economics on a human scale” made eminent sense to a wide audience. In fact, one of his frequent themes was the idea that we are approaching a Great Convergence – that is, a convergence between the practical imperatives of planetary survival and the great, though unheeded, wisdom of our prophets and sages. The current logic of our civilization he said, indicated a “violent attitude to God’s handiwork instead of a reverent one.” If this did not change, the human species would simply not survive.

Schumacher’s ideas quickly entered the permanent vocabulary of the modern ecology movement. But his own presence was short-lived. Only four years after the appearance of his famous book, he died on September 4, 1977.

Robert Ellsberg: All Saints: Dayly Reflection on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses For Our Time.

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