Friday, 1 January 2016

Small is Beautiful

I am starting off the new year by reading Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher. It is one of those delicious books that packs so much into each sentence that you have to pause and put the book down and just think about it every few minutes. You can't gulp down big chunks of it at once, but have to stop and digest frequently. His basic premise is that the world's resources are finite and we can't keep spending capital as if it is income. Now this is not a revolutionary idea for us today, but at the time he wrote it in the 70s, not many people had woken up to this fact. And even though we all know this concept now and even accept it theoretically, we are still living as if the world and its resources are infinite.

The "have nots" are aspiring to live like the "haves." This would work if the current "haves" would say collectively, "We have enough" and call a halt to growth and acquisition. But he pointed out that no society is doing that. I do think nowadays there are individuals who are coming to their senses and saying "I have enough." You get those who move into tiny homes and try to extract themselves from the unbridled consumerism around them. But as a society, no. Schumacher points out that the very things that propel an expanding economy are greed and envy. They're built into the system and exploited; without them economy would grind to a halt. Schumacher contends that a man driven by greed loses wisdom and the ability to see things as they really are. And the rich will not ever find peace, because "their wealth depends on making inordinately large demands on limited world resources and thus puts them on an unavoidable collision course -- not primarily with the poor (who are weak and defenceless) but with other rich people."

I've heard a lot of people say that no doubt science will come up with a solution to our problems and something will come along to save the day. Schumacher says the only way this can happen is if science takes a very different approach than it has done in the past. Wisdom dictates that the solution to our problems must be based on permanence. "Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitude which rejoices in the fact that 'what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us.' The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one's dependence on outside forces...Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war....Scientific or technological 'solutions' which poison the environment or degrade the social structure and man himself are of no benefit...Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful."

I'm only on page 35, and already my thoughts are spinning on a new level. I'm grateful for books that make me think and for people who are brave enough to write them.

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