“Infinite growth in a finite environment is an obvious impossibility”
Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1911-1977) was an economist and political thinker who challenged money-obsessed industrial capitalism and paved the way for the contemporary degrowth movement.
He also called for a metaphysical renewal which would fundamentally change the way people in the Western world saw their existence.
He declared in 1977: “The faith in modern man’s omnipotence is wearing thin. Even if all the ‘new’ problems were solved by technological fixes, the state of futility, disorder and corruption would remain. It existed before the present crises became acute, and it will not go away by itself. More and more people are beginning to realise that ‘the modern experiment’ has failed”. (1)
Schumacher is best remembered for his 1973 book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered and its message that “infinite growth in a finite environment is an obvious impossibility”. (2)
He explained that the idea of unlimited economic growth needed to be seriously questioned on at least two counts: the availability of basic resources and the capacity of the environment to cope.
He wrote: “Economic growth, which viewed from the point of view of economics, physics, chemistry and technology, has no discernible limit, must necessarily run into decisive bottlenecks when viewed from the point of view of the environmental sciences.
“An attitude to life which seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism – does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited”. (3)
In the face of this we had to look to evolve a new lifestyle, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption, he said: “a life-style designed for permanence”. (4)
As the title of the book conveys, he also saw it as important to restore a human scale to human self-organisation: “Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom”. (5)
Schumacher’s attack on centralisation and the obsession with economic growth went hand in hand with a broader assault on industrial society itself.
He noted in Small is Beautiful that “modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man”. (6)
And he asked: “What is the point of economic progress, a so-called higher standard of living, when the earth, the only earth we have, is being contaminated by substances which may cause malformations in our children or grandchildren?” (7)
He was also very clear in his rejection of techno-fixes which claimed to protect the natural environment but in fact further poisoned or degraded it.
He warned: “Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress; they are a denial of wisdom”. (8)
Schumacher dismissed critics who assumed that a post-industrial society would necessarily amount to some kind of raw “primitivism”, reminding his readers that the Taj Mahal was built without electricity, cement and steel, as were all the great cathedrals of Europe. (9)
His rejection of industrial capitalism went deeper than its physical infrastructures and challenged the ways of thinking which had allowed it to gain its stranglehold on our lives.
One of these was the obsession with the idea of paid “work” – of any kind, no matter how pointless or harmful – as being an essential bulwark of everyone’s existence.
He explained: “That soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which must necessarily and inevitably produce either escapism or aggression, and that no amount of ‘bread and circuses’ can compensate for the damage done – these are facts which are neither denied nor acknowledged but are met with an unbreakable conspiracy of silence – because to deny them would be too obviously absurd and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity”. (10)
Our separation from nature was, of course, another key problem: “Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and destroy it”. (11)
All of this was related to the loss, in industrial capitalist society, of what he referred to as “the traditional wisdom of mankind”. (12)
As well as being inspired by the decentralist, degrowth economic ideas of Mohandas Gandhi and Leopold Kohr, Schumacher was also influenced by the metaphysical critique of modernity voiced by the perennialist tradition.
He explained in A Guide for the Perplexed that he had taken the term “the Reign of Quantity” from René Guénon, “one of the few significant metaphysicians of our time”, (13) and in Small is Beautiful he quoted both Aldous Huxley and Ananda Coomaraswamy.
It was this aspect of Schumacher’s thinking which lay behind his judgement that “while wealth may still be accumulating, the quality of man declines”. (14)
It also informed his criticism of the one-dimensionality of modern thought, in contrast to the “three-dimensional structure” (15) of traditional wisdom.
Contemporary society rejected ideas of “higher” or “lower” degrees of quality in favour of judgements based purely on quantity.
And yet the idea of something being “higher” was almost universally used in traditional ways of thinking across the world, he said: “‘Higher’ always means and implies ‘more inner’, ‘more interior’, ‘deeper’, ‘more intimate’; while ‘lower’ means and implies ‘more outer’, ‘more external’, ‘shallower’, ‘less intimate’. This synonymity can be found in many languages, perhaps in all of them”. (16)
It was also at the root of our ethical judgements, which regarded good as being a “higher” quality than evil, argued Schumacher.
He observed: “The modern world tends to be sceptical about everything that demands man’s higher faculties. But it is not at all sceptical about scepticism, which demands hardly anything”. (17)
The scientific materialist approach to all areas of thought had made our society incapable of grasping the meaning behind things, he said. Its flat and fragmented analysis meant people could only ever see the trees, rather than the wood.
He remarked: “To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters”. (18)
Schumacher said we needed to make full use of what he called our intellectual senses, adding: “Without them, we should be unable to recognise form, pattern, regularity, harmony, rhythm and meaning, not to mention life, consciousness and self-awareness”. (19)
He insisted that a metaphysical reconstruction was needed to restore our lost wisdom and lead us out of the dead-end of industrialism: “We are suffering from a metaphysical disease, and the cure must therefore be metaphysical”. (20)
In Small is Beautiful he demonstrated the connection between his metaphysical and his political views by proposing “Buddhist economics” as a possible way forward, but made it clear that this was really a question of reactiving universal ancient wisdom, the Old Gnosis as prescribed by Theodore Roszak among others.
The essential point was for humankind to turn its back on “the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends, to the neglect of the spiritual” (21) and “the pretence that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values”. (22)
What we needed, said Schumacher, was a “metanoia”, (23) a turning around from the brink of civilizational catastrophe.
Video link: E.F. Schumacher on Buddhist Economics (3 mins)
1. E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977), pp. 152-53.
2. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered (London: Abacus, 1974), p. 40.
3. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 23.
4. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 16.
5. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 203.
6. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 246.
7. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 116.
8. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 27.
9. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 182.
10. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 30.
11. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 11.
12. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 250.
13. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 135.
14. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 67.
15.Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 20.
16. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 43.
17. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 71.
18. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 29.
19. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 50.
20. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 83.
21. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 31.
22. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 38.
23. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 153.