These are belated Earth Day reflections, as I’ve been on a writing retreat. Also, I’m a slow thinker.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the classic book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, first published in 1973. I was a teenager when it first came out. Schumacher’s book was re-issued in 1989 with a new preface and introduction. A quarter of a century ago, his ideas were described as “radical”, “leftist”, and “anarchist”. Now I would call them “prescient”.
The root word of economics is oikos, Greek for “home”. Literally, economics means the management of home. We have come to think of it as the exchange of goods and services that are produced and consumed. And lately, “the economy” is seen as having huge influence on financial well-being (or lack of it) of individuals and nations. “The economy” has gone global and gotten very complicated.
Schumacher was a Rhodes scholar in economics, an economic advisor to Burma, and for twenty years an economist with the British National Coal Board. Although not an entirely original thinker, he had a gift for synthesizing ideas and a way with words. He places economics in a social context, and he reminds the reader that it is not a hard science although it would like to be. It is a derived body of thought, an abstract framework that disconnects itself from both humans and nature. It is based on assumptions that differ from the laws of the universe (such as what goes up must come down). Schumacher foresaw that this disconnection would lead to social and environmental disaster.
“If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence.”
“Every increase in needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear.”
In the 1970s, Schumacher was speaking out against confusing capital with income. Natural capital is what humans have found, and not created. It is irreplaceable and without it we can do nothing. Air. Water. Soil. Minerals. We continue to spend it as if it will never run out, and go to increasingly convoluted lengths to obtain it. Hydraulic fracking, anyone?
According to Schumacher, the three principles that should guide economic choices are: health (of humans and the environment), beauty, and permanence (these days called sustainability). He warns against confusing material wealth with spiritual well-being, insisting that all people need both. Those of us who consume the most resources are not assured of having the most satisfaction.
As far as the question of scale, he suggest we consider what we are trying to do. Humans need both freedom and order. Freedom in our activities as individuals, order in the world of ideas and guiding principles. Therefore, we need a variety of structures to encourage both freedom and order. Large centralized systems destroy freedoms because they concentrate power in the hands of few, and they are vulnerable to chaos. The best we can hope for is some sort of flexible structure that can cope with a multitude of small-scale units. On a small scale, there is more latitude for experimentation and local problem-solving. If something small doesn’t work, the consequences don’t bring down the whole system. Therefore, small is beautiful.
While on retreat I skimmed the book and made notes, then wrote the essay. I walked and reflected, unhappy with my conclusions. It’s an old book. A lot of water has gone down the river, flowed into the ocean, condensed as clouds and fallen as rain over the mountains and gone down the river again. If Schumacher was still alive, he’d be able to shake his head and say “Told you so. Too big to fail? Ha!” I felt sad. In the 70s, it seemed like there was still a chance to turn things around. Now it feels too late.
I’m reading a new book now: Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs. It’s the perfect antidote to my Small Is Beautiful blues. Childs runs with the idea of cataclysmic destruction, traveling around the world to witness desertification, melting glaciers, colliding continents, rising sea levels, etc. Bottom line: Earth is a violent place and has reshaped itself many times. Five times in the planet’s history most of life has been wiped out. It is generally agreed that we are in the sixth mass extinction right now. Our lovely interglacial Holocene epoch is morphing onto the next thing. The planet is changing, aided by anthropogenic factors (human population growth, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere). Spin the wheel, round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.
What I like about Childs’ writing is that he engages fully with the process of observing. His sense of wonder is unflappable. It might be the end of the world as we know it, but aren’t icebergs amazing? And deserts? He interviews scientists, quotes data, and it is scary stuff. The world is always ending. And beginning. Humanity is just a little piece of it, not the central character in the story. We have been inconvenienced by the unruly planet numerous times in the past, having to migrate to safer ground. Any sense of control we have now is pretty much an illusion and always has been.
How to live then, staring into the mirror at apocalypse? Step one is to manage that existential fear by not needing much. Rachel Carson equated man’s war against nature as a war against himself. So step two is to make peace. Step three is to feel at home no matter what. I’m sure there are more steps, but three is as far as I’ve gotten.
Economics shares the root oikos with ecology, the study of home. When I think of Earth, I think of home. A whirling blue ball twirling around a yellow star in the vastness of space. Home sweet home. Small is beautiful.