“SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL – ECONOMICS AS IF PEOPLE MATTERED” [by E. F. Schumacher]

Small is Beautiful

Notes inspired by:

“SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL – ECONOMICS AS IF PEOPLE MATTERED”

[by E. F. Schumacher]

If we are all born good, how come there’s so much wickedness? And if we’re born wicked, where does all the goodness come from? To follow Nietzsche’s lead into a realm Beyond Good And Evil, let’s try to meditate upon our current systems of production with no condemnation or praise. Even though historian Howard Zinn states that “it’s impossible to be neutral on a moving train”, let’s try for some minutes to practice some neutrality. Let’s take, for instance, capitalism: there’s no shortage of criticism, home-made bombs and armed guerrilas rising against it all throughout History, but there’s no shortage neither of its lovers, its praising servants, its devoted and faithful idolizers.

Who doubts that lots of moral indignation, or revulsion at immorality, has led many Marxists to mobilize their dialectics and their parties and their revolutions against Capitalism, Imperialism, Colonialism etc.? What are the grounds in which “leftists” dare to criticize the capitalist system of production by claiming it’s “morally monstruous” (to quote Miss Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, note #1 )? How do we practise neutrality in the field of history and politics, where the struggles for power and moral considerations are to be found everywhere we look?

I’ll suggest that we try, as a means to attempt to arrive at neutrality, as a raft who might take us there, an exercise in de-humanization: let’s look at things as if we weren’t humans. Maybe then we’ll be able to reach the standpoint of wisdom, which in Lucretius’s poem The Nature Of Things is described with a well-known metaphor: the wise one – which Lucretius, of course, identifies with his Greek master, Epicurus – is the one who stands serene, with full lucidity, at firm ground, watching the folly of ships at sea.

The wise one in the mountain witnesses and meditates upon the human condition at the same time as many humans are on their troubled ships at sea, thrown around by furious waves, involved in bloody fratricidal naval battles, or filled with vendetta ambitions like Ahab’s against Moby Dick. The sea of uncontrolled passions and thriving irrationality is the one Lucretius invites us to leave behind us, in order for us to reach the serenity of wise neutrality and lucid contemplation.

The trouble is, the “Western mind” has been conditioned to believe that Nature is inferior to Man, that nature can and should be exploited and extracted by ease by us, its masters and conquerors. This is how F.A. Schumacher puts it in the first paragraphs of Small is Beautiful: 

“Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. We are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves. Even the great Dr Marx fell into this devastating error when he formulated the so-called ‘labour theory of value’. Far larger is the capital provided by nature and not by man – and we do not even recognise it as such. This larger part is now being used up at an alarming rate, and that is why it is an absurd and suicidal error to believe, and act on the belief, that the problem of production has been solved. Let us take a closer look at this ‘natural capital’. First of all, and most obviously, there are the fossil fuels. No-one, I am sure, will deny that we are treating them as income items although they are undeniably capital items. If we treated them as capital items, we should be concerned with conservation: we should do everything in our power to try and minimise their current rate of use…” [SCHUMACHER, note #2]

We have a tendency to think of capital as something created by humans, by labour we impose upon the materiality of nature, but Schumacher invites us to take a look at the wealth of nature without mankind in it. Petroleum is natural capital, then, because it wasn’t created by mankind, it’s the outcome of billions and billions of years in which the organisms dead remnants gathered below the earthly garden. We could even say, to communicate this with the more poetically inclined, that this stuff we today call fossil fuels are materialized death. It also contains a lot of energy, gathered by organisms who lived perhaps millions of years prior to the ascent of a primate such as ourselves. We have been burning the remnants of death like crazy in our car-junkie meat-devouring highly-consumptive and madly-extractive lifestyles.

It’s sufficient to take a peek at our rivers and seas, depleted of fish and poisoned by toxic waste; at our decapitaded forests and smoggy polluted skies; it becomes clear that the “Westernization” of the whole world, known as Globalization, has ecological consequences of mega-magnitude, and it’s increasingly becoming clear and well-known, to millions and millions worldwide, that the “Free Market” path is simply a suicidal one. Speaking about “Westerners” in they continued dependency on fossil fuels, un-reneable energy source, Schumacher states:

“We are not in the least concerned with conservation: we are maximising, instead of minimising the current rates of use; and, far from being interested in studying the possibilities of alternative methods of production and patterns of living – so as to get off the collision course on which we are moving with ever-increasing speed – we happily talk of unlimited progress along the beaten track of ‘education for leisure’ in the rich countries, and of ‘the transfer of technology’ to the poor countries…”  [SCHUMACHER, note #3]

One way to wake up from the Matrix of Western capitalist mentality is suggested by Buckminster Fuller [note #4] when we talks about us as 7 billion passengers of the same ship, Spaceship Earth. We’re all earthlings – that’s something we can easily agree upon. Going beyond parochialisms and egotisms and ethnocentric neuroses, we can arrive at true cosmopolitanism: we are all flying together with our bodies glued by gravity to this revolving planet, this celestial body who dances around a star with almost un-ending energy…

Let’s get back to the ground with economics, this very earthly example: in Toronto, where I lived for a year, there was an array of options in the market area I could reach by foot in the Runnymede neighbourhood: at the corner, I could buy fresh vegetables, juicy fruits, sold by a small-scale Vietnamese shop (“small is beautiful”), side by side with a huge PetroCanada station (a symbol of Canadian big oil biz). I’d rather give my money to small-and-beautiful Vietnamese shop-keepers, refugees from the U.S. led war back in the sixties and seventies, than to fall on my knees to the power of Big Petro Companhies. But I know that, sadly, small is being slaughtered by huge in our world of big multinational corporations and oil-junkie plutocrats…

The gas station, besides, changes the urban landscape in such a way that I could daily witness an endless procession of cars filling up their tanks in order that they could run wild, drunk on petroleum… To which of these two shops should I pledge allegiance? I’d rather be on the side of the Vietnameses’ potatoes and brocolli… What I mean by all this is: betweend food and petroleum, what is the order of priority? Which such come first? Of course, we need to eat first and foremost, and it’s better if it’s GMO-free, and sadly, in our Spaceship, we still got more than 1 billion human earthlings being eaten alive by hunger and thrown into early death by unfulfilled basic needs.

  We are “inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves”, writes Schumacher, and he probably means that our self-adoration, through the praise of our wonderful Technology, is a bit egotistical, cause it treats the man-made as superior to the natural. Most I-Phone users, clicking their ways through bus rides and metro stations, are unaware both of the process of production of that technological gaget and of its ecological consequences. This is not willfull ignorance, self-imposed blindness, but the result of the media system who conditions us to never question the hidden hands and fists of the Market. We are asked to enjoy ourselves in the Marketplace, by which they mean: we should spend a lot of cash and this will heat up the economy, everybody’s gonna win with our high consumption frenzies. We’re supposed to get all horny for hamburguers at the sight of a big yellow M in red background in the urban landscape that’s filled with the mind-mines and fly-traps of advertised bullshit.

What struck me as awesome while I was reading Small is Beautiful for the first time is how Natural Capital is described by the author as something much bigger, vaster, wealthier, than every Human-created Capital. This means, in other words, that Nature is way above the G8 countries, way above the IMF and the World Bank, in its wealth. Nature is rich and mighty, and humans are poor arrogant fools, who’ll pay the price for their húbris in the form of ecological catastrophes. The danger is to believe that Nature, cause she’s awfully rich, wouldn’t mind a bit if we humans plunder it and exploit for centuries and centuries. Perhaps we should wise up and respect that Nature in which we are permanently rooted, cause whatever we do to Nature’s web-of-life, we do it to ourselves as parts of it.

“We did not weave the web of life, we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.” ― Chief Seattle.

Cheers, fellow earthlings!

This Awestruck Wanderer now retreats again into silent wonder and worried plans of action.

Chief Seattle's Web of Life by Trina Yelensky
Chief

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

1. KLEIN, Naomi.  This Changes Everything.

2. SCHUMACHER, E.F. Small Is Beautiful. Chapter 1.

3. Op. cit.

4. FULLER, Buckminster. The World of Buckminster Fuller (Documentary).

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