The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Tuesday 2 July 2024

Small Is Beautiful: 50-year Re-reading

When I was 21 years old I read a number of thought-provoking and transformative books. One of these was Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher.1 Published in 1973 Small Is Beautiful is one of those books that had an enormous impact on a generation that was beginning to realise the importance of environmental issues.

Now, fifty years on I have read it once more. How does this re-reading today compare with fifty years ago? What has changed? Did my initial reading really transform me? What did Schumacher have to say fifty years ago that still applies today?

As the sub-title - A study of economics as if people mattered – suggests, Schumacher was keen to examine, and possibly retrieve, economics from the morass within which it had mired itself. Indeed, is economics of any use at all was one of Schumacher’s questions:

“If (economics) cannot get beyond its vast abstractions, the national income, the rate of growth, capital/output ratio, input-output analysis, labour mobility, capital accumulation; if it cannot get beyond all this and make contact with the human realities of poverty, frustration, alienation, despair, breakdown, crime, escapism, stress, congestion, ugliness, and spiritual death, then let us scrap economics and start afresh.”

Challenging words fifty years ago. No less challenging today. Indeed, more so, if we consider the changes that have taken place over the past fifty years.

Although not primarily a book about environmental issues, Schumacher did have some apt observations to make. He noted that we are part of nature, yet in our battle with nature even if we win the battle, we will find ourselves “on the losing side.” He noted too that “nature always knows where and when to stop,” yet we (humans) continue to act as if economic growth can go on ad infinitum. Asking “what is enough?” Schumacher claimed that the economist is not in a position to reply, for the economist has no concept of enough.

Schumacher was keen to espouse ideas of appropriate technology and small, decentralised economies and technologies. In championing appropriate and small-scale technology he noted that our use of technology to solve problems often only generated more, and worse, problems. Citing a contemporary of his, Barry Commoner (an American biologist and ecologist) he noted that “the new problems are not the consequences of incidental failure but of technological success.”

Fifty years on and Schumacher’s warnings cannot be consigned to history. Indeed, many of them have come to pass.

Furthermore, things have sped up and additional harms and difficulties have come about. For example, when Schumacher was writing, the terms global warming, the greenhouse effect, and climate change had not entered our vocabulary. Nor had the basic cause of it all -overshoot. In 1973 when Schumacher was writing his book, humanity was still operating within the boundaries of one Earth. But only just! Within a year of publication our consumption, waste, and pollution activities required more than one Earth to cope. Fifty years later, at a global level, we require 1.7 Earths!! William Catton’s ground-breaking book, Overshoot, was a decade in the future.2

Had Schumacher known the full magnitude of these, would he have written a different book?

I suspect so. He would possibly have been more strident in his criticism of technology. He would probably have put greater emphasis upon our exploitation of nature and the Earth.

I doubt that he would have changed his mind about the underlying ills of the world. He said it then, he is likely to have said it today, “We are suffering from a metaphysical disease, and the cure must therefore be metaphysical.” Indeed, he may have stressed this much more, and have explored our metaphysical disease in greater depth.

Schumacher addresses our metaphysical disease not in great depth. However, what he does say about this disease is worth listening to. For example, he notes that, “The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge.”

Today, fifty years on, we have a lot more knowledge, yet we seem to have less wisdom. Wisdom askes the question, what should we do? Knowledge asks the question; how can we do this? without considering the possible consequences. Schumacher was correct fifty years ago, yet we have not yet acknowledged our lack of knowledge.

Perhaps the most important counsel that Schumacher can give us in reading his book fifty years on comes in the final sentences of Small Is Beautiful:

“Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us. work to put our own house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of (humanity.)”

Fifty years after I first read this book, I now think I understand Schumacher’s ideas with greater clarity.


1. E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, Abacus, London, 1974. Previously published by Blond & Briggs Ltd., Great Britain, 1973

2. William R Catton, Jr., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1982

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