Monday, September 24, 2007

Chapter 7: The Proper Use of Land

"Among material resources, the greatest, unquestionably, is the land. Study how a society uses its land, and you can come to pretty reliable conclusions as to what its future will be."
So Schumacher opens the second chapter of the middle portion of his book dealing with resources (p. 80*). His major contentions here are that (1) humans must find "the proper use of land" and (2) this problem is primarily a "metaphysical," rather than a technical or economic one (p. 82). Ultimately, Schumacher wants to suggest that land is our most precious resource next to people (p. 93).

While I would prefer to use the word "philosophical" instead of "metaphysical," I can still agree with Schumacher's general premise, namely, that the questions about 'land' which he asks here often go beyond the perspective of economics or the sciences alone. Unlike Schumacher, however, I don't believe such a strong divide needs to be maintained between the world of philosophy/ethics/values/religion/etc. and the world of economics/technology/science/etc (for example, see the previous chapter on education).

In questioning 'what is land?' and 'what is its purpose?,' Schumacher leads the reader down a path of reflection that humans increasingly need to take, whether they agree with his conclusions or not. For his own part, Schumacher adopts a unusually broad definition of 'land', saying it also consists of 'the creatures upon it' (p. 83). Here it would have been nice if he had spent more time precisely on the question, what is 'land'? Historically, I suspect the meanings of 'land', as well as our relation to it, have varied a great deal. Indeed, I found myself wondering if Schumacher's own definition was all that clear. After all, are 'humans' not also 'creatures' to him, and if so, are we too a part of 'land'? Yet why does he distinguish 'people' from 'land' when talking about resources? Going back to the first quote up above, does Schumacher see humans as more than just 'material'? All of this confusion only affirms my growing sense that, despite his many intriguing ideas, Schumacher is not necessarily the best at articulating and defending them all. Nevertheless, I think the questions he raises have made the reading worthwhile thus far.

Getting back to the text, Schumacher wants to argue that the land is not "merely a means of production," but rather "an end in itself" (p. 83):
"Land and the creatures upon it . . . are ends-in-themselves; they are meta-economic, and it is therefore rationally justifiable to say, as a statement of fact, that they are in a certain sense sacred. Man has not made them, and it is irrational for him to treat things that he has not made and cannot make and cannot recreate once he has spoilt them, in the same manner and spirit as he is entilted to treat things of his own making." (p. 84)
I must say that I was fascinated by his definition of "a certain sense of sacred"--something humans "cannot make and cannot recreate once [they have] spoilt them." However, I also fear that the way he distinguishes between "means-to-ends" and "ends-in-themselves" runs the risk of a sort of naive altruism without further clarification. Did anyone else have similar sentiments?


In light of the contemporary concerns over "factory farms" I found Schumacher's opposing metaphors of "industry" and "agriculture" to be quite provoking. In one of the most important passages of the chapter, he says the following:
"In other words, there can be no doubt that the fundamental 'principles' of agriculture and industry, far from being compatible with each other, are in opposition. Real life consists in the tensions produced by the incompatibility of opposites, each of which is needed, and just as life would be meaningless without death, so agriculture would be meaningless without industry. It remains true, however, that agriculture is primary, whereas industry is secondary, which means that human life can continue without industry, whereas it cannot continue without agriculture. Human life at the level of civilisation, however, demands the balance of the two principles, and this balance is ineluctably destroyed when people fail to appreciate the essential difference between agriculture and industry--a difference as great as that between life and death--and attempt to treat agriculture as just another industry." (p. 88)
I thought it would be interesting for discussion (if any takes place) to try and understand what Schumacher is getting at in saying that "real life consists in the tensions produced by the incompatibility of opposites." (I believe this also relates back to the previous chapter on education.)

Also, what does everyone think of Schumacher's conception of values, describing them as synonymous with "ends-in-themselves" and beyond any questions of utility or "affording" (p. 86)? Does Schumacher really explain well how these values relate to one another?


Schumacher closes the chapter with a proposal for the "proper use of land," suggesting the need for a primary orientation "towards three goals [or values?]--health, beauty, and permanence. The fourth goal--the only one accepted by the experts--productivity, will then be attained almost as a by-product" (p. 89).

In contrast, to place production and financial gain foremost amidst one's values is to take on the perspective of the "townsman," which Schumacher describes in the following manner:
"Nothing can be clearer. If agriculture does not pay, it is just a 'declining enterprise.' Why pop it up? There are no 'necessary improvements' as regards the land, but only as regards farmers' incomes, and these can be made if there are fewer farmers. This is the philosophy of the townsman, alienated from living nature, who promotes his own scale of priorities by arguing in economic terms that we cannot 'afford' any other." (p. 92)
Personally, I like Schumacher's ideas here, but he still does not make an effort to defend them in a more complete way. For example, what if the "townsman" came to realize in his pursuit of wealth (as many businesses are discovering nowadays) that in the long term his "productivity" is dependent upon a multitude of other factors, such as the health and permanence of the land? In fact, he may even come to realize that customers appreciate aesthetic value? In such a case, where all the values are now significant, what is the primary value driving the "townsman"? Is it still "productivity"? If so, is there a difference between this and Schumacher's proposal that holds the other values/goals as more primary?

Returning to a point made earlier, I find myself torn yet again with regard to Schumacher's ideas. On the one hand, I am pleased to find him raising the questions he is, and I also think many of his proposals to be quite fascinating. On the other hand, however, I also find myself frustrated with Schumacher's frequent uncritical dependence upon various ideas and assumptions -- points that his readers may either not necessarily agree with or not fully understand. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the chapter, but does anyone else have this trouble?
* Excerpts cited here come from the 25th anniversary edition: E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, 25 years later . . . with commentaries (Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 1999).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Update & Schumacher on the Web

My apologies for the hiatus folks. Lately my time has been consumed by thesis revisions. However, I promise to return with my reflection on chapter seven next week, perhaps also finally taking some time to respond to some of the previous posts.

That being said, I recently came across another interesting Schumacher reference on the web, this time from the Adbusters media foundation. Their website describes themselves as follows:
We are a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age. Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.
If you're looking for the Schumacher reference, you can find it on their True Cost Economics campaign page:

At the top of a list of "new economists leading the charge" is none other than E. F. Schumacher, along with a lengthy synopsis of his work. The list and site in general are quite interesting if you're looking for introductions to perspectives on economics other than the neoclassical one that still so heavily permeates the business and government sectors of our society today. 19 important economists from the past 50 or so years are introduced in the list itself, as well as the important questions they've raised and the ideas they've developed within the field. There are also interesting essays on the "old" traditional economic paradigm and the "new" economic paradigm which they believe is needed in our world today (see their main page).

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chapter 6: The Greatest Resource — Education

I'm not sure if this is everything, but here are some thoughts from Mike on chapter 6 that he sent to me by email. There may be more to this reflection shortly...
"When people ask for education they normally mean something more than mere training, something more than mere knowledge of facts, and something more than a mere diversion" (p. 77)
This stuck out more than anything else in the book because it made me think that maybe education is not an abundant resource. What is education? Some define education and school as having different meanings to different socio-economic groups. Poor people look to education as an abstract concept, that doesn't really matter. The middle class looks to education as the beginning of hard work that will eventually pay off. Rich people look to education as a means to connect with other people, to maintain social bonds.

I think Schumacher is taking a perspective that fits most with the lower or middle class.

Unfortunately though this quote is representative of our current educational system. Students go through the 'drill and kill' practice that accompanies the math and reading subjects, those subjects that have the most federal dollars.

Central convictions...


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chapter 5: A Question of Size

Before beginning to read this chapter, judging by the title, I thought here Schumacher will give us the crux of his argument as to why "small is beautiful." And indeed I think he at least attempts to lay it down general. Whether he is successful, I was not impressed.

Schumacher gets away from talking about the danger of abusing natural resources and wants to speak on the question of size generally. However, I would think that our "idolatry of giantism" is a problem because of how the largeness tends to abuse natural resources and fails to recognize them as capital. So, I was confused as to why this point had suddenly dropped from discussion.

He makes his claim by attempting to focus on what is needed, namely, at least freedom and order, and the need to "discriminate, to get things sorted out." Indeed. This sorting out involves the necessity of noticing how there is not one solution to the problem. It is not smallness in every case, nor is it largeness -- giantism. I thought: how honest of him to include the relativity factor of the situation, but I don't think it helps his argument. If we suffer from a problem of giantism, which I agree with him that we do, perhaps it is better rhetoric not to make this explicit and only push the virtues of smallness.

And his primary schema runs: giantism leads to changes in technology (transport and communication), which leads to "footlooseness" which leads to lack of structure. Is this true, in all cases? I had a problem with understanding why being "footloose" was such a problem. It may tend toward instability, but can't see why it has to. Or even why these changes in technology should even lead to footlooseness. In fact, his example with the United States population and geography is grossly exaggerated: there are three megalopolis', one between Boston and Washington; around Chicago; and between San Francisco and San Diego. This is true, but is what he says next: "and the rest of the country being left practically empty; deserted provincial towns, and the land cultivated with vast tractors, combine harvesters, and immense amounts of chemicals." Wow! Empty?! Deserted?! Tractors and combines?! Either the man hasn't been to the United States, or he is exaggerating to make his point.

Generally, I agree with Schmacher's conclusions that we have an idolatry of giantism and that we need to reclaim the beauty of the small. However, I'm not too impressed with how he attempted to show this in this chapter. Like I said, he argument may have been more corroborated if he continued to on the discussion of the depletion of natural resources.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Chapter 4: Buddhist Economics

I enjoy my computer, t.v., cell phone, and car. Enjoy being in Bowling Green one moment and Cincinnati the next. Without a thought modern technology has allowed convenient pleasures in my life. Blindly enjoying these trinkets, which create happiness in my life, without realizing the effects these trinkets have on the world.

By comparing the two economic models Schumacher is able to show the effects of a modern economic system. Schumacher compares the effects of the two models on the idea that "...a fundamental source of wealth is human labour." A modern economic view perceives the value of human labor in the wealth of trinkets workers can produce. If possible employers would work to have output without employees, but since it isn't possible the value must be seen in human labor. By applying the pin factory example laid out by Adam Smith's book Wealth of Nations, Schumacher shows that by dumbing down workers and removing their skills employers are not only able to produce products more efficiently but at the same time condition employees who are dependent on them. Hence solving the problem of labor and creating wealth out of it. This dependence on the employer leads to the overall unhappiness of the employee. Buddhist economics even goes as far as saying it is almost criminal to "organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking"

Buddhist economics views work as threefold: "to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence." If only everyone was able to find this in a job. Unfortunately someone has to sacrifice their happiness to produce the products we enjoy. Maybe their not not sacrificing their happiness because possibly from the beginning they were conditioned to think they would never have any other skill than to work a meaningless , boring job. Taking their wages and reinvesting it in materialistic happiness, temporary happiness keeps them enslaved.

Schumacher states "Modern materialistic way of life has brought forth modern economics." I would disagree however stating modern economics has brought forth a modern materialistic way of life. For thousands of years humans lived applying Buddhist economics to their lives. Small communities worked together providing meaningful labor opportunities that ensured the existence of the tribe. It was only with the birth of the industrial revolution that small communities began to fade. Importance was lost in the meaning of community and instead put in the importance of wealth. Buddhist economics was never about wealth but about the attainment of oneself. To discover ones true potential through compassionate meaningful work.

My take from chapter four is that globalization is unsustainable and it is this unsustainable nature which creates tension throughout the world. Can we except there to be peace when a modern economic system demands workers throughout the world to work meaningless jobs? Sadly I'm part of the reason there are meaningless jobs in the world because of my need for materialistic trinkets. Just now I'm realizing I have spent most of my life blindly enjoying trinkets which i knew nothing about how their creation negatively impacted the world. Buddhist economics has shown me to be more conscious about my spending and to realize happiness is not in the material but in the moment.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism."
-Albert Einstien

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Chapter 3 : The Role of Economics

I would be a terrible business man. I know that, from growing up with a couple of pretty good ones. Not to say I did not prosper from their labors, but what I do know is that money can buy a lot of things--in my case, a cozy upbringing and a full college education (which I may well have wasted on an Arts degree). What it does not buy is happiness. I suppose we all build our little Tower of Babels, only to have them crumbled and leave us more lost than ever.

Schumacher writes:
"To equate things means to give them a price and thus to make them exchangeable. To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price."

How this resonates with me, for I often feel that anything I do is often poisoned when money is involved. In the arts, and probably anything I choose to labor over for whatever "spiritual" reasons I choose, discussion of money plays like a flat note in an otherwise beautiful arrangement. It hints that my labors are simply for the end result of fiscal gain, rather than for my own pleasure or altruistic motives.

I suspect that gift cards, in an odd way, serve to soften the blow. There is something more altruistic about a gift card to Olive Garden than receiving a wad of hard-earned cash, quickly stuffed in your pocket as if it never existed. I suppose then, the hard-lined economists that Schumacher distastefully speaks of would consider me an anomaly, or in his own words, "uneconomic."

As Michelle and the book thus far has spoke of, the economic theory is flawed since it presupposes an infinite supply and demand. We know now that the supply is actually quite finite, or could well become so.

And yet, do I believe that recognizing this fact would cause us, as bargain-hunting consumers, to discontinue our industries for greater spiritual causes, such as conservation? I think we can, but it certainly wouldn't be for the objective cause of conservation, but rather to ward off the dangers that we might make for ourselves if our recklessness continues.

I had just read a poll that said that Americans would reduce their driving habits if gasoline prices rose to $3.50. I suspect that similar polls may have taken place when gas neared a meager 2 bucks. In my cynicism, I'd believe that gas would have to rise much higher before middle America considered the bus to be a wise economic choice--almost to the point where a vehicle that runs on olive oil would actually be nominal.

Until then, Live Earth and Al Gore has a steep hill to climb--as steep as their rising temperatures charts. I should conclude that economics, and science alike, are amoral. People are not. But often their moral notions are muddied by economics--money as a divine creation. There are certain presidential candidates that believe that money is a gift from god--and to throw a stone in the gears of our economic system is to disobey god, endanger democracy, and create war, poverty, and terrorism.

Much of my motivation is not economic, or rather, "uneconomic," but I do live in a system that doesn't recognize such a thing--and forces upon me, again and again, the tacky exchange of dollars and cents, that so poisons everything I would rather leave to humble charity and good will.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Chapter 2-Peace and Permanence

Permit me to begin with a metaphor: this past weekend, Brad and I took our dogs to go swimming in the Willamette River. Now, the Willamette is so heavily polluted that it is not safe for humans to swim there. A recent study showed that it contains high enough levels of dissolved Prozac in the water to resolve most depressive complaints. (ok, not quite that high, but still pretty high.) But we go in anyway. Why? Because we grew up near Lake Erie (see Schumacher’s comments [pg. 17 of my edition]), and gosh darn it, if swimming in there didn’t kill us, nothing will.

We as human beings, if used to swimming in muck, will many times continue to swim in muck. Greed, envy, individualism (and a host of other –isms) can all act, to varying degrees, as muck. Perhaps one of Schumacher’s most important points in this chapter is best stated as a question. “Why must we continue to accept as a given the world situation when we are, at best, barely keeping our heads up, and at worst, poisoning ourselves?”

Schumacher opens “Peace and Permanence” by dismantling several false assumptions regarding conventional reasoning on how to establish peace. These erroneous beliefs include:

-universal prosperity will build peace
-universal prosperity is possible
-our science and technology will, at minimum, save us from disaster, and at maximum build universal prosperity. Translated for the poor, this amounts to “Just wait, and eventually the system will work for you too.”(trickle-down economic theory)

Schumacher’s personal conclusion on the matter is that if (and a big if at that) universal prosperity is possible, it cannot be achieved in the modern sense, as it would only be possible through greed and envy. (Schumacher, 19)

By and large, I agree with Schumacher’s perspective, although I find many of his points and assumptions to be a bit simplistic. Schumacher discusses how historically when the rich have taken aggressive action, it has been the result of their fear of the poor. I think that this explanation works, many times, at the local or national level, but it is not a wholly effective predictor of conflict at the international level. Think back in the history of this country, when plantation owners lived in fear of slave revolts. An additional example would be the constant fear that gripped the Russian aristocracy, especially leading up to the events of 1917/18. However, WWI and WWII were fought mostly between rich countries. There are additional scenarios, despite this hang-up, where I can see the Schumacherian perspective working. If Communism is seen as an action of the poor to reconcile their world perspective with that of the rich, then Vietnam/various interventions throughout Latin America (I’m thinking particularly of Guatemala, El Salvador and Chile) make sense. Applying this philosophy to today’s events, particularly the supposed “War on Terror”, becomes more tricky. I believe that perhaps Schumacher would say that this war resulted not out of fear of the poor, but out of greed and the need to acquire more natural resources (but that is pure conjecture).

I see a constant battle in this chapter between Humanism and man’s fundamental animal nature. Can we, as humans, with our ability to manipulate the environment, take steps to better our world? Or, by contrast, even with our technology/science, is “homo economicus” doomed to failure; the victim of her own desires? Schumacher adds a religious overtone to his discussion, believing that man must seek additional direction “wisdom” from a spiritual authority to temper his nature. I believe this to be one of the most controversial aspects of Schumacher’s work. What does “and God gave man dominion over the Earth” really mean? Would it be best, perhaps, to assume that there is no celestial help, and that we really must learn to care for ourselves? However, if we take this perspective, are we ultimately doomed to failure anyway? Does our search for religious perspective always force us into spiritual conflict with our fellow humans? These are questions for which there is little rational possibility of a complete answer.

Schumacher goes on to describe the conditions for which science and technology would be most helpful to humanity. These include the development of methods and equipment which are cheap enough to be accessible to the whole of humanity, suitable for small-scale application, and compatible with man’s need for creativity. (Schumacher, 20) I think that many times, at least in developed countries, our orientation is more toward wants than needs; the economy reacts in kind by producing many wants to the ignorance of needs. Consequently, when we innovate, much of this innovative energy is put into innovating more wants, not innovating for our needs. We are on the precipice of a great change, as it seems that some industries are beginning to realize that there is a demand for green products. The fact that it has taken so long to get to this point indicates just what all that change theory from back in the 60’s dictated-that people will hold on to their old ways as hard and as fast as they can. Can we innovate greed out of our industrial process? As Schumacher writes, our systems cannot do it for us.

There are many more items I could put out there for discussion, but one last point: I was routinely struck by how accurately Schumacher gazed into his crystal ball and was correct. The resource wars, the fears over the potential impact of uranium in the wrong hands, alienation and insecurity-these are our modern realities.

I look forward to your comments, as well as the direction our discourse takes over the rest of the book. Please do not feel that all posts have to be this long, that’s just how this one turned out. =-)