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).

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