By Hannah Bernier, Sept. 20, 2020
Photo: Brocken Inaglory, “A small flower,” Wikimedia Commons
Much of the last six months have consisted of turning inward: taking stock of what we have, sitting in the reality of our lives and the environment within which we live. What kinds of systems sustain us? Do we live in a compassionate society, one that values people and the environment? In what ways can we sustain our communities in a time of increased isolation? As the pandemic continues, it becomes apparent that empathy may be our strongest asset and it is one that should be applied in various sectors of our society. It is becoming increasingly clear, for instance, that empathetic economic practices are crucial to supporting health and well-being.
Published in 1973, Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher is a foundational collection of essays about environmentalism, economies of scale, and Buddhist economics. Schumacher argued that Western economics was too focused on maximizing expansion and consumption, and had lost sight of how to create meaning from life and work. Instead, he advocated for a system built on the Buddhist ethic of “right livelihood,” where human well-being would become the foremost economic concern and the consumption of goods should only reach the level necessary to uphold human dignity.
Others were influenced by his work. Kate Raworth developed the economic model called the doughnut framework in 2017. This model also acknowledged the modern economy’s focus on profit over people, and sets out to find a “safe and just space for humanity,” where social and environmental wellness reach a dynamic balance. Her “equilibrium goal” provides us with another vision of the future that focuses attention on an economic narrative that can better serve both humans and nature.
Still others decided to “live their values,” expressing social solidarity and environmental consciousness by deciding to forgo participation in the modern capitalist system. Take the Possibility Alliance in rural Missouri. In 2007 they built a simple living community based on principles like the gift economy, permaculture practices, electricity and petroleum-free living, and social justice. Founders Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox constructed their community around the following mantra: “I don’t want my freedom, comfort, and mobility to require killing, polluting, and exploiting.” Taking the “small is beautiful” idea to the extreme, their lifestyle continues to be an experiment in ultra-local living based on solidarity and reciprocity.
At the end of his books, Schumacher poses the question many of us find ourselves asking today: “Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ We can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.” A crucial part of instilling radical hope into the framework of our communities is remembering that we have all the tools necessary to do so. Our diverse backgrounds and relationship to land mean we can rise to meet current social and environmental challenges in creative and nourishing ways if we commit to doing so. These concepts are not just an ethos to aspire to, they’re an invitation to begin action within ourselves and our communities. Small is beautiful, so look closely.
Osmond, Jordan and Antoinette Wilson, directors. Living a Radically Simple Permaculture Life.
Happen Films, 26 June 2018, happenfilms.com/film/creatures-of-place.
Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-Century Economist.
Random House Business Books, 2017.
Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. Harper Perennial, 2014.
Sundeen, Mark. The Unsettlers: in Search of the Good Life in Today’s America. Riverhead
One Reply to “Small is Beautiful: Idea in Context”
It was a radical challenge which, like many of the ideas of the late and early (feminism is another example), were gradually adopted and distorted by the ongoing voracious expansion of consumer capitalism. Niche brands such as The Body Shop in the UK or Ben Jerry’s ice-cream in the US attempted to build a “small is beautiful” model of economic enterprise that put relationship, craft and environment at the heart of their way of working. They were later snaffled up by corporate giants. Small became cool but only as part of a branding strategy which masked the ongoing concentration of political and economic power. Gigantism has triumphed.