The point of this book is to assault what is meant by progress and try and understand what has gone wrong when we live in almost obscene wealth while large parts of the planet barely get by. This book is a call to arms, to understand things we all seem to have forgotten: what is value? what actually matters in life? should the means always justify the ends? what is work for? and who put all these economists in charge? I doubt most readers will agree with everything, but the writing is plain, unfussy and easy to read and still very persuasive. Schumacher appeals to uncommon sense: our feeling of how the world should be. And, unlike the other armchair-revolutionaries, he has actually tried to make it happen. To cap it all, Buddhist economics is the most beautful idea i've come across in ages. Highly recommended.
on 10 July 2009
This book should be required reading in schools - it is that good. Insightful, clear and to the point, the author's analysis of the issues is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it.
His basic premise is that fossil fuels are capital , and yet we consume it like it is a revenue stream, and this is ultimately destructive. Instead we should spend our capital resources in order to create the infrastructure for sustainability.
This book inspired the organic movement, and is the intellectual basis of so much of environmentalism. We ignore its lessons at our peril.
I read this book back-to-back with another book by Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed. Though Small is Beautiful is the title for which he is most well known, my strong preference was for the latter title.
Small is Beautiful is the earlier book and is rightly recognised as a key instigator of what we might call `grown-up' environmental awareness. The subtitle of the book `Economics as if People Mattered' reflects the aim of the book in extending economic thinking beyond purely traditional financial factors. Central to this is the acknowledgement of the value of natural capital as an input to economic production. For example the air, water and other natural resources that traditional economics assumes to be free and abundant.
The `small is beautiful ` of the title refers to Schumacher's argument that we should steer away from a belief that technology can be relied upon to solve whatever problems we throw in its direction and that decentralization as a way to bring the human touch back into the equation of business.
Schumacher makes a strong case for the value of intermediate technology, or perhaps appropriate technology, which not only delivers desired outcomes, but does so in ways that are in harmony with the broader needs of the communities where the technology is applied. For example, however valuable the finished constructed project, a JCB used in its construction may do the work of 100 men, but is of questionable value if in a developing country those 100 men have nothing to do but watch the JCB, and it is driven by a worker imported from overseas.
The book, though perhaps a little dated, is a good read, and essential reading for anyone wanting to question the dominance of single minded profit based economics.
Personally, having read A Guide for the Perplexed at the same time, I found Small is Beautiful a less rounded book, full of passion and some anger, and packed with ideas and the will to confront the world. In contrast I found A Guide for the Perplexed had the feeling of a book that had perhaps benefited from some time to reflect. In place of the data, evidence and specific arguments of the earlier book, it has a calm and considered perspective with the fragmented and detailed ideas of Small is Beautiful distilled into a single human theme.
My recommendation would be to read both books, beginning with this title. As well as benefiting from the richness of both of the books, you may also gain some insights into the process of developing quite profound ideas.
on 13 December 2011
I had a hard time deciding what rating to give this book. At times it was both engaging and plausible, at others it was so infuriating I had to put it down and come back with lowered expectations. The book was made by sewing several essays together, and as such reads more like an anthology than a single treatise. Schumacher passes through a variety of subjects trying to make his point, and he reveals that he is very willing to make very strong assumptions in some areas to further his argument. He invokes God at least three times and has a list which appears to cite both evolution and relativism as corrupting influences on society. An entire chapter on "Education" is in actuality dedicated to stressing the importance of our (the West's) social and moral "classical-Christian inheritance". He ends up sounding generally anti-science, and especially dismissive of Physics and Mathematics. I got pretty angry at his flat assertion that nobody misses out on anything by not knowing the laws of thermodynamics. I wanted a book about economics, criticising economic thought from within and without, and I feel he went outside the scope of his understanding here.
My review may seem harsh, and overly focused on minor details, but the problem is that I have a background in philosophy and mathematics and not in economics. As such, I am not guaranteed to detect specious reasoning in writing about economics, so (from my perspective) the inclusion of his fumbling and quite dogmatic attempt at metaphysics has cast doubt over the whole enterprise. I enjoyed his thoughts on Development, Intermediate Technology and Scott Bader; taxation though equity ownership is an interesting idea; and of course his views on the environment were very prescient.
It probably deserves five stars "for its time", but for reading as a modern person, three seems fair. Some great food for thought with some dubious company.
on 18 April 2008
I found EF Schumacher's `Small is Beautiful - a study of economics as if people mattered' in a secondhand bookshop and bought it because the title really resonated with me. I knew nothing about it at the time, but it turns out it's been a highly influential book in the environmental and social justice movements.
First published in 1973 in the wake of the oil crisis, Schumacher's collection of essays was very formative in the understanding of sustainability. Some of the figures may be out of date, but it remains a passionate and radical view of economics even today, especially in the light of current oil prices, and something of a fulfilment of the resource depletion scenarios he foresaw.
I leave you with a quote:
"An attitude to life which seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth - in short, materialism - does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited."
Published back in 1973 this book will seem to some readers the very embodiment of a hippy -style , green tinged , mixed market style of economic thinking. In some quarters `Small is Beautiful' will be either seen as laughably idealistic or decidedly 'old hat'. His views on nationalization and state intervention in business will have many on the right, aghast at the idea of state extending its control or influence over 'big' businesses- a policy process that they would say helped the UK towards its industrial melt down in the 1960's and 70's. Others might see this book as part of the economics counter-culture, up holding the idea that while markets and output are important, society and the environment are more so. Some of Schumacher's notions have been taken more seriously especially by the 'green' movement: boycotting the products of errant firms, working and buying local and reducing personal waste for example.
But this slim volume has value and is well worth reading whether you agree with the overall tone and philosophical direction of travel or not. For in this era of globalised 'free' markets where governments and society are at the beck and call of financial markets and institutions ,individuals feeling that they are mere cogs in an industrial machine that sees them either as consumers or 'inputs'. Schumacher reminds us that it doesn't have to be this way...... his is a message of hope and encouragement: yours to accept or not!
'Small is Beautiful' was written in an era when the mantra was very much economic growth is 'good'. If economic growth creates a wider quantity and choice of goods and services that people can consume , adding to their general well being and happiness, then growth is to be encouraged. Growth could be engineered by allowing businesses to get on and do business. The more growth the better: end of argument.
So what's the problem?
Schumacher wants us to see the economy and economic activity as being the servant of mankind and not the other way around. For him, the market with its obsession with short profit seeking has no particular logic other then to cater to particular individual needs regardless of the wider social costs and benefits of doing so. We as consumers, employees, employers, voters or general citizens should think about the issues and act upon our consciences. Its our world and if we make a mess of it, it can only be our fault. 'Small is Beautiful' argues that economics focused to much on quantitative issues - growth, incomes and employment and not enough on the quality of life. For Schumacher 'quality' is about the social and natural environment rather then consumption as an end itself. Quality is about 'freedom' - meaningful work, local decision making, applying appropriate technical solutions to particular local problems or conditions. Quality is about 'bottom up' community action rather then 'top down' imposed decisions. Economics and its obsession with markets is just too 'narrow' in its perspective, as he says his book is 'a study of economics as if people mattered'.
SIB is an enjoyable read. A period piece in some respects but in others, such as the chapters on economic development his ideas on community based enterprise and appropriate use of (intermediate) technology and aid are very useful. His views on the nuclear debate and the role of education also are thought provoking and as relevant today as when he first put pen to paper. My only problem with Shumacher is that he neglects to mention all the body of economic theory on development, environment and welfare that looks at issues way beyond markets and their behaviour, suggesting by this limiting of the argument that economics lacks the tools or ideas to assist individuals and decision makers in shaping society for the better in future.
Topics covered: business organization and the role of the individual, the role of the state in business and the markets, appropriate development policies and environment issues. The style is discursive and can tend towards the woolly. He is happy to high the problems of current economic and business thinking but is a little too keen to brush over some of the knock -on effects that some of his policies might engender if put into practice.
Why read: Students of economics, business and politics would gain from reading parts or all of this book. As the chapter headings clearly signal the topic under discussion, it is easy to select the content the reader might wish to focus on. At just over 240 pages long it's a fairly quick read but an interesting and challenging one all the same. It's possible to enjoy and benefit from reading 'Small is Beautiful' even if it is in the final analysis it is hopelessly optimistic and under developed in places. Schmacher for all his faults dares us to 'think'...now how about that for an idea?.....
on 29 June 2005
I realized recently that this book has shaped my thinking for all the years ( more than 30) since I have read it, and I measure nearly all attempts at development in its light. (Sadly, not much measures up.) Somehow, it has not become obvious to all that exporting the high-cost- in so many ways- technology and lifestyle of the West is not going to work, but when it does become obvious, it will be the wisdom of this book that will be the guide. Its beauty lies in that it doesn't suggest particular solutions, but the principles to guide the strategies. Now that I have gotten older, and am accumulating some means to help, it will be projects of the recommended intermediate technology, that will the head the list of ideas I support. Read the book and be inspired.
on 21 November 2011
Returning to this extremely influencial book after nearly 40 years I was utterly dismayed to be reminded that Fritz was first and foremeost an economist and secondly what little scientific understanding he held was based on the German molecular science "inside the box" foundation not the more useful, for economics, "outside the box" British Natural Philosophy. He quotes C P Snow as stating that a man who is not familiar with the Second Law of Thermodynmics is only half educatated as an engineer who had never heard of Shakespeare; Fritz then dismisses as irrelevant the Law that Einstein and Eddington both claimed was the most important Law of the Universe; Fritz clearly demonstrates Snow's point that he, Fritz, was only half-educated and as such ignorant of how the Premier Law influences everything in the universe. How such a wonderful caring intellect, working inside an energy company, failed to understand that the economics of coal followed the 2nd Law, as indeed Jevons had noted 100 years before, is only explicable as lack of understanding as demonstrated by the worth he awards the then leading physicist C P Snow. British physicists formulated the 'Science of Energy' on the economics of coal at the height of the industrial revolution. 1973 was the year Georgescue Roegen published 'Entropy and the Economic Process'. Interestingly Fritz refers to 'spaceship earth' but seems in ignorance of Boulding essay so titled that was published in 1966 presenting just why the Second Law was so influential to real economics, while Soddy published the still unanswered case in 1912.
The tragedy is indirect as Small is Beautiful is one of, or perhaps the, most widely ready, influential, beneficial, optimistic and sympathetic books ever written on economics; Frtitz's dismissal of the Second Law has been a major stumbling block to the acceptance that the most basic laws of Physical science underpin 'real' economics, whether ecological or just real. This has only encourgaged not challenged the belief that the 'so-called' science of economics can be valid yet in total denial to the physcial laws. If anyone came up with economic theory that defied the Law of Gravity, most folk would be just a little sceptical, but because of ignorance such as Fritz demonstrates allows the equally intellectually bizare concept of economic theory defying the Second Law to be intellectuallly respectable.
Love and hug this book for its social and lifestyle messages and in particular Burmese economics, but replace the science commentary with Soddy, Boulding,Georgescue-Roegen and Daly so that Schumachers wisdom remains on firmer and more influential foundations.
on 8 June 2014
One of the first impressions I got when starting on this book was that it is quite dated. First published in 1973, we are getting on for 50 years. The author talks of the emergence of nuclear power - which the proportion of total energy supply nationally as of 1970 was - UK 2.7% EU 0.6% and USA 0.3%. However, the subject matter of this book is of immense importance in the contemporary world. Questions of sustainability and the ECO movement in general have risen to new heights. So this book is of great relevance and could be dubbed `essential reading`. The fact that much of the subject matter refers to conditions around the 1970s creates a perspective and a comparison with today which is interesting.
There is a chapter entitled Buddhist Economics where the psychological attitude of this philosophy towards life style is explored; the concept that it is better to leave non-renewables like coal and oil where they are and further - to base economic choices and decisions on the simplest solution, requiring the least expenditure and effort, so giving people more time for other things. In a chapter called The Greatest Resource - Education Schumacher suggests that we are living in a time of philosophical paucity and that a holistic approach to knowledge is needed in order to attain a healthy world view. This is quite a challenging chapter which is worthy of some study!
I find myself tempted to include here countless quotes from the book as there is so much important material I feel. However, this would only give rise to a perhaps over lengthy review. So I will just say that this book should be read! Personally I am sometimes amazed at the stupidity of mankind in his relentless pursuit of gain and the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake. Are we really going to just self destruct? If so, what a waste! Surely our brains are able to do something intelligent! Part of the title of this book, as if people really mattered, comes to the fore in the section on nuclear power. Schumacher asks whether any of the decision makers really have any idea or indeed if they care at all about the fate of humanity when planning to build nuclear reactors and he repeats that short term gain and `economics` are the religion of modern society and our fate may well be sealed!
Part 4 entitled Organisation and Ownership I found quite demanding reading and I should re-read it. We start to get in to political science here and I heard echoes of Rousseau in places. Concepts like the Social Contract and the theory behind how we organise and manage enterprise.
on 12 April 2016
One of the best business books I have ever read. This book has contributed to my understanding of public policy, the panama papers, environmentalism, economics, etc.
I have cited this text on every single one of my applicable graduate school essays. E. F. Schumacher is a genius. If you want to become smarter, wiser, and more clever at conversation, business, philosophy, or whatever, I would highly suggest reading this book or buying it for someone else.
Now don't get me wrong, the meat of the book is at the beginning and the book begins to fall off towards the end. Schumacher was a brilliant thinker but his policy suggestions and whatnot are nothing special. Unfortunately, his genius was in the thinking and investigation and argumentation, not his proposals for public policy.