Small is beautiful: living sustainably

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Our Environment by Katharine Fletcher

First published in 1973, German-born British economist E. F. Schumacher’s book, “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” championed small-scale businesses, local co-operative business ownership, the concept of sustainable resources, and many more principles.

Our Environment by Katharine Fletcher

First published in 1973, German-born British economist E. F. Schumacher’s book, “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” championed small-scale businesses, local co-operative business ownership, the concept of sustainable resources, and many more principles.
Much of Schumacher’s legacy is appropriate today. Nonetheless, when we consider the challenges our global village is facing in 2019 and beyond, one wonders: did he make any significant impact?
The answer is a qualified yes. I say this, despite my frustration with the growth and power of multinationals, agribusiness dependencies on large-scale farms due to economic efficiencies, the non-sustainable use of fossil fuels, etc. Many challenges exist to “small is beautiful”.
So, who was Schumacher?
Schumacher (1911-1977) was the chief economist at Britain’s National Coal Board and became a chief editorial writer for The Times newspaper, published in London, England. It’s Schumacher who asked us to consider “sustainable development” and to think of fossil fuels as “capital” because they aren’t renewable natural resources. Wikipedia notes Schumacher was “best known for his
proposals for human-scale, decentralized and appropriate technologies.”
(Actually, he did not coin the term “small is beautiful”. Schumacher credited his teacher, Leopold Kohr, with coining what became the clarion call to a generation disillusioned by the Vietnam war and consumerism.)
Canadian equivalent
In our Canadian context, Dr. David Suzuki is a household name – his columns are published in the Ryan papers and throughout Canada. His TV program, The Nature of Things, inspires us to appreciate how “the environment” is not an external abstraction. Suzuki teaches us that “environment” is our actual life support; it’s Nature, our home, itself.
How we interact with our environment, at every level, can either sustain, threaten, or kill life itself.
Such environmental heroes as Schumacher – and others like Rachel Carson
and Temple Grandin – are woven into our collective, contemporary psyche. Their
actions, thoughts, and brave questions have caused seismic shifts in world society, and in us, right here in the Outaouais.
Back to the land
Back in the seventies, youth of the Western World experienced a seismic shift
in consciousness. An entire generation embraced a desire to become self-sufficient, where many forsook urban centres to seek a simpler life in the countryside. They rejected the Vietnam War and world politics, aiming to find a piece of rural land where they could grow their own food, and “live lightly on
the land.” Residents of the Outaouais welcomed “back to the landers” and Vietnam war draft dodgers into their midst.
Many, whether they knew it or not, were disciples of Schumacher, embracing his concepts of “small is beautiful.” And today, many of these political immigrants remain highly respected members of our communities.
Embracing “small”
Today, many of us still embrace Schumacher’s teachings.
Recently, for instance, I was reading my copy of Farmers’ Forum, “the largest circulation farm newspaper in Ontario”. A featured article, “Earn a living on one acre, working 35 hours a week” in the February edition explained how Indiana-based organic farmer Ben Hartman and his wife make a good living on their small-is-beautiful operation, Clay Bottom Farm.
Hartman’s book, The Lean Farm, sounds intriguing. The article explains, “Lean farming is based on the Japanese principle of ‘genchi genbutsu’, which means ‘go and see for yourself to gain understanding.’” (It’s a key principle of Toyota, incidentally.)
Hartman contextualizes genchi genbutsu by explaining his CSA (community-
supported-agriculture) business model required him to visit customers to see what they want to eat – and hence, what he should grow. He supplements his farm income by lecturing on how he’s made his small business profitable, and on February 23-24, he was a headliner on Cornwall’s Eco Farm Day.
Indeed, small CAN be beautiful. Perhaps, here in West Québec, we could ask him to speak to us.
In short, I think Schumacher’s theories are alive and well amid us, growing traction as we seek sanity in a complex world.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer, author, and visual artist. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com.