When American poet Wendell Berry noticed “There has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth” he was referencing our ignorance to the intrinsic value of nature.1
When German economist E. F. Schumacher (August 16, 1911 – September 4, 1977) argued in his 1973 manifesto on behalf of parts not wholes, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered that we have an idolatry of gigantism and need a renewed valuation of the small, he underscores Berry’s point almost entirely.
Idolatry of gigantism is not a lust for largeness, but for the summation of parts. What modern business and political science parlance calls ‘scale.’
I was brought up on an interpretation of history which suggested that in the beginning was the family; then families got together and formed tribes; then a number of tribes formed a nation; then a number of nations formed a ‘Union’ or ‘United States’ of this or that; and that, finally, we could look forward to a single World Government. Ever since I heard this plausible story I have taken a special interest in the process, but could not help noticing that the opposite seemed to be happening: a proliferation of nation states. The United Nations Organisation started some twenty-five years ago with some sixty members; now there are more than twice as many, and the number is still growing.
An economist by training and pursuit, Schumacher worked for decades as the Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board and as the President of The Soil Association (Britain’s largest organic farming organization).
In a professional capacity, Schumacher studied and advised industries where aggregation of production, distribution, even pricing were fomenting the nature of historically small/individual entities (and his influence continues today).
I was brought up on the theory of the ‘economics of scale’ – that with industries and firms, just as with nations, there is an irresistible trend, dictated by modern technology, for units to become ever bigger. Now, it is quite true that today there are more large organisations and probably also bigger organisations than ever before in history; but the number of small units is also growing and certainly not declining in countries like Britain and the United States, and many of these small units are highly prosperous and provide society with most of the really fruitful new developments. Again, it is not altogether easy to reconcile theory and practice.
While Schumacher clearly understood and probably personally advocated Berry’s wisdom in the value of parts in economic systems, it was difficult to “reconcile theory and practice.’
In practice aggregation became key to the success of companies, cities, educational systems, banking systems and the very nation-state itself in terms of delivering goods and services to more people.2
Although many issues of pursuing ‘economies of scale’ abound (like low marginal quality and inconsistencies) the main failure, argues Schumacher, is its flaw of impermanence.
From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence. We must study the economics of permanence. Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be ‘growth’ towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth. It is more than likely, as Gandhi said, that ‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed’.
Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitude which rejoices in the fact that ‘what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us’.
Of course technology has lengthened the stride of development and held off impermanence but it cannot forever. The boundaries of new, bigger, better are being met everywhere and gigantism sags under its own weight and hollow promise.
No longer an idol, gigantism is an aged figure of the past.
And yet, What was true when Small is Beautiful first appeared in 1973, is resoundingly true today. The constant upsweep into more and more and aggregation of things and this cloying desperation we all feel to hold things together against all the forces of chaos.
I love Pema Chödrön’s advice in When Things Fall Apart; essentially, let them fall apart and love the pieces as they lay. Rebecca Solnit’s study of human intervention and compassion in the face of disaster proved in times of crisis, people return to the smallest kernel of who they are and what they expect from one another.
Do not contextualize Small is Beautiful by the political cannon of issues du jour. It does not neatly fit into arguments for or against capitalism, for example. Rather, look at the concepts anew: a value system that values of permanence more than power or reach of achievement. Permeance achieved through balance.
What I wish to emphasise is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer. For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive. Yet people find it most difficult to keep two seemingly opposite necessities of truth in their minds at the same time. They always tend to clamour for a final solution, as if in actual life there could ever be a final solution other than death. For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness-where this applies. (If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction.)
Schumacher is a seeker of something unseen and when he elsewhere sought the unknowable “x” factor that makes us human, in Small is Beautiful he seeks something here greater than prosperity or even life itself. That thing is wisdom. Read Schumacher alongside my proposed adoration of the small, in particular our other-worldly insects that in a bizarre way return us to ourselves, Thoreau’s meandering ode to walking as freedom (each individual step sets one free) and this study of how human thinking exercises its most vital substance piece by piece.