Category Archives: Ecologies

Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful

Small is Beautiful By E. F. Schumacher

I read this a number of years ago now, but still it surprised me that it should be written in 1973. Before I was born. I forget just how long Western white folks have known we were hurtling into climate crisis, though I know our indigenous kin have been voicing their warning since Europeans set foot in their ‘new world’ and began the first wave of extinctions and genocide.

This is a book critiquing economics as they are (still are, despite all good sense and years of warning) and providing a vision of economics as they could be. I feel that there are so many people rethinking economics now, writing for popular audiences with books splashed across Waterstones’ tables, that it is almost encouraging. But this analysis of the modern world as Schumacher sees it is still a good place to start, and I’ve been meaning to come back to it for a while.

He begins with the very European separation of man (because it was almost always man after all, and that was always a part of the problem) from nature.

The Problem of Production

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realise what this means for the continued existence of humanity.

The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. (11)

This is already sounding technical, but only because he is translating from the jargon of economics. Capital, by his definition, is easy enough to understand.

To use the language of the economist, it [the problem of production] lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance. Even if some readers should refuse to accept all three parts of my argument, I suggest that any one of them suffices to make my case.

And what is my case? Simply that our most important task is to get off our present collision course. (16)

I haven’t traced the whole of this arguments here. Only wish they had gotten off that collision course. But they did not. Instead economics continues to focus on short term profits, accelerating the collision instead.

From my own work and growth in the environmental justice movement, where we always spoke of thinking forward and working for the good of the next seven generations, this next bit resonates as a completely different way of thinking and being in the world:

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 un limited, 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’.

The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. (26)

And based on this analysis, Schumacher provides a short analysis and list of demands I rather like:

What is it that we really require from the scientists and technologists? I should answer: We need methods and equipment which are

– cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually every one;
– suitable for small-scale application; and
– compatible with man’s need for creativity.

Out of these three characteristics is born non-violence and a relationship of man to nature which guarantees permanence. If only one of these three is neglected, things are bound to go wrong. (27)

And all of this within sustainable limits.

I think what I like most is the humility, the acknowledgment of so much that we do not know and must learn, as well as an acknowledgement of the time and the process of experimentation and reflection to develop that collective knowledge.

There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge, which relies on experiment far more than on understanding. The greatest danger invariably arises from the ruthless application, on a vast scale, of partial knowledge such as we are currently witnessing in the application of nuclear energy, of the new chemistry in agriculture, of transportation technology, and countless other things.

Above anything else there is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul’. (29)

There is a resonance here in thinking about work — as meaningful and creative and life-giving — with work from Marx to William Morris to Ivan llich and Wendell Berry.

It is also a rejection of grandiose utopias and its technological dreamings, both socialist and capitalist alike.

The Role of Economics

Economics plays a central role in shaping the activities of the modern world, inasmuch as it supplies the criteria of what is ‘economic’ and what is ‘uneconomic’, and there is no other set of criteria that exercises a greater influence over the actions of indi viduals and groups as well as over those of governments. (33)

What else could have brought me to economics? The wall we always hit as activists, as Schumacher writes, anything found to impede economic growth is seen as shameful. He writes:

The market therefore represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalisation of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself. (36)

And then critiques this:

To press non-economic values into the framework of the economic calculus, economists use the method of cost/benefit analysis. (37)

because profit always comes out ahead.

Buddhist economics

His solution. I do like Buddhism, but still it bothers me that despite all I love about it, as a major world religion it has been pressed into the service of war, killing, domination as have the others. I like what he has pulled out here:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. (45)

I think perhaps a more secular model such as the Donut Model proposed by Kate Raworth is more useful in the end, but I like thinking through this kind of approach. I also greatly appreciate the final resources he provides in beginning to think through the obstacles to changing how we think, and the ways trasformation might take place. Above all is education:

Economics is being taught without any awareness of the view of human nature that underlies present-day economic theory. In fact, many economists are themselves unaware of the fact that such a view is implicit in their teaching and that nearly all their theories would have to change if that view changed. (77)

What is needed? Work around, and a rethinking of current logics, i the following areas. A great list of all that continues to be key to doing all we can now, at this late date in the face of catastrophe.

  • The Proper Use of Land (I write way too much about this already, obviously the resonances with permaculture and work around land reform are multiple)
  • Resources for Industry

I have already alluded to the energy problem in some of the earlier chapters. It is impossible to get away from it. It is impossible to overemphasise its centrality. It might be said that energy is for the mechanical world what consciousness is for the human world. If energy fails, everything fails. (101)

  • Nuclear Energy

What matters, as I said, is the direction of research, that the direction should be towards non-violence rather than violence; towards an harmonious co-operation with nature rather than a warfare against nature; towards the noiseless, low-energy, elegant, and economical solutions normally applied in nature rather than the noisy, high energy, brutal, wasteful, and clumsy solutions of our present-day sciences. (119)

  • Technology with a Human Face

As Gandhi said, the poor of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production by the masses. The system of mass production, based on sophisticated, highly capital. intensive, high energy-input dependent, and human labour-saving technology, presupposes that you are already rich, for a great deal of capital investment is needed to establish one single workplace. The system of production by the masses mobilises the priceless resources which are possessed by all human beings, their clever brains and skilful hands, and supports them with first-class tools. The technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and stultifying for the human person. The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralisation, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines. I have named it intermediate technology to signify that it is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler. cheaper, and freer than the super-technology of the rich. One can also call it self-help technology, or democratic or people’s tech nology – a technology to which everybody can gain admittance and which is not reserved to those already rich and powerful. (128)

The whole point is to determine what constitutes progress. And the home-comers believe that the direction which modern technology has taken and is continuing to pursue – towards ever-greater size, ever-higher speeds, and ever increased violence, in defiance of all laws of natural harmony – is the opposite of progress. Hence the call for taking stock and finding a new orientation. The stocktaking indicates that we are destroying our very basis of existence, and the reorientation is based on remembering what human life is really about. (131)

  • The Third World — Here it is clear we have come so far in post-colonial thought, particularly decolonialization, though implementing that is a different thing altogether. But de Sousa Santos and Escobar move us so much further along here, especially in thinking about:
  • Development, and work on:
  • Social and Economic Problems Calling for the Development of Intermediate Technology – prioritising help for the poor – to those who need it most. And, of course, understanding and improving the dynamics between urban and rural.

The all pervading disease of the modern world is the total imbalance be tween city and countryside, an imbalance in terms of wealth, power, culture, attraction, and hope. The former has become over-extended and the latter has atrophied. The city has become the universal magnet, while rural life has lost its savour. Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of the rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. The prevailing lack of balance, based on the age-old exploitation of countryman and raw material producer, today threatens all countries through out the world, the rich even more than the poor. To restore a proper balance between city and rural life is perhaps the greatest task in front of modern man. (170)

All requiring the development of new ways of theorising economics, building new forms of collective work and ownership.

  • Organisation and ownership, socialism for its ‘non-economic values and the possibility it creates for the overcoming of the religion of economics‘ (212), private ownership of small-scale enterprise but not large and exploring new forms.

So much has been done since Small is Beautiful was written it is encouraging, each of these avenues has been much further explored and developed. And yet overall? His critique remains as current as ever, even as catastrophe looms.

Schumacher, E.F. ([1973] 1989) Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. London: Abacus.

Arturo Escobar on Development and Discourse

Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development is one of those books that felt like it fundamentally changed how I see things.

Because of this, maybe, I never properly blogged it — I have a PDF full of highlights, bought the book, I flip through seeking key insights and instead get involved again on every page. But I wanted to get a bit down, an overview of argument as I think through some of these ideas for new work of my own (and finishing up a article long overdue). I start with the preface:

THIS BOOK grew out of a sense of puzzlement: the fact that for many years the industrialized nations of North America and Europe were supposed to be the indubitable models for the societies of Asia. Africa, and Latin America, the so-called Third World, and that these societies must catch up with the industrialized countries, perhaps even become like them. This belief is still held today in many quarters.

It is quite puzzling. Sadly it still seems almost as true in 2021 as it did in 1995.

While he calls this a poststructural approach and it focuses in on discourse, he never loses sight of the material. This is one of those works that manages to bring two very different, and often opposing, ways of though together in fruitful and powerful ways. I think maybe Anna Tsing is the last person to so impress me with this alchemy. So to say again what Escobar wishes for this book to be and do:

Continue reading Arturo Escobar on Development and Discourse

A Feminist Green New Deal for Housing

It’s out! Launched into the world! The briefing I just finished for the Women’s Budget Project and Women’s Environmental Network as part of their awesome Feminist Green New Deal project. It focuses on housing and just how transformative it might be to how we live with each other and how we live in the world. All this under the exciting title Rethinking Housing Supply and Design.

A little teaser.

Housing is fundamental to life, security and wellbeing as well as tackling climate change and working towards a zero-carbon future. It also remains a key site of gender and intersectional inequality, with design that does not accommodate diverse needs or care responsibilities, with mortgages and rents out of reach, and a suburban ideal that requires a car for daily living and can isolate women and children in the home. Housing investment as a central part of a Green New Deal (GND) —with a commitment to full funding from central government to ensure costs are never passed on to residents or local communities— would open up an incredible opportunity to centre a new vision of equality and care capable of transforming both landscapes and lives. It would also acknowledge and begin to address the connections between climate crisis and housing crisis, reducing housing’s contribution to the UK’s carbon footprint even as it reverses the rise of homelessness and houses the estimated 8 million people are in housing need.

This paper offers seven recommendations to achieve a gender inclusive and sustainable housing sector:

1. Participatory planning for the future: centring women and others traditionally marginalised

2. Making internal form and design responsive to care work, gender and diversity

3. Improving the materials and fabric of our buildings

4. Developing gender-, community- and climate-responsive site design

5. Improving connection to town, city and region

6. Expanding who builds, installs and maintains housing to non-traditional workers

7. Implementing a right to safe, decent and affordable housing following the most recent UN guidelines, where housing as a home is prioritised over housing as an asset

Read the full policy paper here.

About the Feminist Green New Deal project

The Feminist Green New Deal is bringing a gendered and intersectional approach/perspective to the Green economy/Green Recovery – ensuring that the voices of women, people of colour and other marginalised groups are heard during environmental and political debates.

Through a programme of nationwide grassroots workshops and policy roundtables a Feminist Green New Deal Manifesto will be created and launched at COP26 Glasgow Climate Talks.

This Project is a collaboration between Wen (Women’s Environmental Network) and the Women’s Budget Group (WBG).

Learn more about the project here.

Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

In addition to lists and principles for design, there are these two lovely chapters on architecture in Victor Papanek’s Green Imperative. This book also reminds me how much I love a good epigraph, and that I should use them for everything I write.

Sensing a Dwelling

Think with the whole body.
–Deshimaru

We are born indoors, live, love, bring up our families, worship, work, grow old, sicken and die indoors. Architecture mirrors every aspect of our lives–social, economical, spiritual.
–Eugene Raskin

I think all of my favourite architects talk about the ways architecture affects every sense, and unsurprisingly Papanek argues that we need to pay attention to mood and an environment that supports and develops our sensory abilities.

We need to pay attention to the dimension of light, he mentions Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright – and the light that comes through its canvas sails is indeed quite wonderful.

Continue reading Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

Victor Papanek on the Green Imperative

Victor Papanek, what a legend. Born in Vienna in 1927 (Red Vienna!), he studied at Taliesin West. This was written between 1991 and 1995 and three places, Tanah Lot Temple in Bali, Schumacher College, Dartington and Fundacion Valparaiso Mojacar, Spain. I can’t help but be just a little jealous about that.

Truth be told though, it is Arturo Escobar brought me to Papanek, with his recent work on design as a way of thinking/ theorising/ getting to the pluriverse. So I am newly intrigued by design understood in its broader sense, and this is of course where Papanek has so much to contribute (though to be sure he also excels at the actual design and the making and the details). He likes lists as much as I do, and we start there. He writes that the repertoire of a designer’s skills and talents include:

Continue reading Victor Papanek on the Green Imperative

Urban island futures: Aves In the Fiction of Buckell

I enjoyed Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever. I’m coming to terms with the fact that in these pandemic days of ever growing workload, it’s fine that really I can only read fiction.

This is a solid thriller. I loved the glimpses of history of a part of the world I know too little about and the snarkiness about US dominance and white supremacy. Above all, though, I enjoyed its setting in the world almost certainly extisting in our very near future brought into being by global warming. The porous rock on which Miami is built having permitted its permament flooding — you can read something like Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson for more about this certain future. The hurricanes coming faster and stronger, the swallowing of islands, the flooding of cities. All of those impacts easier to chart, the shifts in geopolitics more difficult to predict.

I quite loved the book’s description of a possible urban future lashed to the rock of La Isla de Aves. This is what the island looks like now:

Isla De Aves photo by Veronidae (CC License) https://thedominican.net/2016/08/claim-to-bird-island.html

There is a nice description of stumbling across the empty sandbar and the startling military installation while sailing in the St Kitts & Nevis Observer, along with some of its history. There is another web page titled: ‘Isla Avis: Don’t Run Into this Island!’ What I loved from Buckell was this imagining of a future city here in such an improbable place, born of a bid for independance from Venezuela, the uniting of the Caribbean and the development of a free trade zone.

A horizontal blotch of a city on stilts, surrounded by more sturdy platforms rising out of the sea on rusted, rotund legs. Some of them oil platforms, moved to create more open space where the sand no longer existed. But later, the floating piers and homes systems had been added to Aves that were commonly found in more and more coastal cities throughout the world.

No one on Aves ever planned to try and keep the roaring seas back. It was a futile gesture. Instead they used the tp of the island peeking up from its submarine mountain range as a base to bolt everything to.

Even the sand around Aves’s pylons was a fiction. The (155) original Aves Island had long since been swallowed by rising seas. The sand had been imported to continue the fiction that Aves Island was still a thing. A physical spit of something that people could continue to threaten a war over, countersue about in courts, and generally get upset about or use.

Twenty thousand people lived out here, naked to the ocean’s power, clinging on stilts to what lay beneath. (156)

Well imagined. Even without such a future, it is rather a fascinating place — a source of guano to the US, Danes hunting eggs, its geographies and very definitions fought over by Venezuela and Dominica, potentially involving the mobilization of pregnant women to bear Venezuelan citizens solidifying this claim to Venezuelan soil. Definitely a thesis in that. This is such a twist on how this past might shape an all-too-near future.

Buckell, Tobias (2014) Hurricane Fever. Del Rey.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

.

Jim Thompson on Verdon Nebraska and farming for the future

Jim Thompson wrote deep, dark, violent, murderous noir, and then sometimes he wrote something very close to a love song to small towns, to farmers, to states like Nebraska that never get much love from anyone at all. At least not in print. Heed the Thunder is a number of things, but this is what I loved about it (not so much like King Blood, which brings these two together in a meditation on frontier and race violence).

This is a glimpse down a street I shall never see, homes I can’t walk into and a mix of architecture and old nostalgias in a place I have never been and a community I can only stretch to understand. A critique of capitalism and its creation of debt and its destruction of the soil. Unexpected, at least to me. A lovely reminder too, of the European traditions of thinking forward to future generations.

The road down which he drove was lined with houses which bore somewhat the same resemblance to each other as children with the same mother but different sires. There were New England houses, rich with gables and shutters; middle-Eastern houses with shingled turrets; porticoed southern houses. There were even one or two houses which showed chinked-in logs in their facades, which were, purely, except for their ambiguous additions, Western.

They were all different, and all alike. Whatever the home state or homeland that had inspired them, necessity and conservatism had forced them into a definite if elastic pattern. Roofs were strong, anchored and angled to defeat the wind. Paint had been applied generously and generously maintained; and colors ran mostly to blue and yellow and brown. Porches were either closed in or adaptable to closing. Foundations were thick and deep, and frequently extended a fractions of an inch outward from the house proper. Like a burial mound, at the rear of each residence was the grassy, cemented, or bricked hump of a cyclone hole. Nothing was flamboyant. To build markedly better than your neighbor was bad taste; it would create talk, arouse envy, and mark you with the mortal sin of extravagance. To build shoddily was as bad. In these close-knit communities, little of the inside and none of the outside of a man’s home was his castle. Erring in judgment, one might remodel or rebuild, but to do so was to repent before a public that would never forget.

To the outsider, the street might appear unchanging, but not to Sherman Fargo. The Methodist preacher’s wife had picked the grapes from her arbor. The gate at the Widow Talley’s place was hanging on one hinge. (Some of these dudes had probably probably worn it out.) Doc Jones was digging– (36)

Beyond his extensive descriptions of architecture and its relation to a small town community? A remarkable grasp of farming, of philosophy, of debt and capitalism, of the destruction of the land that would bring us to where we sit today amidst climate crisis. All of it written into a short dialogue between a German farmer and a salesman.

But I am not like the others, in this way: I do not make a practice of farming from one year to the next… Now, you say next year will be good for wheat. Maybe you are right—”

“It’s my sincere opinion, Mr. Deutsch, that this will be the biggest—”

“So. And maybe you are right. Maybe next year will be bigger, too, and the next, and so on for ten years. I plant wheat for ten years and every year I make big money and what do I have at the end of it? Nothing.”

“Nothing? How do you figure—”

“I would have no farm. The soil would not stand it. Now, you say you are not implying that I should plant wheat fo; ten years, but there is the principle, you see. The temptation to grab the immediate profit. And I cannot farm that way because I know it is wrong. I have a crop-rotation plan, and that is what I go by. That plan extends one hundred and sixty years into the future.”

The salesman so far forgot his tact that he guffawed. Or, perhaps, be believed that the farmer was joking with him.

“A hundred and sixty years!” he laughed. “Why, you won’t even be here then.”

The farmer nodded, slowly, staring at him. “That is right, Mr. Simpson. I will not be here.”

Simpson reddened. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It was just kind of—uh—so funny—”

“Yes, I suppose it is to show any thought for the people of one hundred and sixty years from now—our great grand-children and their children, shall we say.”

“Well, uh—”

“But look at it this way, Mr. Simpson. Suppose I merely plan to exhaust my land during my own and my children lifetime. It will be getting worse and worse all the time we are living from it, will it not? It will not go bad all at once. When we have lived half our lives, we shall only be able to take half as much from it as we could at the beginning.

“I guess you’re right about that.”

“Do you ever read any of the bulletins of the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Simpson?”

“well, sure,” lied the salesman, “I’ve read some of ’em.”

“There is one on dry-land farming in the United States—you should get hold of it. According to this bulletin, the farmer in this country can expect to receive a return on his vestment of about 3 per cent a year. That is from crops, livestock, everything. . .”

Simpson laughed again. He saw no possibility of making a e, and he was getting tired.

“Three per cent!” he scoffed. “Why, Mr. Deutsch, I can ow you farmers right in my territory that cleaned up—.”

“But this is for every year,” the German interrupted, ently. “The average for the bad and the good years. And I think it is a little bit high. It does not sound like a great deal, ut over a period of forty years it amounts to about sixty thousand dollars on an investment such as mine. And in one hundred and sixty years it amounts to almost one quarter of a million dollars—and this land will still be earning its 3 per cent one hundred and sixty years from now. . . But I am getting away from my point. If my land, at its flush, earns only 3 per cent, what will its earnings be over a period of forty years if its life is only that? About 1 per cent, eh—less than enough to exist on. And what will be the position of my children and theirs in this valley?” Simpson put the lines back around his neck and laid his hands to the plow handles. “I’ve certainly enjoyed this talk,” he declared. “I think it’s about time I was getting back to town, though.” Deutsch smiled, then laughed openly. (136-137)

He called and they came into the mirror of the window, seemingly fighting for remembrance even as he fought to remember them. They came brashly and shy, swaggering and halting and prissing, laughing, smiling, frowning, grimacing. Good, bad, and indifferent: the real people, the people of the land. And then they were gone, the last of them; and as he burned them forever into his memory, he pressed his face against the window and fought to hold the land:

The land. The good land, the bad land, the fair-to-middling land, the beautiful land, the ugly land, the homely land, the kind and hateful land; the land with its tall towers, its great barns, its roomy houses, its spring-pole wells, its shabby sheds, its dugouts; the land with its little villages and towns, its cities and great cities, its blacksmith shops and factories, its one-room schools and colleges; the honky land, the Rooshan land, the German land, the Dutch and Swede land, the Protestant and Catholic and Jewish land: the American land—the land that was slipping so surely, so swiftly, into the black abyss of the night. (297)

Thompson, Jim ([1946] 1991) Heed the Thunder. New York: Black Lizard.

The desert as postmodern metaphor

Think of how the desert gets turned into metaphor in postmodern rhetoric where it functions as the place of origins, endings and hard truths: the place at the end of the world where all meanings and values blow away; the place without landmarks that can never be mapped; the place where nothing grows and nobody stays put. Radically different desert cultural traditions, precise indigenous knowledges about particular wilderness ecologies get subsumed beneath the definite article — the desert as globalized prediction of what, it’s being implied, is really waiting for us out there in the future (275).

Hebdige, Dick (1993) ‘Training some thoughts on the future’ p 270-279 in Bird et al (eds) mapping the futures: local cultures, global change. London and New York: Routledge.