E. F. Schumacher buddhist economics

Who could imagine that young people, charmed by notions of small-scale farming, homesteading, and alternative energy, would find themselves attracted to the philosophy of an old man who did some of his most remarkable work as Chief Economic Advisor to Britain’s National Coal Board?

Who would think that such a man, someone who wore three-piece suits and stalked the halls of power, would eventually become famous for promulgating a credo called “Buddhist Economics”?  That he would be adored and remembered for developing technologies to scale work down to human size?  That a foundation in his name would champion communal land-use and community-based organic farming?

When I first arrived at Emerson College, in Sussex, England, to study bio-dynamic farming and gardening, I was invited to a ceremony.  The group was small.  The day was grey and chilly.  I knew no one there apart from my husband, though the assembled few would be my classmates for the coming semester.  We stood encircling a tree.  It was a new little tree with fencing around it to keep deer away.  It was being dedicated to E. F. Schumacher, who had encouraged the Emerson gardening program, and especially its newest component, of which I was to be a part – the Rural Development Program, aimed at small-scale sustainable agriculture for villages in the Third World.  So though the ceremony was modest, the attendees few, and the skies cloudy, it was an august and significant moment.

I was told by our course director that we were commemorating Schumacher’s life by doing what he suggested: everyone, he said, can plant at least one tree.  If I took away anything else from Emerson – blisters, a knitted wool cap, a pair of muddy wellies – that was a small plus.  But what I gained in my life from the teaching of E. F. Schumacher is enduring: a set of truths about how we can better live.

E. F. Schumacher Small is Beautiful

Once introduced to the writings of Schumacher in general, I devoured them in detail.  His best-known book is Small Is Beautiful – Economics as Though People Mattered.  It’s an alluring title and the ideas in it are revolutionary, in a sane, healing way.  It has been translated into 27 languages and in 1995 the London Times Literary Supplement cited it as one of the hundred most influential books written after World War II.

Another of his essay collections is A Guide for the Perplexed.  We are perplexed, aren’t we?  We find it hard to make right choices, always wanting to act in a way that is moral, simple and practical yet seeing so many divergent opinions about what that means, and experiencing so much confusion about the possible outcomes of our actions.

The third widely published collection is Good Work, something we are all concerned with, especially now when many people may be thinking, “It’s just good to have work!” – but is it?

I drew so much sustenance from Schumacher’s views, especially on the thorny issue of “good work” – that I am sometimes surprised that so few people have heard of him.  But his way was always quiet, even serene – so much so that when he died of heart failure on a train the policeman who was called to the scene said the old man looked so orderly and composed it was as if he was prepared for the moment.  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to go?

E. F. Schumacher

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, known as Fritz, passed away in 1977 (the Emerson tree was planted in 1980).  He was born in Germany and lived through two world wars in Europe.  He was educated at Oxford and Columbia, and emigrated to England rather than live under the Nazi regime.  He spent some time in an English internment camp where he wrote papers on economic theory in his “spare time” and rather enjoyed the back-breaking work on the farm.  His writings soon drew attention and he was widely quoted, even as he still lived in a barracks far away from academia.  Finally he was drafted to assist in the English war effort and quickly rose to prominence.

In his work for the National Coal Board (1950-1970) he predicted the ascendancy of oil-rich nations and the impracticality of relying on oil as a long-term energy source.  This is one example of Schumacher’s visionary genius.

Since his death, his vision lives on in the Schumacher Society (largely involved with land trusts), Schumacher College in Devon, England, and the Intermediate Technology Development Group, now known as Practical Action, an international charity working on small-scale solutions for Third World farming and industry, as well as for First World scale-downs – everything from bicycle-operated laptops to locally constructed wind pumps.

Despite his position as a highly placed consultant in a huge organization devoted to profit and multi-national power-brokering, Schumacher gradually revealed his anti-materialist nature.  He visited Burma (now known as Myanmar) as part of his job for the Coal Board, and was deeply impressed by Buddhist theology.  He was also a believing Christian, whose core faith was that we are all pilgrims and our lives have purpose.

Because life has purpose, we must work purposefully.  In Small Is Beautiful Schumacher stated, “If a man has no chance of obtaining work he is in a desperate position, not simply because he lacks an income but because he lacks this nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work which nothing can replace.”  Having recently lost my full-time job as a result of downsizing, I can attest to the terrible truth of that assertion.  Yet Schumacher did not applaud wage slavery.  Far from it.  He had a high standard for what constitutes “good work.”

His essay, “Buddhist Economics,” collected in Small Is Beautiful, has emerged as the most enduring of his writings.  In it, Schumacher proposed three essential elements for “good work” based on his observation of life in Burma:

1. It should allow the worker to use and develop his/her talents and abilities to the maximum;

2. It should reduce opportunities for egocentricity by working as part of a team;

3. It should have the goal of producing goods or services that enhance the lives of the workers and others.

Schumacher, being an economist, also articulated ideas about pay.  How much pay is enough?  He believed that a worker should receive sufficient recompense to keep him/her from becoming disgruntled, but not so much that arrogance and dissonance would result.  I used to think that was an odd idea, not so much the first part, which seems sensible, but the latter part.  Why would anyone be upset by earning too much?

Then I had a job (I have had many!) in which for the first and only time, I was overpaid.  My duties were few, my hourly wage was far in excess of what I thought my efforts were “worth,” with the result that I felt vaguely paranoid all the time that someone would discover the truth and I would be fired, even though I was doing exactly what I had been hired to do.  It never happened, but when the job came to a natural end there was a part of me that was glad.  Lucky for me, I suppose, I have yet to be paid that much again!

Schumacher’s worldview posited that all people should have work that enlivens and enlightens them, that harmonizes with leisure rather than being a stark contrast to it.  To the standard economists who argued that stability lies in getting enough labor at a low enough cost to the manufacturer and a just high enough rate of pay to the worker so that all can affordably consume the products of industry, Schumacher, in Small Is Beautiful, declared:

“From a Buddhist point of view, this is standing the truth on its head by considering goods as more important than people and consumption as more important than creative activity.  It means shifting the emphasis from the worker to the product of work, that is, from the human to the subhuman, a surrender to the forces of evil.”

Those are pretty strong words.  They echo with somber resonance in these times of economic downturn, when all of us, I believe, are questioning our economic “worth” and wondering what we would do if we were one of the many to lose our paid occupations.

If these ideas plainly reflect Schumacher’s contact with Buddhism, they also demonstrate Schumacher’s essentially Western respect for order, inspiration, and the force of will.  One suspects that in describing Buddhist economics, he was far ahead of many Buddhist thinkers on that subject:

“Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related.  The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of a relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: ‘Cease to do evil; try to do good.’  As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use.  Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.

“From the point of view of Buddhist economics, therefore, production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale.”

Part of his theory of “economics as if people matter” dealt with the differential between the highest and lowest-paid workers in any company.  Schumacher proposed that the ratio should be no greater than 7:1. If the lowest-paid janitor received $10 per hour, the CEO would receive $100 per hour.  Not bad pay for the CEO, some might consider.

In fact, 7:1 was the ratio used by the founders of Ben and Jerry’s famous ice cream stores.  However, when they sold their chain to mega-corporation Unilever, the ratio rose to 20:1, a giant leap forward for the new management with no comparable improvement for the janitor (and, curiously, it made Ben and Jerry’s stock more risky).  But in light of current practices, 20:1 is still laughably low, with some executives, as we now know, making up to 500 times as much as the cleaning lady.  That’s right – while the cleaning lady can count on a gross pay of $400 per week, the guy whose office she dusts and mops will be taking in a whopping $200,000 a week.

I’m pretty sure Schumacher would have reacted with the same disgust and righteous indignation that we all do when we learn about these kinds of numbers.  Especially when one remembers that many of the CEOs so compensated are failures, running near-bankrupt businesses.

Schumacher believed that no one should be paid too much, that being overpaid would create a sense of moral discomfort (as it did for me).  Lamentably, the CEOs of large industries in America and in the financial sector seem to be able to deal with this dissonance better than I did.

Their consumption of goods and services can be no greater than average – how much food can one person eat, how many times a day can he or she take a taxi or use the internet or turn on the shower?  So what reason can anyone have for earning such vast sums, money that benefits only a handful of other people?  This is not “good work” and we all sense that even if we do not have the words to decry it.  Schumacher would have decried it.  He pointed out in “Buddhist Economics” that it is not material wealth that is wrong, but the craving for it:

“It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them.  The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence.  From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern -amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results.”

This fact is not original to me, but bears repeating in case it isn’t glaringly obvious to my readers: Japan, offering an apparently successful business model for automobile manufacture as compared with the American model that is in disarray and disgrace at present, is a Shinto/Buddhist society.

In his last lecture, Schumacher pointed out that even a huge ship carries lifeboats, and suggested that it is now time that the world begins to build lifeboats to save itself.

Schumacher wanted people trapped in poverty to have buildable, usable technologies that could be operated at a rational speed to perform needed tasks to produce income or food for families and communities.  He envisioned land sharing as a salvation for rural areas where, without some intervention, the land would be lost to agriculture forever.

So there you have it: a brilliant man who could have had a princely salary, could have managed an international financial institution, who chose instead to encourage people to care about their own lives enough to do good work, to divest in complex things and enjoy simple ones, to produce and consume locally – and to build planetary lifeboats, in cooperation with others.  Meditating on the mega-crisis we are facing at this time, I long for the steady confident voice of Fritz Schumacher.

E. F. Schumacher Society

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