Small is Beautiful - E.F. Schumacher

Small is BeautifulI 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.

Steve Unwin
August 2010