Small Is Beautiful: Resources

I ended the first post on E.F. Schumacher’s classic text Small is Beautiful considering his deconstruction of our dualistic ways of thinking. In his section “Resources” he continues this theme grounding his work in the idea that economics is a means that must be beholden to higher values and ideas which guide and shape it. His illustration of this idea is illuminating,

“the nature of our thinking is such that we cannot help thinking in opposites…The typical problems of life are insoluble on the level of being on which we normally find ourselves. How can one reconcile the demands of freedom and discipline in education? Countless mothers and teachers, in fact, do it, but no one can write down a solution. They do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended–the power of love.” (97)

The question is how to bring into the situation of our current context a higher level force that can bring reconciliation to what we typically experience as diametrically opposed. For the religious this sounds somewhat like the vague divine language favored by Alcoholics Anonymous, but for the non-religious it sounds equally foreign and exclusive. Some of my friends like to claim that religion is the problem. Other fundamentalists might see a coming one world religion as the problem. I think they are both right, but neither sees consumerism as the one-world religion at the heart of the problem. Our solutions must be able to incorporate the whole of humanity, while maintaining and honoring the diversity within that whole. I believe what Schumacher is describing is a basic reality of human existence, regardless of how it is formulated by either the religious or non-religious. Our discomfort with the modern world is a symptom of the absence of this higher level force at work in our lives, relationships and societies.

It seems that this first diatribe is a tangent from the topic of resources, but I think that it is actually these higher level resources of love and values that transcend our tendency to think in opposites that is most needed. If we view the world without these resources it becomes easier to exploit nature or human beings or to dehumanize those we see as the exploiters. In this way both conservatives and liberals, capitalists and environmentalists find themselves subject to the same problem of dualistic thinking. The problems faced in Appalachia are a perfect illustration of this problem.

Tobacco farming and mining are the two main industries in the region. On one side you have a system that has made tobacco farming and mining the most profitable things to do in this region. Infrastructure, subsidies and numerous other factors have made these industries embedded in Appalachia. On the other side you have the environmentalists who deplore both industries. They attempt to stop the destructive practice of mountain top mining and the production of a raw material which causes the deaths of millions of Americans every year. In the middle are the people whose lives are dependent on these industries, the farmers and miners. For the most part, the environmentalists and capitalists simply ignore the people in the middle and hash out their ideological battles on cable news without solutions that are actually beneficial and possible to implement.

Schumacher goes further in peeling back the layers of our perspective on natural resources. He poses a more basic question about the nature of agriculture and industry.

The question arises of whether agriculture is, in fact, an industry, or whether it might be something essentially different. Not surprisingly, as this is a metaphysical–or metaeconomic–question, it is never raised by economists…The ideal of industry is the elimination of living substances. Man-made materials are preferable to natural materials, because we can make them to measure and apply perfect quality control. Man-made machines work more reliably and more predictably than do such living substances as men…In other words, there can be no doubt that the fundamental ‘principles’ of agriculture and of industry, far from being compatible with each other, are in opposition. Real life consists of the tensions produced by the incompatibility of opposites, each of which is needed…It remains true, however, that agriculture is primary, whereas industry is secondary, which means that human life can continue without industry, whereas it cannot continue without agriculture. (110-11)

In the case of Appalachia, both tobacco farming and mining, though producers of primary raw commodities, must be considered industries, because they are in truth not necessary. Nobody needs to smoke or make things from minerals the way that we need to eat. Even as we have attempted to create an “industrial agriculture” built on the principles stated above, conforming lifeforms to rigid standards of appearance and size, and the increased mechanization and synthetic basis of growing food, Mother Nature continues to defy our attempts to impose an industrial way of thinking. It turns out that this industrialization of agriculture into monocultures creates problems by selectively breeding super-pests, super-weeds and, in CAFOs, super-diseases. The agribusiness industry then turns to these same methods and ways of thinking to try and simply produce new and better chemicals, genetically modified organisms and better antibiotics, instead of recognizing that the problem is that agriculture is “something essentially different” than industry. It must be understood on its own terms if there is any hope of finding ways to live on this planet that do not continue to point the loaded pistol of our own intellects at our proverbial feet.

While the picture often seems bleak, even in Schumacher’s 1975 tome, there are rays of hope that with shifts in our thinking we will be able to harness the powers of economics, industry and technology in ways that can benefit us.

I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction…We might remind ourselves that to calculate the cost of survival is perverse. No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worthwhile: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear. (159)

Again, we need a reorientation of things around their proper order and relationship. This reminds me of Augustine’s concept of the proper ordering of everything in creation. William Cavanaugh draws on Augustine, as well, to deconstruct our consumer religion in his book Being Consumed. Augustine claimed that we could only properly relate to everything else in creation when our love was properly ordered in God. Then we could rightly see resources, property, possessions and people through the eyes of our first love, God. In Augustine’s logic, it also rightly places human beings as the small, insignificant creatures that we are. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” This serves to dethrone the idol of “giantism” that is what many theologians throughout Christian history considered the original and origin of sin, pride, the idea that we could become gods and transcend the limits of our creaturely nature. This right ordering then leads us to also recognize the role of technology and economics to serve humanity, as well as the planet. Only with this rightly ordered way of thinking can we create a future that is sustainable.

The key that Schumacher and others point to is “the imagination and an abandonment of fear”. I often hear the argument that capitalism and democracy are the “best that we’ve got.” I’m not saying we should tear up the “best we’ve got” tomorrow, throw it in the fire and start over, but this kind of argument belies how captive our imaginations are to the current system and the fear that holds the status quo in place. The greatest leaps forward in human history have been from people that went against prevailing ways of thinking and questioned our assumptions. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the next leap forward will force us to return to some of the lessons we previously learned (and are continuing to learn) about things like nature, evolution and ecosystems. My hope is that this next leap forward is not one of a linear progression, in which technology like artificial intelligence just makes more of the same way of life possible, but a radical shift in the understanding of what life is and means.


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