Tag Archives: Scale

Consumerism: Disease or Religion?

The book (which was originally a series on PBS) Affluenza uses the metaphor of disease to try and understand the modern world, in particular the consumerism of North American culture. Following this metaphor the book is divided into three sections: symptoms, causes and treatments. Among other things the book is a pretty amazing compilation of interesting facts and statistics about our consumer lifestyles.

I have used the metaphor of religion to describe consumerism. Even though disease is the prevailing metaphor throughout this book, the authors also see the spiritual aspects of the consumer religion. I would like to share some of the statistics, quotes and insights I found most interesting and try to connect them to the idea of consumerism as a religion.

Shopping Fever Shopping is certainly the primary activity of the consumer religion, and the first symptom of the affluenza disease. Numbers and statistics about how much we buy and spend are staggering, but this one in particular really stood out.

In 1986 America still had more high schools than shopping centers. In less than twenty years later, we have more than twice as many shopping centers (46,438) as high schools (22,180). (13)

This book was published in 2005. So, I’m not sure how the financial crisis has affected these numbers if at all, but I would guess that it hasn’t improved much. The authors then make this astute observation, “In the Age of Affluenza…shopping centers have supplanted churches as a symbol of cultural values” (13). Perhaps some more detailed cultural anthropology would need to be done to prove this assertion, but it certainly rings true. Nevertheless, we tend to view shopping malls as economic rather than cultural symbols. Are these our modern temples, synagogues, mosques or churches? We certainly spend more time there than at centers of worship.

Chronic Congestion It is clear that we buy more stuff than we need. Whenever we move into a bigger house, because we’re running out of space, instead of enjoying the extra space we buy more stuff until we have to either move to an even larger house or perhaps turn to the burgeoning self-storage industry.

There are now more than 30,000 self-storage facilities in the country, offering over 1.3 billion square feet of relief…The industry has expanded fortyfold since the 1960s, from virtually nothing to $12 billion annually, making it larger than the U.S. music industry. (32)

This fact blew my mind. When you think about the biggest corporations, industries and big money, do you think of self-storage? Certainly not. The music industry would certainly be higher on most people’s list. Yet the numbers don’t lie. If consumerism is a religion, perhaps self-storage is the place where we put our holy objects. We have “set apart” these spaces for our stuff and made it so important that this industry can thrive.

The Stress of Excess The amount of extra stuff we have also comes with a certain burden.

We thought the opposite was supposed to be true: that advances in technology, automation, cybernation, were supposed to give us more leisure time and less working time…In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcomittee heard testimony that estimated a workweek of from fourteen to twenty-two hours by the year 2000. We got the technology, but we didn’t get the time. [quoting Staffan Linder, Swedish economist, warning about the “harried leisure class”] “Economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time. As the volume of consumption goods increases in the scarcity of time, requirements for the care and maintenance of these goods also tends to increase, we get bigger houses to clean, a car to wash, a boat to put up for the winter, a television set to repair, and have to make more decisions on spending.” (41)

It seems that our economic indicators and measurements don’t account very well for this scarcity. Certainly we like to say that time is valuable and people should be compensated for their time, but it doesn’t seem that the effects of this lack of time are accounted for. In religion time is set aside for particular holy days, where other activities, like economics, are set aside. More and more, however, the consumer religion encroaches on these sacred times. Sundays are no longer set aside for Christians, and when other religions request space for Sabbath or prayer practices, it is mighty inconvenient for the consumer culture which does not recognize these as viable activities.

Family Convulsions The effects on the family of this lack of time and emphasis on stuff seems obvious to me, but we have come to live with these contradictions. The authors point in particular how conservatives embody such cintradictions.

“The contradiction between wanting rapid economic growth and dynamic economic change and at the same time wanting family values, community values, and stability is a contradiction so huge that it can only last because of an aggressive refusal to think about it.” (52 quoting former Reagan administration official with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Edward Luttwak)

Social Scars The disease of affluenza has social and global implications. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World and former business professor at Stanford and Harvard, worked for Harvard Business School, Ford Foundation and USAID in Africa, Asia and Central America says,

“My career was focused on training business executives to create the equivalent of our high consumption economy in countries throughout the world. The whole corporate system in the course of globalization is increasingly geared up to bring every country into the consumer society. And there is a very strong emphasis on trying to reach children, to reshape their values from the very beginning to convince them that progress is defined by what they consume.” (87)

This is what the church calls spiritual formation and involves catechism, bible study, confirmation classes or other forms of discipleship. This man is what the church calls “missionaries”. His mission is the mirror image of evangelism efforts by missionaries in foreign contexts. He is seeking to make converts in the developing world, saving their souls by selling them the American Dream.

It seems crucial to me to understand that this kind of “education” takes place in order to spread the gospel of consumerism and it functions in the same way religious instruction does (or any other form of ideological education or indoctrination). I confess that religious education is propaganda, in much the same way that David Korten describes his work spreading consumerism. The difference is between destructive and healthy or constructive ideologies.

Resource Exhaustion I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing this topic. So, I will just share two of the statistics that struck me.

Dividing the planet’s biologically productive land and sea by the number of humans…[we] come up with 5.5 acres per person. That’s if we put nothing aside for all other species. “In contrast,” says [Swiss engineer Mathis] Wackernagel. “the average world citizen used 7 acres in 1996…That’s over 30 percent more than we can regenerate. Or in other words, it would take 1.3 years to regenerate what humanity uses in one year.” (96)

More than 20,000 species go extinct every year causing many scientists to proclaim that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction and the largest extinction in the planet’s history. (98)

Industrial Diarrhea I just really liked this phrase. The chapter is about the waste that industry produces.

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed The fact that rates of depression and anxiety disorders continue to grow exponentially should be a sign to us that something is wrong, but instead we simply medicate the problems so we can function in a sick society.

Psychologist Richard Ryan points to scores of studies–his own among them–showing that material wealth does not create happiness… In the human species, happiness comes from achieving intrinsic goals like giving and receiving love. Extrinsic goals like monetary wealth, fame, and appearance are surrogate goals, often pursued as people try to fill themselves up with “outside-in” rewards. (115)

Isn’t this the goal of most people? To be happy? Isn’t this why we pursue the consumer religion (or any religion, ideology or system of belief)? To find meaning and fulfillment? So, if it obviously doesn’t work, then why do we keep doing it? While results are not everything when it comes to religion, I think it’s worth asking if what we’re doing or believing is producing the actual results we want. This is not about efficiency, but integrity. In a world so saturated by media and advertising the most difficult task may be to actually identify what it actually is that we want. Then we can begin to deconstruct the siren call of consumerism as something that fails to meet any of our most basic human needs.

Small Is Beautiful: Organization and Ownership

The final section of E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful continues his critique of the economic system by scrutinizing the concept of ownership. He also gives real world examples of the ways he imagines an alternative arrangement of the economy working out.

Systems are never more nor less than incarnations of man’s most basic attitudes. Some incarnations, indeed, are more perfect than others. (263)

I think this insight touches on something very deep and basic about our systems, institutions and organizations. I agree that a system is more than the sum of the individuals that make up that system. There is something more at work in the organizations and institutions that we have created. In a very real sense they take on a life of their own. This is what Rauschenbusch referred to as “social sin” which needed a “social gospel”.

However, Schumacher reminds us that these organizations, even while having a life of their own beyond the individuals that constitute them, also are a reflection of the “basic attitudes” of those human beings that created them. It’s easy to just blame individuals for practicing “bad capitalism” or “bad Marxism” and try and maintain the system as something holy and perfect that is untouchable by the errors of our ways. No, the system is a product of our own attitudes towards the world and each other. If some “are more perfect than others”, then it only reflects the better parts of our nature. We should refrain from making idols of systems, because, if we do, Schumacher’s insight reveals that we are making idols and creating God in our own image.

The basis of the capitalist system is clearly the concept of private property. We have discussed this concept in some depth on this blog, but Schumacher has some helpful insights to add.

As regards private property, the first and most basic distinction is between (a) poperty that is an aid to creative work [the private property of the working proprietor] and (b) property that is an alternative to it [the private property of the passive owner who lives parasitically on the work of others]…[quoting R.H. Tawney] “it is idle to present a case for or against private property without specifying the particular form of property to which reference is made.”…It is immediately apparent that in this matter of private ownership the question of scale is decisive. When we move from small-scale to medium-scale, the connection between ownership and work already becomes attenuated; private enterprise tends to become impersonal and also a significant social factor in the locality; it may even assume more than local significance. (263-264)

Schumacher’s thesis, eloquently summed up in the title of his book, is that the scale of things matters. He argues that scale fundamentally distorts the concept and meaning of private property, particularly in terms of relationships, between owners and workers, between owners and property and between the both and their labor. Perhaps one way of describing large-scale capitalism is “extractive capitalism”. This form of economic activity depends not only on the extraction and exploitation of natural resources, but on the extraction of labor from individuals in order to prop up the absentee owner who passively profits from their labor. This, according to Schumacher, is a necessary result of the scale of the economic enterprise.

Just to be fair, Schumacher also points out the problems with the socialist version of large-scale enterprise, nationalization.

In general small enterprises are to be preferred to large ones. Instead of creating a large enterprise by nationalisation…and then attempting to decentralise power and responsibility to smaller formations, it is normally better to create semi-autonomous small units first and then to centralise certain functions at a higher level, if the need for better coordination can be shown to be paramount. (270-271)

While it would be a stretch to call Schumacher an anarchist, the emphasis on small, decentralized units fits within the realm of anarchist thinking and ideas. The anarchist would go further in requiring these small units to be autonomous, whereas Schumacher certainly still sees some role for a centralized authority. Regardless this emphasis on small decentralized units works for the strange bedfellows of both anarchist and libertarian thinking. I appreciate that Schumacher points out that both capitalism and socialism tend toward large centralized authority.

Schumacher uses the example of Scott Bader Co., Ltd. to flesh out some of these ideas. The owner has chosen to forgo the possibility of greater wealth to form a business that is organized and owned by the workers.

“In truth, ownership has been replaced by specific rights and responsibilities in the administration of assets.” (279)

Like other worker-owned cooperatives, this arrangement fundamentally shifts the nature of property and ownership. Rather than the right to simple possession of an object, this arrangement defines ownership in terms of “rights and responsibilities”. This relates to our previous conversations about the biblical concept of ownership and property, and the idea that ownership has more to do with stewardship and right relationship (tsedekah) to material things, including the earth and other human beings. If this other arrangement shifts the relationship of owner to worker and both to material goods, it begs the question what constitutes the nature of the previous arrangement.

Excessive wealth, like power, tends to corrupt. Even if the rich are not “idle rich,” even when they work harder than anyone else, they work differently, apply different standards, and are set apart from common humanity. They corrupt themselves by practising greed, and they corrupt the rest of society by provoking envy. (279)

There is a basic assumption here that the divide between rich and poor itself produces an inequality in relationship that produces a corruption on both sides that is the cause of all kinds of injustice. Can rich and poor be friends? Those who believe religiously in the holiness of the capitalist system might argue that economic inequality between human beings does not create a fundamental division. I, with Schumacher, would argue that this divide is the source of corruption of both rich and poor, producing both greed and envy, a dangerous combination indeed.

Schumacher considers the famous words of Jesus in Matthew 6 with an interesting twist of interpretation.

It is becoming apparent that there is not only a promise but also a threat in those astonishing words about the kingdom of God [Matthew 6:33]–the threat that ‘unless you seek first the kingdom, these other things, which you also need, will cease to be available to you.” (294)

I had never considered the antithesis of these words of Jesus. In light of Schumacher and others insistence on the economy’s dependence on our natural resources, it is clear that when things are not rightly ordered the promise can also become a curse. While human beings have created many different systems to order our lives, from feudalism to capitalism, communism and socialism as well as totalitarianism, democracy, oligarchy and corporatocracy, there are other systems beyond our control and creation which judge the validity of our arrangements, though on a time scale we tend to ignore. I’ll conclude, as Schumacher does, with this thought along those lines.

It is of little use trying to suppress terrorism if the production of deadly devices continues to be deemed a legitimate employment of man’s creative power. Nor can the fight against pollution be successful if the patterns of production and consumption continue to be of a scale, a complexity, and a degree of violence which, as is becoming more and more apparent, do not fit into the laws of the universe, to which man is just as much subject as the rest of creation. (295)

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.

Small Is Beautiful: The Modern World

Not only is small beautiful, but old is beautiful too (see Old is the New New). Schumacher wrote his classic Small is Beautiful in 1975, but it still rings true and continues to speak prophetically to our modern context. His book is divided into four sections: 1) The Modern World 2) Resources 3) Development and 4) Organization and Ownership. I love a series of posts. So, I will take each section in turn. The first section attempts to describe the state of our modern world in economic terms, but also in terms of meaning and values. This first quote, I think, sums up Schumacher general view of our modern economic system and the world it creates.

From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is 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…The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace…Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war. (33)

As you can see, Schumacher take a wide lens to the effects of our economics, and, I think, accurately describes the cause of conflicts as economic. I don’t think Schumacher or I intend to reduce conflicts to solely economic causes, but it is clear that ethnic, religious or cultural differences are exacerbated where there are conflicts over resources, perceived needs, distribution of wealth or other economic inequalities. The idea that growth and needs can expand infinitely continually creates conflict as it runs up against the walls of limitations due to natural resources, population pressures and unequal distribution of wealth and resources. As I have said before, we must understand the purpose, or end, toward which we desire our economic system to lead us and compare it to the actual trajectory of the course we’re on. Schumacher points out this quote from Lord Keynes, of Keynesian economics, on how the ends justify the means.

“But beware!” he continued. “The time for all this is not yet. For at least a hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.” (24)

It seems silly to me, and perhaps you, that this way of thinking gains any traction and is followed by intelligent men and women, much less the leaders of governments, corporations, etc. Yet, this thinking seems to dominate our economics and our imaginations. “The rising tide of globalization will lift all boats.” This future paradise that our economists continue to promise, if we will just follow their advice, buying more stuff, and going further into debt, is an ever-fading horizon that moves further away as we approach. The means must be congruent with the ends if we have any hope of reaching our goal. If we want peace, we must use the tools of peace, not of violence. If we want economic equality, then we cannot live based on fundamental inequalities. If we want sustainability, then we must begin to act, consume and live in a way that “can be projected without running into absurdities”.

Part of the picture Schumacher paints of our world is one in which we have misunderstood in very basic ways what this life is, indeed, about.

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 abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul.'” (37)

As a Christian, you often hear overtones of Schumacher’s faith in his writing (though one famous chapter in this book is titled “Buddhist Economics”). In our economy work is the means to the end of weekends, vacations and retirement, where we seem to believe real, authentic life is lived. An alternative perspective (and a biblical one) is to see creative, productive work as part of what makes us human. When work is degrading, detached from the product and mechanical, whether it’s in a factory or a cubicle, it detracts from our humanity. In our hyper-capitalist world the entrepreneur is one of the most celebrated individuals. Yet the conditions for people to be entrepreneurs are kept at a minimum. They are the exceptions that keep alive the dream that our lives and work can be productive and meaningful in this system. The truth is that they are the exceptions and the cubicle, the assembly line, the fields and the mines are the rule for the great majority of humanity. Schumacher quotes Dorothy Sayers along these lines,

“War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe…Never think that wars are irrational catastrophes: they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.” (37)

The idea that wars and conflicts are the result of forces extraneous to the system, that they are anomalies, allows us to continue perpetuating the system that is the cause of these conflicts. Our modern world is built on systems in direct conflict with nature, human and non-human. We are getting the results, violence, conflict, inequality, etc. that the system is designed to get. I know I often sound all doom and gloom, but I do recognize that where values like democracy (or even better consensus), human dignity, individual rights and the kind of wisdom Schumacher mentioned above are upheld, honored and practiced we have seen great strides toward the kind of world envisioned by the Bible, most world religions and many great thinkers of justice, equality, happiness and meaningful existence. I just believe that these have been bright spots in spite of the system of exploitation, extraction and oppression to which we have become so accustomed.

If a buyer refused a good bargain because he suspected that the cheapness of the goods in question stemmed from exploitation or other despicable practices (except theft), he would be open to the criticism of behaving “uneconomically,” which is viewed as nothing less than a fall from grace…The religion of economics has its own code of ethics, and the First Commandment is to behave ‘economically’…To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price.” (45)

While there are certainly other factors at play in shaping our modern world, it seems clear to me that economics has succeeded in establishing itself as the trump card, as Schumacher claims in this quote. While many of us long for more than just a job at an individual level, on a government level (community,local, regional, state, federal and international) are made with economics as the primary criteria and motivator. We would look down on any governing body that used other priorities or criteria. In other words, we believe that the other values and priorities we have (family, faith, meaning, time, education, etc.) are best served by putting the value of economics and development first. Surveys and statistics paint a very different picture. The more our economy has grown and the wealthier we have become in the United States the less time we have for these other activities that we claim to value.

There are ways in which economics tries to incorporate aspects of value and meaning outside of the usual parameters of profit and loss statements. Schumacher has this to say about such cost/benefit analysis, “In fact, however, it is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price.” (46) In other words, what is beyond and higher than economics is absorbed into the values and parameters of economics and thereby reduced to the level of economics where it does not pose a threat or dictate to economics the way that things should be ordered. If economics is not an end, but rather a means, then this is exactly the reverse of the way it should be. Economics must be made to serve our values and vision of the way the world should be.

Finally, I think Schumacher admirably deconstructs dualisms that continue to perpetuate dichotomous rather than more holistic ways of thinking about human needs and values.

We always need both freedom and order. We need the freedom of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity of mankind and base our actions upon this recognition. (65)

This way of thinking provides a foundation for future vision based on human needs and ecological limitations. It also breaks through some of the arguments about scale (which is particularly interesting from a book titled Small is Beautiful). Schumacher’s point seems to be that there is a proper place for large-scale thinking and names it, the problems of peace and ecology that humanity faces as a whole. In terms of organizing our lives together (which is the realm of economics) we need the freedom of smallness to adapt and connect in the ways in which we are wired. (I wonder how social networking affects the evolutionary reality of the limited connections our brains are able to make and maintain which Malcolm Gladwell puts at about 150 in The Tipping Point.) I believe the idea that there is a proper space for both large-scale and small-scale thinking is helpful in reaching a way forward. Our problems stem in large part from confusing the proper space for each way of thinking and organizing.

This naturally transitions to an understanding of our human and non-human resources, their nature and limitations, which is the subject of the second part of Schumacher’s book.