Greening Technology: E.F. Schumacher’s small book with big ideas

“When I first began to travel the world, visiting rich and poor countries alike, I was tempted to formulate the first law of economics as follows: ‘The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.’

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

At a recent promotional event for the forthcoming iPhone 7, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, promised we would wonder how we’d ‘ever lived without’ the device. It’s the kind of hype we’ve come to expect from Apple, confident in their phenomenally successful global brand and meticulous design approach.

But the statement also captures beautifully the tensions and contradictions at the heart of our modern, seemingly ‘technology driven’ society.

Frustratingly though the debate around this core issue appears to have become polarised between ‘neo-Luddites’ and ‘Transhumanists’, the former highly sceptical of technological developments, the latter fully embracing them — confident we’re headed for a bright new dawn in human evolution that will finally eradicate all our problems and elevate humanity within reach of the gods.

But the fundamental problem with both positions is technological determinism—on the one hand a reification of technology that endows it with a life of its own, independent of human control; on the other an infatuation with its magical power. If we really want to understand our relationship with technology we need to step back and focus on what makes life meaningful — and sustainable.

This is where the often overlooked yet engagingly radical thinking of the economist-philosopher E.F. Schumacher can offer so much. His seminal book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, was published in 1973 — the same year Steve Jobs dropped out of college to join a hippie commune (the following year, like so many of his generation, he set out for India in search of ‘enlightenment’, little knowing destiny had other plans). Although on the small side itself, Schumacher’s book quickly became a classic, its lucidly argued, counter-cultural ideas lapped up by many of Jobs’ generation and ilk. Despite the economic focus its content is eclectic and deeply thought-provoking — what Madeleine Bunting, reflecting recently on its enduring relevance, calls a ‘dense mixture of philosophy, environmentalism and economics.’

The central argument in the book is that our modern, industrial-capitalist society is dehumanising and unsustainable. Hence its profound influence on the green movement and the clear political and philosophical tradition linking Schumacher with the 19th century artisanal socialism of William Morris and environmental romanticism of John Ruskin. But perhaps its most interesting aspect is what Schumacher calls ‘Buddhist Economics’. He coined the term in 1955 when travelling in Burma as an economic adviser but the book gave him the framework to expound it. The key pillars of industrial capitalism — ‘growth is good’ and ‘bigger is better’ — are forcefully knocked down, clearing the ground for a simpler, more human-centred and human scale approach to economics and social life.

Schumacher’s direct observations of economies in the ‘Third/Developing World’ had highlighted their poverty and injustice. But they had also revealed a sharp contrast with those of the West, increasingly dominated by large corporations greedily expanding across the globe — what Schumacher calls ‘gigantism’ — at the expense of local communities and the environment. In Burma he saw clearly that small enterprises were the lifeblood of the community — a principle still recognised at least across the political spectrum in the West — and that they were invariably well adapted to local conditions and resources.

His travels also crystallised his thinking on the importance of ‘enoughness’ — materialism can not satisfy our deeper human needs and there are limits to what we can produce and consume without damaging the ecosystems that support life. Hence, Schumacher argues, the aim of any enlightened/ethical economy ought to be to ‘obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption’. Indeed this philosophy has been applied directly in the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan with its policy of pursuing Gross National Happiness as opposed to the Gross Domestic Product that conventionally defines economic performance in the wider global economy.

Fundamental to Schumacher’s thinking on how to organise the alternative economy was what he termed ‘intermediate technology’, now better known in the green movement as ‘appropriate technology’. In addition to being small scale and human-focused this is labour-intensive, decentralised, locally controlled, and of course energy efficient and environmentally sound. If there’s one technology that has come to symbolise the ‘appropriate’ approach it’s the bicycle: a marvellously low-tech and efficient ‘mobility machine’. Little wonder that it was once voted (sorry Apple) the ‘greatest invention of all time’ in a poll of newspaper readers.

We shall perhaps never know whether Steve Jobs found enlightenment in India. But as media attention focused increasingly on his private life following his company’s stellar success, he certainly made no secret of his Buddhist beliefs. Looked through the lens of Small is Beautiful, the irony needs hardly pointing out. Likewise the ‘business guru’ status Jobs achieved and the hordes of faithful that regularly come to ‘worship at the Apple altar’, especially when an ‘awesome’ new product has come off the production line.

Yet despite the jaw-dropping success of the ‘beautiful’ iPhone and Apple’s other mobile gadgets, there are signs that currently all is not well at the company’s HQ in Cupertino, California, at the heart of Silicon Valley. Sales of the iPhone have dropped significantly in recent months, denting the company’s value, whilst figures for the much-vaunted Apple Watch — the technology that promised to revolutionise our approach to personal organisation, health, and just about everything else — have been disappointing (to business analysts at least even if Apple has put its familiar gloss on the data).

It’s interesting to imagine what Schumacher, who died in 1977, not long after being invited by Jimmy Carter to a meeting in the White House and Apple launched its Macintosh II computer to rave reviews, would have made of Cook’s recent sales pitch and the exponential growth of the company (valued despite the recent slump at over $500 billion). No doubt his scientific mind would have marvelled at Apple’s technology. But it’s safe to assume he would have scorned the seemingly overweening marketing (and environmental) claims.

It’s also probable that, in common with many contemporary thinkers, he would recognise in an instant how the mobile phone (in contrast with the bicycle) has come to symbolise our Janus-faced digital culture more than any other form of technology. It’s not just our apparent infatuation with what Sherry Turkle, professor of social psychology at the Massachusets Institute of Technology, calls our ‘intimate machines’ — an infatuation that appears increasingly to be damaging the fabric of human relationships — it’s the gargantuan global infrastructure of companies like Apple, their rapacious pursuit of profit, and the inevitable exploitation of the environment (African minerals for example) that the massive production of mobile phones and other digital devices engenders.

Yet Schumacher would surely be encouraged by the clear and abundant evidence we now have across the globe — from energy cooperatives to the maker movement; from organic farmers’ markets to hands-on permaculture courses — that social groups are increasingly resisting the tide of neoliberal economics and its all-engulfing technologies. As Madeleine Bunting argues, we ‘yearn for systems within our control, within our comprehension (instead of) finding ourselves trapped into vast global economic systems that are corrupting and corrupt.’

So does Schumacher’s ‘small but beautiful’ book contain big ideas and core truths we’d be wise to wake up to? Inevitably that depends on your worldview, your underlying philosophy. Certainly his thinking has been criticised as hopelessly idealistic — the woolly/spiritually-minded theories of a philosopher enamoured with the East whilst not appreciating the practical, economic benefits of the West. Besides, the critics argue, it’s too late to turn back: we’ve crossed the digital Styx. Augmented Reality, Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence are the technological gods beckoning us towards a brighter future.

There’s also no denying that the green movement itself is divided on whether to embrace technology in the fight against global warming and the transition to sustainability — the ‘bright’ camp say ‘yes’, the ‘dark’ camp say ‘no’, and the ‘light’ camp are somewhere in between. So whilst the stakes are high, the issues are undeniably complex.

But that’s precisely why Schumacher’s ideas, which have coalesced into a rich legacy centred on the internationally renowned Schumacher Institute, deserve to reach a much wider audience. They offer a valuable framework in which we can view and reflect on our troubled relationship with technology. And they remind us above all that the virtues of simplicity, beauty — the real, enduring beauty that comes from meaningful human interaction, not the ephemeral beauty of industrial products however well designed — and a fundamental respect for the natural environment that sustains us, should be at the core of our economic system and humanity.