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January 11, 2007

Small May Still Be Beautiful

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Going on sale soon: "Small is Still Beautiful," a book about the economist E.F. ("Small is Beautiful") Schumacher by Joseph Pearce. Here's an interview with Pearce. Martin Hodgson evaluates the impact of Schumacher here.

Odd that Schumacher -- who, back in the '70s, was a hero to eco-hippies (I was fond of him myself) -- should be championed by a conservative these days, isn't it? Things go on and evolve, I guess. A preference for modesty in governance, a feeling that economies should serve people rather than vice versa, a respect for established folkways -- how to assign a single political label to this bundle of leanings? ... Oh, it's so bewilderingly Crunchy Con, isn't it? But then maybe not. And when did it all take on such a lot of earnest-Catholic (and to my mind dreary) coloring?

Pearce and some co-conspirators (including the excellent Clark Stooksbury) will be blogging for a time here. Here's the Schumacher Society. Here's Schumacher's most famous piece, "Buddhist Economics." The most Schumacherian publication I know of is Orion Magazine, which regularly publishes New Urbanist (and Peak Oil) firebrand James Kunstler. Here's a recent interview with Kunstler.

Given what a fan I am of Kunstler and of the New Urbanism, and given how useful I've found Rod Dreher's idea of Crunchy Cons, maybe it all makes a kind of sense ...



posted by Michael at January 11, 2007


I'm reading Small is Beautiful right now. Is it odd that conservatives are taking up Schumacher's banner? I don't think so. What's odder is that so many green-types completely ignored half of Schumacher's points. The edition I'm reading has comments in the margins by "contemporary thinkers who have been deeply influenced by [Schumacher's] work and thought." I'm not going to deny that Schumacher's arguments are fuel for a lot of the green and anti-globalist movements, and his book has gotten me to reconsider elements of those movements. But on the chapters of Small is Beautiful that discuss the "metaphysical" shifts Schumacher considers fundamental, these folks are either dead silent or (in one noticeable instance) actually interpret his words in the exact opposite sense they were meant. Look at his early chapter on education, where he calls for an approach to education that is about instilling ethics and not just plain knowledge ("know-why" instead of mere "know-how"). The Greens don't know what to think about ideas like this that are in a socially conservative vein, for lack of a better term.

I'm finding Schumacher to be inspiring, thought-provoking stuff. It looks to me like those who took up his banner and carry on his legacy today read some chapters of the book with their eyes closed. His environmentalism was not only plainly human-centric (itself a kind of heresy for radical environmentalism), it was *theistic*. Why ought we to treat animals with care and compassion, instead of with cruel utilitarian itent? Because we didn't make the animals. They aren't *ours*. It's very clear who he believes they do belong to. But, of course, I'm one of those dreary Catholics. As was Schumacher.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on January 11, 2007 1:21 PM

Chris -- That's an interesting report, tks. I've often wondered what it would be like to read Schumacher today. Please don't take my "dreary" crack the wrong way. It wasn't about how the earnest and the Catholic have made Schumacher their own -- interesting though that is. Just a question about how and why the people who have adopted the Small is Beautiful eco-thing have turned it into something so joyless, as you note with your observations about Greens. There was something rather exciting (and as you say inspiring) in the eco-vision circa 1973; these days it's hard to find a drearier crowd. (Unless you really explore the eco-fringes, which I've done and have enjoyed.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 11, 2007 2:13 PM

In defense of the earnest Catholics, Schumacher was himself an earnest Catholic according to Pearce.

Also, Schumacher's major philosphical work, A Guide for the Perplexed is a defense of traditional religious metaphysics.

Myself, I find arts-and-crafts distributism a good corrective of hyper techno-industrialism, but perhaps a little stifling. Living in a village and becoming a cobbler is not exactly my ideal lifestyle...

Posted by: Lee on January 11, 2007 2:49 PM

Thanks for this thought-provoking post and helpful reading list, Michael. I think your ruminations on these subjects show how out-of-step and un-useful current political ideology, labels suchs as "liberal" and "conservative," and most political solutions, are now.

Posted by: Linda on January 12, 2007 8:11 AM

I'd say you're an anti-modernist in every sense of the word, opposing both hideous blocky buildings and the modern cult of efficiency.

To some extent I think the movement of the leadership of the Democratic party to the right and the Republicans' embrace of big government has elided the differences between the two parties and they have both become servants of the corporate Machine, albeit the Democrats tossing a few scraps to minorities and the Republicans paying lip service to religion. Notice how neither party wants to criticize trade or immigration: everyone's a globalization booster, and this of course removes a lot of those local differences you like so much.

Posted by: SFG on January 12, 2007 4:35 PM

Is not the decentralization promoted in the book "An Army of Davids" no different than that promoted in "Small is Beautiful"?

I think that technology, first IT then later bio and nano, will eventually empower the small and the individual against the large bureaucratic entities that stand in the way of true human progress.

There is no reason why "crunchy conservatism" and libertarianism ought to be viewed as incompatible with each other. We all seek freedom to choose our individual destinies.

Posted by: Kurt on January 18, 2007 1:42 AM

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