Schumacher was no radical – if you curtail growth, living standards drop
By suggesting it's better to be economically poorer and spiritually richer, Schumacher ignores links between growth and wellbeing
EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful is widely viewed as a humanistic and radical tract. Nothing could be further from the truth. Viewed in its proper context it is both profoundly anti-human and deeply conservative.
The central idea in Schumacher's text is that there is a natural limit to economic growth. As he put it: "Economic growth, which viewed from the point of view of economics, physics, chemistry and technology, has no discernible limit, must necessarily run into decisive bottlenecks when viewed from the point of view of the environmental sciences."
Schumacher objected to organising the economy on a large scale precisely because he believed that more prosperity would damage the environment. He correctly understood that small-scale communities cannot produce nearly as much as those operating on a regional or global scale. A modern car, for example, typically relies on components, raw materials and know-how from around the globe. From the perspective of Schumacher's "Buddhist economics", it is better for people to be poorer in economic terms if they can be spiritually richer.
This argument flies against a huge weight of evidence showing that material advance is closely bound up with progress more generally. The past two centuries of modern economic growth have seen huge advances in human welfare along with technological innovation and social advance. Perhaps the most striking single indicator of this improvement is the increase in human life expectancy from about 30 in 1800 to nearly 70 today. Note that this is a global average, so it includes the billions of people who live in poor countries as well as the minority who live in rich ones.
Almost every other measure of wellbeing has increased hugely over the long term, including infant mortality, food consumption and level of education. Most of humanity, even in the developing world, has access to services our ancestors could only have dreamt of, including electricity, clean water, sanitation and mobile phones.
None of the arguments used by Schumacher's followers to counter this narrative of progress are convincing. Greens often side-step the broader case for growth by deriding the accumulation of consumer goods and services. Environmentalist arguments have more than a tinge of elitism, with comfortably middle-class greens scoffing at the masses for wanting flat-screen televisions and foreign holidays. It should also be remembered that some consumer goods, such as washing machines, have directly led to huge improvements in human welfare.
Anti-consumerism reveals more about the narrowness of the green vision than it does about economic growth. Viewing rising prosperity simply in terms of consumer goods is incredibly blinkered. Growth provides the resources for much else including airports, art galleries, hospitals, museums, power stations, railways, roads, schools and universities. Popular prosperity provides the bedrock for much that we value in contemporary society.
Another common green rebuttal to the benefits of growth is to point to the existence of inequality. Of course it is true that there are huge disparities both within countries as well as between the developed and developing world. The key question, however, is how best to tackle the problem. From Schumacher's perspective it is desirable to reduce the living standards of everyone except the poorest of the poor. His is a narrative of shared sacrifice and lower living standards for almost all. The alternative vision, the traditional position of the left, was to argue for plenty for everyone.
Finally, there is the argument about the environment itself. The most popular variant of the idea of a natural limit nowadays is that growth inevitably means runaway climate change. However, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. There are many forms of energy, including nuclear, that do not emit greenhouse gases. There are also ways to adapt to global warming such as building higher sea walls. Since such measures are expensive it will take more resources to pay for them; which means more economic growth rather than less. If anything the green drive to curb prosperity is likely to undermine our capacity to tackle climate change.
Schumacher's fundamentally conservative argument chimes well with those who want to reconcile us to austerity. It suits those in power for the mass of the population to accept the need to make do with less. Under such circumstances it is no surprise that David Cameron, like his international peers, is keen for us to focus on individual contentment rather than material prosperity.
It is hard to imagine a more anti-human outlook than one advocating a sharp fall in living standards for the bulk of the world's population.