Small is beautiful

During Episode 3 of Time is Sliding in the chapter starting at 42:26 (Ashamed of her generation and making amends through activism), Mary uses the phrase “small is beautiful”. This was the title of a seminal book by E.F. Schumacher. It was published in 1973 under the full title of Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. Its central message is that small solutions (technological, politics, policy) are better than the mainstream belief that “bigger is better.” 

“Anyone who thinks consumption can expand forever on a finite planet is either insane or an economist.” ~ E. F. Schumacher

Schumacher was generally enlightening and visionary in this landmark book. His discourse on new ways of thinking about economics, development, environmental exploitation, education, appropriate technology and organisations was an inspiration to many. Some of that inspiration was captured in the eulogies included in the 1999 edition of his book. 

Most of the ideas Schumacher put forward in 1973 remain extremely relevant to the twenty-first century even though few in mainstream society, including politicians, economists, business and non governmental organisations, seem to have adopted them. His complaint that many theoreticians engage in the “idolatry of large size” still applies. Take for instance, the UK Government’s HS2 project, a high speed rail linking London with Manchester and Leeds whilst neglecting local rail networks.

Schumacher argued that small-scale technology and organisations are more efficient, more effective and more benign, in both human and environmental dimensions, than their larger counterparts. This is exemplified by Incredible Edible Todmorden and much of what Mary says in Episode 3 of Time is Sliding.

Where harm from small-scale activities occurs, Schumacher pointed out that nature is more able to repair itself than if the harm is of a large-scale (Schumacher 1973, 29). This very true sense but he seemed to pay more regard to scale than the hazardous nature of activities. Thus, the serious impacts of small-scale releases into the environment of hazardous substances were not envisaged. Similarly, he omitted to engage deeply with the combined burden of many small organisations each with impacts on the environment. Given the fact that over 90% of businesses in most countries are classified as small, their combined burden of resource depletion, waste and pollution can be far from insignificant. The same applies to the collective impacts of individuals.

Although Schumacher omitted to provide a precise definition of beauty, it is quite clear that his concerns extended beyond appearances to embrace positive outcomes for humans and nature as suggested here:

“We still have to learn how to live peacefully, not only with our fellow men but also with nature and, above all, with those Higher Powers which have made nature and have made us…..” (Schumacher 1973 17).

It is a disgrace and so very sad that nearly fifty years later, humanity has still not learned to live peacefully towards each other and nature. Rather, the last fifty years have seen a drastic escalation in the war waged by humans against nature. Also, human wars and terrorism are never far from the news.

Listen to the 2011 The Big Ideas podcast: EF Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’ for another perspective on Small is Beautiful at This includes a critique of the widespread obsession with economic growth.

Here’s a 1974 review of Small is Beautiful by Peter Barnes: Wise Economics: Review of “Small Is Beautiful” by E. F. Schumacher