Books: Small is Beautiful

Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered

E.F.  Schumacher

I drew my domain name from the subtitle of this book, which isn’t about architecture but is a favorite of mine and holds some valuable lessons for the designer.  Doing anything “as if people mattered” is a somewhat radical notion in this culture of newness, perpetual growth and the bottom lines.  It was even more radical when Schumacher first published Small is Beautiful in 1973, contradicting basically all established economics of his time.

The basic idea behind the book couldn’t be more simple.  We live in a finite world so the concept of infinite growth which is the basis of all conventional economics simply can’t work.

Schumacher was a German economist who trained under John Maynard Keynes and preached fairly orthodox economic theory until he traveled to Burma in the mid 1950s.  There he underwent a radical shift in world view.  Spending time in Burma and in other third world countries led him to conclude that human development was far more important than economic growth.  He became an advocate of “appropriate technology” and wanted to re-frame business models to think of natural resources as capital which is eroded when they are used rather than expendable income.

Schumacher asks us to re-evaluate our measures of success in the world and to stop “assuming all the time that a man who consumers more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.”  Are the affluent happier than the middle class or than the entire populations of third world countries?  Does corporate leadership result in healthier communities or environment?  “Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”

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