Who Was Fritz Schumacher?
by Diana Schumacher
E F Schumacher, the economist-philosopher, was born 100 years ago this year. The following article is edited from a longer paper written for the Schumacher Society in 2008.
Ernst Friedrich (Fritz) Schumacher was an unlikely pioneer of the Green Movement. He was born in Bonn in 1911, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and returned to England before the Second World War to avoid living under Nazism. He died prematurely on a visit to Caux, Switzerland, in September 1977.
Although from a distinguished intellectual background, and having himself experienced a short but meteoric academic career in Germany, England and America, Schumacher always believed that “an ounce of practice is worth a tonne of theory”. Like Gandhi in both his outer and inner life he was a searcher of truth and dedicated to peace. Unlike so many of his contemporary academics, however, he needed to see these ideals translated into practical actions.
Fritz observed that throughout his own school and university careers he had given “maps of life and knowledge” on which “there was hardly a trace of many of the things I most cared about and that seemed to me of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life”. He saw the need to provide his colleagues and audiences with philosophical ‘maps’ and guidelines which related to actual reality. In the process, his life was one of constant questioning, including challenging most of the basic assumptions on which Western economic and academic theory have been based. What are the ‘laws’ that govern the ‘science’ of economics? What is the true value of money? What is the relationship between time and money? What is the real worth of work? And of development? These were the everyday questions which interested him as an economist.
In 1937, owing to Hitler’s frenzied ascendancy and his own feeling of the intellectual and political betrayal of Germany and its heritage by his nationalistic compatriots, he decided to abandon all social, family and business ties and to bring his young wife and son to London.
During the war, the family faced the hostility of being regarded as German aliens. They had to give up their home, and after being briefly interned, Fritz was hidden away with his family in Northamptonshire working as a farm labourer and was referred to by the very English name of James. At the same time (with the support of J M Keynes) he was seconded to do government research at the Oxford Institute of Statistics whilst at the same time working on his own ‘world improvement scheme’. Sometimes his ideas were appropriated by others, such as his contribution to the Beveridge Report in the early 1940s and to the Marshall Plan of 1947. Although he never received official recognition for his input to such prestigious schemes because of his German background, this did not disquiet him.
Although the expanding family was again domiciled in England from 1950 onwards, his quest for patterns of sustainability took him all over the world. He had experienced poverty, social injustice and alienation first hand, and felt that with his uniquely varied and practical background, he had something useful to contribute. As an economist he was derided by his peers for pointing out the fallacy of continuous growth in a finite world dependent on limited fossil fuel resources, but at the same time he became a champion of the poor, the marginalised and those who felt misgivings over the shallowness of contemporary values.
Philosophy and Religion
From his youth Fritz had always read prolifically. At one stage or another during his life, Fritz questioned all the main traditions, whether intellectual, national, economic or religious. As a young man he claimed to be a dedicated atheist, lecturing that religion and morality were mere products of history; they did not stand up to scientific examination and could be modified if regarded as inappropriate. Politically he was a person-loving socialist, the antithesis to Hitler’s fascism and an idealist with a restless mind. His values were very modern, based on the speed, measurement, efficiency and logic of the industrialised Western world which he inhabited. It was only later that he understood that such criteria were too inflexible, and totally incompatible with the more subtle ‘unconscious’ rhythms of the natural world. As a commuter from suburban Caterham (where he finally lived), to the National Coal Board headquarters in London’s Victoria (where he worked from 1950 to 1970), he used the train travelling time to study comparative religions and was greatly influenced by the French philosopher Fritjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions.
This ‘commuting’ period proved a most fruitful turning point in his inner life. He first studied notably those religions from the East, attending meetings and lectures on the spirituality of other faiths and began to practice meditation. Gradually he came to relinquish the atheism of his youth and to admit to the possibility of a ‘higher order of Being’. His changing economic and metaphysical views (which sometimes seemed contradictory) chronologically mirrored his own spiritual struggles and development.
There was, after all, a transcendent ‘vertical perspective’ to life: a hierarchy of orders from inanimate matter, through different levels of consciousness to a supreme consciousness or Being. After years of searching and inner struggles he had realised a way of bringing his lifelong paths of study and social concerns to a point of convergence and had reached his own spiritual homecoming. Finally, to the astonishment of Schumacher’s Marxist and Buddhist friends alike, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1971, six years before he died. It was a formal renouncement of his previously cherished views of the supremacy of the intellect and reason over the Christian virtues of compassion, forgiveness, unconditional love, the acknowledgment of a Divine Creator, and the integrity of all creation.
In 1955, whilst working at the National Coal Board, Schumacher accepted a three-month assignment as Economic Development adviser to the Government of the Union of Burma, where he immediately attached himself to a Buddhist monastery. He soon concluded that the last thing the Burmese people needed was economic development along Western lines. They needed an economics suited to their own culture and lifestyle – a ‘middle way’ between the Western model which sought to increase material wants and consumption to be satisfied through mechanised production and the Buddhist model which was to satisfy basic human needs through dignified work which also purified one’s character and was a spiritual offering. The tools of economics therefore had to be adapted to people’s needs and values and not vice versa. Unsurprisingly, his report was not well received in official quarters, but the experience proved yet another turning in Fritz’s spiritual and intellectual development. He was later to coin the term ‘Buddhist Economics’ which, like Marxism, implies a complete rejection of the greed and materialism on which so much of modern economics is based and a respect for the value and dignity of meaningful work.
In tandem with his job at the Coal Board, Schumacher also undertook an intensive programme of international travel, initially to give substance to his proposals to save the collapsing British coal industry, and to encourage independence from the Western world’s industrial reliance on cheap oil imports from the Middle East. Alas – and to our cost today – he was successful in neither.
His aim was also to promote sustainable development strategies in the First and Third World alike. Food and fuel he saw as the two basic necessities for survival and sustainability. All communities and regions should strive to be self-sufficient in these as far as possible – otherwise they become economically and politically vulnerable. In this respect he was an early proponent of harnessing renewable energy in all its different forms and upgrading the existing traditional technologies.
Unfortunately Fritz was many years ahead of his time, and few took much notice. Putting his own self-sufficiency theories into practice, his was one of the first UK houses to have solar panels installed on its roof. He also personally became involved in sustainable agriculture; an enthusiasm which he claimed had its seeds in his work as a farm labourer. He spent much time on his organic garden, was President of the UK Soil Association, ardently supporting Richard St Barbe Baker and his Men of the Trees, and was an unflagging advocate of tree planting and forest farming schemes wherever he went.
India and Intermediate Technology
It was during an official visit to India in 1970 to advise the Indian Government on a Five Year Development Plan, that Fritz became deeply moved by the hopeless poverty and deprivation of countless thousands of people. He encountered a despair such as he had not met in other poor countries and realised that all the official government and other Western aid schemes proposed so far were completely inadequate. As a heartfelt response, in 1966 with a small group of committed colleagues including George McRobie from the National Coal Board, he founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), a London-based charity concerned with technology transfer. The aim was to give practical ‘tool aid’, skills and education to poor rural communities in developing countries rather than expensive highly mechanised equipment which was not appropriate to the understanding and needs of the illiterate majority and which put them out of work. What was needed was ‘production by the masses and not mass production’ using ‘technologies with a human face’. With Indian colleagues, he helped to set up in Lucknow the Appropriate Technology Development Association (ATDA), working very much along the same lines and supported financially by the UK India Development Group of which Fritz was Chair.
Schumacher also understood that Western aid to poor communities frequently simply served to increase their cultural and economic dependence, and to increase the gulf between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, young and old, even within their own societies. This still holds true. On the other hand, by respecting communities’ own indigenous and cultural traditions, providing them with skills and upgraded tools and recognising that each individual could play their part the communities would be enabled to achieve long term sustainability and security. This ‘middle way’ has gained increasing acceptance over the past forty years, particularly among the poor countries themselves. The ‘development’ charities which Fritz founded continue to flourish today, although ATDA has become the Schumacher Centre Delhi. The India Development Group became the Jeevika Trust; and the ITDG has been renamed Practical Action.
In 1950 Schumacher accepted the post of Economic Adviser to the National Coal Board, partly because of his socialist conviction that true economic sustainability would most readily come about through proper organisation and use of energy resources. He was also an early advocate of the principle of subsidiarity and realised that the workers themselves needed to operate within ‘human scale’ structures even within large organisations. The National Coal Board he hoped would be an excellent springboard for testing his ideas in practice.
Small is Beautiful
Despite growing recognition of Schumacher’s numerous projects, broadcasts, writings, and public lectures, the real breakthrough only came with the publication in 1973 of his first book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. This was written in layman’s terms, since it was mainly based on previous lectures and articles, but somehow caught the spirit of the times. Small is Beautiful was not just about appropriate size. It articulated what millions of ‘little people’ worldwide subconsciously believed: that unlike any previous culture or civilisation, twentieth century Western society, whether agricultural or industrial, was living artificially off the Earth’s capital rather than off its income. Its lifeblood was the ever-increasing use of non-renewable resources primarily by the rich countries at the expense of the poor. The world could not continue sustainably on the increasing curve of production and consumption without material or moral restraint.
A Guide for the Perplexed followed in 1977; other publications such as Good Work and This I Believe were produced posthumously and were based on his earlier writings in different publications. Over thirty years after Schumacher’s death, the wisdom, warnings and predictions contained in these controversial writings, are seen to be more relevant than ever. Many organisations worldwide have since developed one or other aspect of his work. Nevertheless the trend towards gigantism, the vast growth of mega cities, mass unemployment, unsustainable patterns of energy use, rampaging environmental degradation and social violence demonstrate that none of Schumacher’s simple, human-scale solutions have been interpreted correctly by those in a position to change policies. There is now an even more urgent need to revisit some of these fundamental prerequisites for sustainability. These include, above all, the transcendence of moral values; the equality and dignity of all people; the integrity of human work as the resource base of any economy; the value of local communities; and the need for decentralised decision-making and regional self-sufficiency wherever practicable, particularly with respect to food and fuel.
There is always a great danger to freeze a human icon such as Schumacher in the situation of their time, and not to allow for the fact that their own ideas would be constantly changing and moving on with changed circumstances. The revolutions in information technology, virtual reality and genetic engineering would have occupied Schumacher’s attention insofar as they affect our overall human condition. It is now up to a new generation to arm itself with the necessary knowledge and moral courage to find its own solutions to the contemporary interrelated crises and to build peace with all levels of Creation.
As Fritz Schumacher said in Good Work:
“I certainly never feel discouraged. I can’t myself raise the winds which might blow us, or this ship, into a better world. But I can at least put up the sail, so that when the wind comes I can catch it.”
Diana Schumacher is a Patron of The Gandhi Foundation and active in the environmental field. She was a founder of the Schumacher Society and founded its Annual Schumacher Award. She also co-founded the Environmental Law Foundation.