Schumacher festival unites change-makers at time of opportunity

Speakers at Bristol conference see window of opportunity for a more holistic economic system

“Our task is to look at the world and see it whole,” wrote EF Schumacher in 1977. He was an economist with a difference, one who argued for a broad, moral economics where people and planet mattered.

One hundred years after his birth, The Schumacher Centenary Festival in Bristol on 8-9 October 2011 brought together leading change-makers to celebrate Schumacher’s vision and share their ideas for how it could be applied in these urgent times.

As a special edition of its annual lectures, the weekend of talks, workshops, films and music was organised by the Schumacher Society, which was set up in 1978 and supports a number of organisations influenced by their namesake, such as the Soil Association and Practical Action.

The event’s opening speaker, Satish Kumar, editor-in-chief of Resurgence, focused on the spiritual foundation that he believes is necessary for a sustainable future.

“Spirituality is the practice of harmony,” he said, pointing towards the way in which for Schumacher, respect for nature and care for people were at the heart of economics.

Satish also expressed his view that solutions to global crises will come from people rather than government. “We have to unite,” he said. “The 100th anniversary of Schumacher’s birth should be the turning point in this.”

Environmental lawyer Polly Higgins joined Satish’s call. “There is currently a lot of talk but not a lot of action,” she said. However, sharing her proposals for making ecocide an international crime against peace, she said this would rapidly shift economies on to a sustainable path.

“This would be about the largest job creation scheme civilisation has ever seen,” she said, explaining her belief that law could be used to help us “move to a world that respects the sacredness of all life.”

Caroline Lucas MP – who Jonathon Porritt described as being “as close to a politician in the mould of EF Schumacher as possible” – paid testament to Schumacher’s promotion of small-scale technology and solutions appropriate to human needs.

The Green Party leader continued by saying that each of us needs to make an individual response to the challenges that society faces, but that this alone is not enough. “The political will is missing to put in place policies to make everyone take action,” she said.

However, she sees a growing recognition that a non-growth economic model could deliver better wellbeing, and suggested that people need to paint a compelling positive vision of a green future.

Much of what Schumacher asked for is now being done, climate change campaigner Bill McKibben said in a video message. Citing the rise in farmers’ markets and local, sustainable agriculture in the US, he said: “It’s begun to make a real impact on the landscape around us. Last year, for the first time in 150 years, the US Department of Agriculture said that the number of farms in America was increasing instead of decreasing.”

However, he warned: “There is one thing that can derail this transition to the sort of world we need, and that one thing is the onrushing emergency that is climate change.”

Echoing Caroline’s words, he added: “If we’re going to preserve the possibility of the kind of world that Schumacher imagined… then we have no choice but to engage in this political fight as well.”

Many of the speakers across the weekend expressed the view that with the current economic system failing and without political leaders offering an effective way forward, there is a “window of opportunity,” as Polly described it, for profound change. Despite the inherent challenges, it is, in fact “the most exciting time to be alive,” said sustainability expert, Tim Jackson.

“There has been a sea change and we should be encouraged by this,” said Diana Schumacher, founder of the Schumacher Society.

What united the event’s speakers was the way in which they stretched beyond their fields of expertise – law, politics, banking, the environment – to see the bigger picture and connect with the values and holistic thinking that underpinned Schumacher’s vision.

As Diana concluded: “Every decision we make needs to be part of systems thinking… What effect will it have on the whole?”