Time for a new economic direction

Christie Toal finds a message that is more relevant than ever in the work of pioneering economist EF Schumacher, as a conference in Bristol celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth

“There is more to life than GDP,” argued Ernst Freidrich Schumacher, a pioneer of green economics and principles of sustainability, in 1973.

Unlike most economists of his and indeed our time, Schumacher saw that there was more to economics than productivity and efficiency, and he envisioned a system that worked in the true interests of people.

At a time of widespread concern about the future of our economic systems, a conference in Bristol next weekend, 8-9 October, will celebrate Schumacher’s life and work, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Although the annual Schumacher lectures have been running since 1978, this year the event has expanded into a full weekend of talks and workshops led by leading thinkers in green politics and economics.

Speakers include: Caroline Lucus, MP and leader of the Green Party; Bill Mckibben, author of The End of Nature and founder of the climate change campaign 350.org; and ecofeminist and activist Vandana Shiva.

Nick Hart-Williams, project manager at the Schumacher conference, says: “The centenary will bring together the largest gathering of speakers in 34 years of Bristol Schumacher lectures,” adding: “All the speakers will have much to say about the new direction we should be moving towards.”

This direction – as Schumacher suggested in his most famous text, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered – is one where economics exists as a science to suit human beings, not something that works for its own sake.

Schumacher further reasoned that the Earth’s natural resources or “natural capital” is irreplaceable. Rallying against his peers, he said that we have not solved the problem of production if our economic system relies on the destruction of our finite natural resources and is therefore detrimental to future generations.

Born in Berlin in 1911, Schumacher’s childhood was difficult, being affected by both the first world war and the 1923 economic depression. In 1936 he moved England permanently after having won a scholarship to Oxford University and having also spent time in America.

Schumacher was an anti-fascist and had no intention to live under Nazism. On arrival in England he was however, interned as an “enemy alien.” Schumacher nevertheless remained optimistic and was freed having spent only a month imprisoned in 1940. He was discovered by the influential economist J.M Keynes, who on his release offered him a position at Oxford.

Despite his treatment, Schumacher was passionate about this country. A lover of nature and a believer in ‘grow your own,’ he was often at his happiest tending his vegetable patch at his Surrey home.

Schumacher continued to give interviews and publish until his death in 1977, pressing particularly his idea of ‘intermediate technology’ – technology appropriate to human needs and which worked in harmony with the Earth.

Schumacher also drew inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, in particular the principle of non-violence. His vision is one that hoped for the development of an economic system where we do not enact violence towards one another, where we work with the planet and most of all, where we put people before production and profit.

The continuing relevance of Schumacher’s proposition for small scale, thoughtful, sustainable living, is clear, says Herbert Girardet, former chair of the Schumacher Society. “Today, with the limits to economic globalisation now all too evident, Schumacher’s time has truly come.”