Transforming people, transforming economics

Schumacher College is taking a unique approach to educating the leaders of a prosperous future

A small college based on the Dartington Hall Estate in Devon, Schumacher College punches well above its weight in developing a new generation of global change agents.

One of the places where the thinking of the pioneering green economist EF Schumacher survives and flourishes today, the college has just begun teaching a new master’s programme in Economics for Transition. It also offers MSc qualifications in Holistic Science and in Sustainable Horticulture and Food Production, as well as a range of short courses and vocational training.

“We specifically teach Schumacher economics,” says Julie Richardson, joint head of economics at the college, who believes that Schumacher’s thinking has had enormous influence on modern schools of economic thought.

As well as introducing the concept of scale, Schumacher was the first to observe that people would never run a business in the same way that we treat the environment.

“In business you do not run your stocks down,” explains Julie. “Schumacher was the first to make a distinction between renewable stocks and exhaustible stocks, such as oil. He observed that the way we do business is running down our environmental capital, treating it as though it’s free.”

These ideas have already been integrated across economic thinking. So what of his more radical thoughts, which require a major change in how we think about our working lives?

“Well, the mainstream view is that the consumption of goods and services is what makes people happy,” says Julie. “These have to be produced as efficiently as possible and wages have to be generated to buy them. So work has ended up as an undesirable thing that we do in order to buy things – a dehumanising force.”

By contrast, Schumacher felt that work could give people a sense of wellbeing and a reason to be together.“He thought that work should be re-organised to fulfil people’s purposes rather than simply maximising output,” explains Julie.

This cultural change in our work ethic would have to be based on a huge transition from the industrial growth society we live in today to a more life-sustaining society that values wellbeing. To go about this, Julie feels that we need to encourage the growth of structures that show what a new economy of the future might look like in practice.

“These might include new forms of trade, such as the ethical and fair trade models,” she says, “or new forms of agriculture and forest farming, new forms of legal and land-use arrangements such as community-supported agriculture, new forms of business model such as community interest companies and new forms of ownership such as community renewable energy services.”

But it’s not only external structures that Schumacher College is helping to change. Their students don’t just learn the theories of new economics, they learn how to practice it in their daily lives.

“Economics is the emergence of all our individual decisions, choices and relationships that have become embedded in institutions and trading partnerships,” says Julie. “If we want to transform them, we have to look at the process and cycles of our own inner transition and how this relates to outer transformation.”

Uniquely, Schumacher College aims to engage the whole person in the way it teaches economics. Julie explains that this means helping students to integrate what they learn with their “head, hands and heart,” but it is also about reconnection. “We try to reconnect people with their inner values, behaviours and motivations, with others through group learning and dynamics and with nature, through the practices of deep ecology.”

Another unique thing about Schumacher College is how everything is seen from the viewpoint of ecology and what we can learn from the complex and resilient structures we see in nature. Rather than putting an economic price on the environment, which many have suggested, the Schumacher way of thinking is more about what we can learn from the environment to make our economic systems fit for a sustainable future.

EF Schumacher was one of, if not the most, influential thinkers of the environmental movement, following a long tradition of new economic and humanistic philosophers that go back to J.S. Mill and Ruskin. At Schumacher College his legacy continues.