This post takes a look at economist, E. F. Schumacher through the eyes of Will Rapp, founder and Chairman of the Board of the Gardener’s Supply family of companies (pictured left), who gave the 26th of the Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures. The full article can be read on the website of the New Economics Institute. E. F. Schumacher was an internationally influential economic thinker with a professional background as a statistician and economist in Britain. He is best known for his critique of Western economies and his proposals for human-scale, decentralized and appropriate technologies. His 1973 book Small Is Beautiful is among the 100 most influential books published since World War II.
What interested Rapp was Schumacher’s thinking in terms economics on the ‘human-scale’ and how important it is for us to remain connected to the land and environment we all inhabit.
“… his articulation of the importance of “natural capital” and the consequences of our squandering it (even before the first energy crisis in the 1970s introduced the public to the threat of “peak oil”) were prophetic. I believe we must integrate his idea of an alternative economic system into our conventional economic thinking”.
One of the reasons that Rapp believes Schumacher’s thinking is so important to us today is that he sees the the economist as a ‘master bridgebuilder’ and way ahead of his time in terms of thinking about renewable energy and ecological sustainability.
Schumacher was one of the most influential people in my life, Rapp goes on to declare:
I withdrew from the Ph.D. program in economics partly because of his eleven-page essay, Buddhist Economics. When I read it, I suddenly realized that economists had no clue about the role that natural systems play in economic systems. The basic principles of economic thought had failed to recognize the reality of the interrelationship between the world’s economic and natural systems.
The blueprint for my life’s work came from the first chapter of Small Is Beautiful, where he makes the case for reinventing the modern industrial system because it fails to value correctly three kinds of capital, which Schumacher designated as:
1) “fossil fuels” (although it is obvious that embedded natural capital extends beyond fossil fuels, in the early 1970s this was still a revolutionary idea);
2) “the tolerance margins of nature” (meaning that nature has a certain capacity to absorb what we throw at it, but beyond that amount the tolerance begins to erode); and
3) “the human substance.” By the way, this was the first place I ever came across the idea that economic analysis and enterprise accounting should focus on a triple bottom line, not only return on financial capital invested but also return on social capital and environmental capital invested. Such enterprises are now called “profit, people, and planet” businesses or social enterprises”. [“profit, people and planet” are often quoted in relation to the rapidly rising interest in social enterprise and corporate social responsibility (CSR)]
Rapp goes on to demonstrate how he sees Schumacher as one of the first ‘ecological’ economists, one who gave birth to the whole idea of “think globally; act locally”, and describes how Schumacher’s influence has helped him in his own projects in Vermont and in Costa Rica. Rapp helped to initiate the Genetic Engineering Action Network in Vermont, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a dialog about genetic engineering, which recently presented a resolution calling for the regulation of genetically engineered food and genetically modified organisms in Vermont agriculture. Rapp also founded the Intervale Foundation, later renamed the Intervale Center, which is largely funded by Gardener’s Supply. The Center’s mission is to develop enterprises that generate economic and social opportunity while protecting natural resources.
He also goes on to describe how his Garden Supply company was influenced by Schumacher’s vision in terms of running as what Rapp describes as a “Gardening-inspired alternative private enterprise system” and how it led to his large tree-planting program in Central America.
Ultimately, he concludes,
“We need to collaborate with people who, although old, have valuable experience and important information they can pass on to us, the kind of information we must regain if we are to establish smart land use and succeed in building a strong local food system as well as restoring natural capital”.
It is an interesting article and perspective, albeit long! If you are interested in reading the full article, or listening to the recording of the full lecture, please visit the links above.
If you have any comments on the article, we’d love to hear them!
Twenty-Sixth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures
October 2006, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Edited by Hildegarde Hannum
© Copyright 2006 by the E. F. Schumacher Society and Will Raap
May be purchased in pamphlet form from the New Economics Institute, 140 Jug End Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230 USA, (413) 528-1737, www.neweconomicsinstitute.org/publications.