Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher (Harper: 1973, 2010)

What: This book is a seminal charter for the sustainability movement. It presents ideas (like buying local) which are now commonplaces–but weren’t in the early 1970s.

Thesis: Growth isn’t the point of business. Instead, the point of business is life-affirming sustainability. The best path to sustainability is by supporting business at the grassroots level–and resisting efforts to scale too large.

Key Ideas: Schumacher uses ideas from Buddhism to spell out his key ideas. However–rather strangely–he also insists that the particularities of the specific religious tradition he uses to make his point don’t matter that much. He thinks you could derive the same insights from “Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other of the great Eastern traditions” (52). This raises the important question: Why Buddhism? Why any of these specific traditions–if their specificity doesn’t offer unique insights into economic culture? Doesn’t even a religious tradition need to add value of its own if its going to offer wisdom on business today?

Reflections: An evident humanism and warmth animates this book throughout. That’s awesome. But I have big reservations about some of the details. Here’s one. Schumacher says:

To equate things means to give them a price and thus to make them exchangeable. To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price. (45)

Is this true? I understand why it’s  tempting to think it might be. Of course you can’t price holiness. You can’t buy it or sell it. (Whatever it is.) It’s not interchangeable with other things.

But can’t the things we exchange communicate a value they don’t contain? Why can’t we exchange the sacred through mundane, quotidian stuff like a cup of coffee? Or an hour spent helping a colleague solve a problem at work? Why can’t things like that transmit the sacredness of life–instead of evacuating it?