Small is Beautiful

On June 21 1973, Peter Lewis – the Daily Mail's Literary Editor – wrote a review of a book that was to change the direction of my life: Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered by E.F.Schumacher.

I rushed out and bought a copy and, among other things, was taught the wisdom of a focus on need rather than greed. It led me to the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), now called Practical Action, and many other environmental and sustainability initiatives.

I mention it today because, clearing out the garage the other evening, it fluttered to the floor. I thought you might like to read it. Click on the image to see it in a new window (zoom to suit).


Apologies for its general dishevelment. (And, to those who are sensitive to such things, for the fact it was in the Daily Mail.)

Environmentalism: a by-product of making money

E F Schumacher became the first popular environmentalist when his "Small is Beautiful" book was published in 1973. His theme was "Economics as if people mattered" and he introduced the concept of ‘sustainability’ with respect to our exploitation of the planet’s resources.

At the time the book was written, we all saw the planet as a source of raw materials to be plundered at will. It was natural capital which cost us nothing apart from the cost of extraction and, through war or purchase, the cost of securing the land for its exploitation.

We were equally ignorant of waste. The seas were huge and could easily cope with whatever we threw into them, whether directly or through rivers. We were much more aware of pollution of the land we lived on and the air we breathed but, where there was money to be made, we were somewhat less than conscientious.

I don’t remember much about the detail of the book, except that it touched me profoundly. One story related to a manufacturing plant that sucked in river water at one end of the factory and pumped waste water out at the other. Schumacher suggested that the inlet be placed further downstream than the outlet. The idea was simple, but the implications profound.

At the time the book was published, I was running the IT department of a company whose products were made from petrochemicals. Fascinating stuff it was too. The chemists there were happy to explain how they manipulated hydrocarbon chains to create flavours, perfumes and colours.

As a direct consequence of reading the book and the earlier influence of tv programmes like the BBC’s "Energy Crunch", I handed over to my deputy and went off to learn how to communicate, the idea being to then promulgate the ‘green’ message. It actually took me 29 years to return to the subject in any meaningful way, when Michael Moores’ "Stupid White Men" pricked my conscience. Within weeks, and by an astonishing coincidence, I was invited to work on a major sustainability project with the Science Museum.

A huge influence on the museum work was another book, "Cradle to Cradle", written by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and published in 2002. Grossly oversimplifying, the idea was that we can reverse our negative environmental impact by treating industrial waste and end-of-life products as raw material to be used in creating new material of an equal or higher value.

The WEEE directive is a nod in this direction. It requires the recovery of raw materials from discarded electrical and electronic products. The ROHS directive aims to minimise the use of hazardous materials in manufacturing.

Many IT vendors, especially those with operations in Europe, are taking this stuff seriously. But, do you know what? The need to protect the environment is not their primary driver. They do it because they see it as a way of improving their image, conforming to regulations and cutting their costs.

The (lost) art of handling the media

I’ve been watching blogs which comment on "The Great Global Warming Swindle" since the film was broadcast on Channel Four. For some reason, I’ve only just discovered that environment minister David Miliband spoke out against the film on March 13th.

When asked on Radio 4 whether there was anything in the Channel Four documentary, he apparently* replied "I didn't see the programme but I promise you I will do a blog demolishing its contents."

What an astonishing thing to say. One must presume that some lackey had provided him a summary of the key points, ie that global warming precedes CO2 increases by several hundred years, sunspots may influence climate, humans are responsible for only a tiny amount of CO2 etc etc. But these probably don’t suit the official line on global warming and all the wonderful taxes and controls that arrive in its wake.

I have watched both Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" and Martin Durkin’s "The Great Global Warming Swindle" and found both films interesting and informative. Frankly, I couldn’t give a toss about whether or why our planet is warming. It’s the only planet we’ve got and trying to keep it pleasant for our descendants simply makes sense.

EF Schumacher laid the ground rules for a sustainable life in his 1974 book "Small Is Beautiful". Sadly, this doesn’t equate to a happy life for selfish people, so western society as a whole ignored him. If you want a more recent (2002) book on how industry can be more sustainable, take a look at "Cradle to Cradle" by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

If the quote from Mr Miliband is true, and I can’t believe it’s not, it suggests that he’s taking a ‘religious’ approach to climate change, which is destined to lose him support from the public at large, even if it does satisfy those with vested interests.

*Miliband’s Radio 4 remarks were reported by many people but few with the journalistic credentials of Melanie Phillips.

Update 30/03/2007: I am citing Melanie Phillips as a fellow journalist who is unlikely to misquote what she heard on the radio. None of the remainder of this post owes anything to her position on the subject. See the sixth and seventh comments if you’re wondering what I’m banging on about.