Books, Exegesis, Reviews

Small Is Beautiful :: Review

Small is Beautiful is a profound book which pushes the limits of any one boundary you could put it in. It is an economic book at face value, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. It dives into spirituality, culture, and ideology with a clear vision of the issues we face in the modern world, and what tools we need to find a solution. Through writing this review, I discovered I have a lot to say about this book. Schumacher provides a beautiful economic and spiritual vision. Throughout there is an emphasis on human dignity and the potential beauty an economy can generate through a culture which is willing to say enough. Written in the early 1970’s, this book makes predictions which are coming to fruition 50 years later. Seeing the fulfillment of Schumacher’s predictions in our day provides credence for his suggestions on how to make the world better. Overall, the book is lucid, accessible, and spiritual.


I started by saying that one of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that the problem of production has been solved. This illusion, I suggested, is mainly due to our inability to recognize that the modern industrial system, with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected. To use the language of the economists, it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance. Even if some readers should refuse to accept all three parts of my argument, I suggest that any one of them suffices to make my case. (pg. 21)

This dominant modern belief has an almost irresistible attraction, as it suggests that the faster you get one desirable thing the more securely do you attain another. It is doubly attractive because it completely by-passes the whole question of ethics: there is no need for renunciation or sacrifice; on the contrary! We have science and technology to help us along the road to peace and plenty, and all that is needed is that we should not behave stupidly, irrationally, cutting into our own flesh. The message to the poor and discontented is that they must not impatiently upset or kill the goose that will assuredly, in due course, lay golden eggs also for them. And the message to the rich is that they must be intelligent enough from time to time to help the poor, because this is the way by which they will become richer still. (pg. 24)

In any case, the Keynesian message is clear enough: Beware! Ethical considerations are not merely irrelevant, they are an actual hindrance, “for foul is useful and fair is not.” (pg. 25)

The question with which to start my investigation is obviously this: is there enough to go around? Immediately we encounter a serious difficulty: What is “enough”? Who can tell us? Certainly not the economist who pursues “economic growth” as the highest of all values, and therefore has no concept of “enough.” There are poor societies which have too little; but where is the rich society that says: “Halt! We have enough”? There is none. (pg. 25)

The Gross National Product may rise rapidly: as measured by statisticians but not as experienced by actual people, who find themselves oppressed by increasing frustration, alienation, insecurity, and so forth. After a while even the Gross National Product refuses to rise any further, not because of scientific or technological failure, but because of a creeping paralysis of non-cooperation, as expressed in various types of escapism on the part, not only of the oppressed and exploited, but even of highly privileged groups. (pg. 32)

There can be “growth” towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth. (pg. 34)

Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful. Peace, as has often been said, is indivisible – how then could peace be built on a foundation of reckless science and violent technology? We must look for a revolution in technology to give us inventions and machines which reverse the destructive trends now threatening us all. (pg. 35)

Above anything else there is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something “decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul.” (pg. 38)

But what is wisdom? Where can it be found? Here we come to the crux of the matter: it can be read about in numerous publications but it can be found only inside oneself To be able to find it, one has first to liberate oneself from such masters as greed and envy. The stillness following liberation – even if only momentary – produces the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way.
They enable us to see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends, to the neglect of the spiritual. Such a life necessarily sets man against man and nation against nation, because man’s needs are infinite and infinitude can be achieved only in the spiritual realm, never in the material. (pg. 39)

An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory. (pg. 40)

All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of private profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world. (pg. 46)

In a sense, the market is the institutionalisation of individualism and non-responsibility. (pg. 46)

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. (pg. 48)

It is of course true that quality is much more difficult to “handle” than quantity, just as the exercise of judgement is a higher function than the ability to count and calculate. Quantitative differences can be more easily grasped and certainly more easily defined than qualitative differences; their concreteness is beguiling and gives them the appearance of scientific precision, even when this precision has been purchased by the suppression of vital differences of quality. The great majority of economists is still pursuing the absurd ideal of making their “science” as scientific and precise as physics, as if there were no qualitative difference between mindless atoms and men made in the image of God. (pg. 51)

There is a universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labor. Now the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. (pg. 57)

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. (pg. 58)

We always need both freedom and order. (pg. 69)

What I wish to emphasize is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to a question of size: there is no single answer. (pg. 70)

Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing stagnates like stagnation. The successful province drains the life out of the unsuccessful, and without protection against the strong, the weak have no chance; either they remain weak or they must migrate and join the strong; they cannot effectively help themselves. (pg. 78)

The economics of giantism and automation is a left-over of nineteenth-century conditions and nineteenth-century thinking and it is totally incapable of solving any of the real problems of today. (pg. 79)

At present, there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom. (pg. 86)

The sciences are being taught without any awareness of the presuppositions of science, of the meaning and significance of scientific laws, and of the place occupied by the natural sciences within the whole cosmos of human thought. The result is that the presuppositions of science are normally mistaken for its findings. (pg. 99)

…the “whole man,” in fact, may have little detailed knowledge of facts and theories, he may treasure the Encyclopaedia Britannica because “she knows and he needn’t,” but he will be truly in touch with the center. (pg. 100)

The “centre,” obviously, is the place where he has to create for himself an orderly system of ideas about himself and the world, which can regulate the direction of his various strivings. (pg. 100)

While the nineteenth-century ideas deny or obliterate the hierarchy of levels in the universe, the notion of an hierarchical order is an indispensable instrument of understanding. … As soon, however, as we accept the existence of “levels of being,” we can readily understand, for instance, why the methods of physical science cannot be applied to the study of politics or economics, or why the findings of physics – as Einstein recognised – have no philosophical implications. (pg. 101-102)

Anything we do under the heading of “production” is subject to the economic calculus, and anything we do under the heading of “consumption” is not. But real life is very refractory to such classifications, because man-as-producer and man-as-consumer is in fact the same man, who is always producing and consuming at the same time. … In other words, everything depends on whether it is done by man-as-producer or by man-as-consumer. If man-as-producer travels first-class or uses a luxurious car, this is called a waste of money; but if the same man in his other incarnation of man-as-consumer does the same, this is called a sign of a high standard of life. … The farmer is considered simply as a producer who must cut his costs and raise his efficiency by every possible device, even if he thereby destroys – for man-as-consumer – the health of the soil and the beauty of the landscape, and even if the end effect is the depopulation of the land and the overcrowding of cities. … “Luckily,” they say, “we have enough money to be able to afford to buy products which have been organically grown, without the use of poisons.” When they are asked why they themselves do not adhere to organic methods and avoid the use of poisonous substances, they reply that they could not afford to do so. What man-as-producer can afford is one thing; what man-as-consumer can afford is quite another thing. (pg. 111-113)

The burden of proof is placed on those who take the “ecological viewpoint”: unless they can produce evidence of marked injury to man, the change will proceed. Common sense, on the contrary, would suggest that the burden of proof should lie on the man who wants to introduce a change; he has to demonstrate that there cannot be any damaging consequences. But this would take too much time, and would therefore be uneconomic. (pg. 143, block quote from Basic Ecology by Ralph and Mildred Buchsbaum (Boxwood Press, Pittsburgh, 1957))

Man cannot live without science and technology any more than he can live against nature. What needs the most careful consideration, however, is the direction of scientific research. We cannot leave this to the scientists alone. (pg. 151)

A great part of the modern neurosis may be due to this very fact; for the human being, defined by Thomas Aquinas as a being with brains and hands, enjoys nothing more than to be creatively, usefully, productively engaged with both his hands and his brains. Today, a person has to be wealthy to be able to enjoy this simple thing, this very great luxury: he has to be able to afford space and good tools; he has to be lucky enough to find a good teacher and plenty of free time to learn and practise. He really has to be rich enough not to need a job; for the number of jobs that would be satisfactory in these respects is very small indeed. (pg. 158)

As Gandhi said, the poor of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production by the masses. (pg. 163)

Any third-rate engineer or researcher can increase complexity; but it takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again. And this insight does not come easily to people who have allowed themselves to become alienated from real, productive work and from the self-balancing system of nature, which never fails to recognise measure and limitation. Any activity which fails to recognise a self-limiting principle is of the devil. (pg. 164)

Could it be that the relative failure of aid, or at least our disappointment with the effectiveness of aid, has something to do with our materialist philosophy which makes us liable to overlook the most important preconditions of success, which are generally invisible? … In other words, we tend to think of development, not in terms of evolution, but in terms of creation. (pg. 176)

Every country, no matter how devastated, which had a high level of education, organisation, and discipline, produced an “economic miracle.” In fact, these were miracles only for people whose attention is focused on the tip of the iceberg. The tip had been smashed to pieces, but the base, which is education, organisation, and discipline, was still there. (pg. 179)

If the nature of change is such that nothing is left for the fathers to teach their sons, or for the sons to accept from their fathers, family life collapses. The life, work, and happiness of all societies depend on certain “psychological structures” which are infinitely precious and highly vulnerable. Social cohesion, cooperation, mutual respect, and above all, self-respect, courage in the face of adversity, and the ability to bear hardship – all this and much else disintegrates and disappears when these “psychological structures” are gravely damaged. A man is destroyed by the inner conviction of uselessness. No amount of economic growth can compensate for such losses – though this may be an idle reflection, since economic growth is normally inhibited by them. (pg. 204)

Aid can be considered successful only if it helps to mobilise the labour-power of the masses in the receiving country and raises productivity without “saving” labour. The common criterion of success, namely the growth of GNP, is utterly misleading and, in fact, must of necessity lead to phenomena which can only be described as neocolonialism. (pg. 205)

A gift of knowledge is infinitely preferable to a gift of material things. (pg. 208)

The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvelous things they could do if they were already rich. This has been the main failure of aid to date. (pg. 211)

Can we establish an ideology, or whatever you like to call it, which insists that the educated have taken upon themselves an obligation and have not simply acquired a “passport to privilege”? (pg. 220)

After all, for mankind as a whole there are no exports. (pg. 230)

It is a fixation in the mind, that unless you can have the latest you can’t do anything at all, and this is the thing that has to be overcome. (pg. 232)

Great damage to human dignity has resulted from the misguided attempt of the social sciences to adopt and imitated the methods of the natural sciences. (pg. 254)

The great majority of economists and business efficiency experts supports this trend towards vastness.
In contrast, most of the sociologists and psychologists insistently warn us of its inherent dangers – dangers to the integrity of the individual when he feels as nothing more than a small cog in the vast machine and when the human relationships of his daily working life become increasingly dehumanised; dangers also to efficiency and productivity…” (pg. 257)

The fundamental task is to achieve smallness within large organisation. (pg. 259)

Intellectual confusion exacts its price. We preach the virtues of hard work and restraint while painting utopian pictures of unlimited consumption without either work or restraint. We complain when an appeal for greater effort meets with the ungracious reply: “I couldn’t care less,” while promoting dreams about automation to do away with manual work, and about the computer relieving men from the burden of using their brains. (pg. 266)

We come back to our starting point: all real human problems arise from the antimony of order and freedom. (pg. 267)

Socialists should insist on using the nationalised industries not simply to out-capitalise the capitalists – an attempt in which they may or may not succeed – but to evolve a more democratic and dignified system of industrial administration, a more humane employment of machinery, and a more intelligent utilisation of the fruits of human ingenuity and effort. If they can do that, they have the future in their hands. If they cannot they have nothing to offer that is worthy of the sweat of free-born men. (pg. 278)

The so-called private ownership of large-scale enterprises is in no way analogous to the simple property of the small landowner, craftsman, or entrepreneur. It is, as Tawney says, analogous to “the feudal dues which robbed the French peasant of part of his produce till the revolution abolished them.” (pg. 283)

Private enterprise claims that its profits are being earned by its own efforts, and that a substantial part of them is being taxed away by public authorities. This is not a correct reflection of the truth – generally speaking. The truth is that a large part of the costs of private enterprise has been borne by the public authorities – because they pay for the infrastructure – and that the profits of private enterprise therefore greatly overstate its achievement. (pg. 292)

Small is Beautiful – E. F. Schumacher


E.F. Schumacher places his finger on the pulse of his time and takes a lucid reading of it. His primary critique is that western culture has forgotten the material foundations it is built upon, and is systematically undercutting them in the service of endless progress. Of course, there are finite resources on our planet, so endless progress is a fantasy. Therefore, we must learn how to say “enough”. To do this, we must accept the small, and pursue the beautiful. The book is simultaneously a critique, and instructional manual. Schumacher does not stop with his critique of the modern world, he provides practical methods to begin the change he’s advocating for.


On pages 76-77 Schumacher discusses how poor and rich provinces of a country interact with each other. He argues that rich provinces of a country like to maintain poor provinces because they can exploit them, often indirectly. It is always easier to exploit people within your frontier than outside of it. It would be rare then, for the rich portion of the country to want to cecede from the poor province. Thinking about it this way, it would be wonderful if religions served to equip poorer areas with the material and magical tools necessary for them to leverage their labor over the rich provinces. If Terranism were to fill this role, it would teach people how to raise their own food, how to organize unions, and what spells are used by the rich to keep power from the poor.

Page 93 describes the dominant magical infrastructure in the aetherial plane of the modern world. They are:

  • Evolution
  • Natural Selection (he includes it in a matrix of competition and survival of the fittest)
  • The Marxist notion that art, philosophy, religion, etc, are all superstructrues erected to disguise and promote economic interests
  • Freudianism
  • Relativism
  • Positivism

It is striking that half a century later these 6 big ideas remain almost totally unchanged aside from, arguably, Freudianism. More contemporary psychological theories have mostly left Freudianism behind, but its tremors can still be felt.

I appreciate that Schumacher understood evolution and natural selection enough to list them separately; this distinction is something most people miss. However, and this is due to the period he wrote in, we now understand that natural selection does not rely on competition in the way he characterized. Thanks to the work of scientists like Dr. Lynn Margulis we now understand that cooperation is equally (if not more) critical to evolution as competition and survival of the fittest. In addition, survival of the fittest must be understood not as the success of a few individuals in a hierarchy, but the success of a population within a given niche. Survival of the fittest refers to how well a population’s genome can adapt to external pressures, not how authoritative the alpha male of the pack is. The case of the blind Mexican tetra is a great example; the fittest population evolved to have no eyes due to lack of need for them. While scientists usually have a more lucid understanding of this, Schumacher appeals to the more popular version of “survival of the fittest” which usually serves as a naturalistic justification for applications of Rand’s Objectivism (which is to say; being a selfish fuckwad). Of course, since Shumacher is trying to put his finger on the pulse of the modern discourse, he’s probably more correct in characterizing survival of the fittest this way. Unfortunately, I believe his rendering of survival of the fittest remains unchanged in popular understanding.

Relativism and positivism also remain dominant in the modern mindset. I find the online discourse to characterize the humanities as being relativist and the sciences as being positivist. It makes a sort of logical sense for someone in the humanities to assert that everything is relative to the context and absolutes don’t exist, and for someone in the sciences to assert that they can find absolutes through empirical study and nothing exists beyond that. My personal experience in academia is obviously ancedotal, but I actually found the opposite, strangely. My science professors tended to emphasize the limits of science and how relative it actually is, while at least one of my humanities professors told me how much he envied the concrete, absolute nature of the sciences. I’ve never heard the humanities characterized as concrete (except by religious leaders), but at least one of my humanities profs acknowledged the absolutes generated by science. This tangent is totally irrelevant to this review, but whatever, maybe someone will find it interesting.

Page 99 really hits the nail on the head in my opinion. It is important for people to have a greater metaphysical understanding of science. Understanding magical infrastructre in a guided setting is a big part of the Terranic mission. It can be incredibly destabilizing to see the bones of our magical infrastructure. Having someone there to say readily, “much of what you believe to exist is actually fiction, and that’s ok” can be so helpful to get through education without collapsing into fear and superstition. I know it was for me. Emotional support is really important to get you through education. I think religion can fill that need.

The quote above on page 100 articulates one of the roles I feel is urgent for religion to fill in the 21st century. Where we live in a world of the internet, a resource far more vast than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is more important than ever for people to be “whole” as Schumacher describes; that is, in touch with their “center.” Schumacher describes the “center” as consisting of metaphysics and ethics on page 99. If this type of education is accomplished, a person will be able to navigate resources like the internet while in touch with value, purpose, and morality. Schumacher does not hide his spirituality in this book, and I tend to interpret this “center” he describes in a spiritual way. It seems to me that the organization of this “center” is the job of spirituality, and sharing models of how to organize the center is the job of religion. While I used different language, I described this concept in my post on religion and spirituality.

As for the quote on page 102, I tend to disagree with Schumacher. As far as I can tell, he’s implying that the spiritual realm is on a higher hierarchical level than the physical realm. As a monist, I disagree with the supernatural connotations here. As far as I can tell, Schumacher believes in a God or some supernatural power, so I use that to inform my reading of his work. If I approach this quote in a syntheistic way, I would assert emergent layers rather than hierarchical levels. By describing a hierarchy, Schumacher says that the higher levels of the universe are more important than the lower ones, but that does not fit well into an emergent paradigm. When viewing emergent layers, there is no value hierarchy since each successive layer depends on the one below it to exist while also influencing it. Schumacher seems to assert that his “whole man” needs to tap into a spiritual realm of higher hierarchical value in order to orient his “center.” My theology works more laterally; since the emergence of magic depends on humans, the orientation of the “center” and tapping into the spiritual realm are in a feedback loop with each other. Emergence does not make value hierarchies, it makes networks of feedback loops, many of them “strange loops” as articulated by Hofstadter. So I disagree with his theology, but broadly agree with his sentiment. It is definitely important for the “whole person” to be centered, we just won’t be doing it by looking up into an abstract spirituality, but rather side to side into the community. The method for this is, of course, myth and ritual.

I found the block quote on page 143 to contain profound guidance on how to navigate the discourse on climate change. The burden of proof should never be on those who wish to defend against environmental degradation, it should be on those who claim that their actions have no consequences. To make such a presumption, especially when considering a capitalist’s tendency to boast responsibility for their wealth, is highly hypocritical. I think it is a important rhetorical strategy to properly place the burden of proof for environmental degradation and I plan to incorperate it in my own navigation of the discourse.

The quote from page 176 got me excited when I reread it. This realisation Schumacher is describing here is exactly what I mean when I describe “magical infrastructure”. He’s talking about how giving people food and water does not necessarily help them out of impoverished situations, and how imagining it will overlooks “invisible” preconditions of success. On page 179 he names a few, “…education, organisation, and discipline…”. Terranism calls these “invisible preconditions” magical infrastructure.

Page 278 describes a socialist model which reflects its true role. We have seen how extreme forms of socialism like Leninism and Stalinism have imploded when isolated from capitalism. Likewise, it is obvious that extreme forms of capitalism like neoliberalism are currently imploding in a mirrored fashion due to their isolation from socialism. Capitalism and socialism are two sides of the same coin, necessary complements of each other. Looking to history and examples around the world, it is obvious that an integration of capitalism and socialism is the most successful form of either. Socialism is the democratic restraints which tempers capitalism’s material energy.

Small is Beautiful has contributed a lot to my model for managing Terranism. In my vision of a Terranic congregation, it always appears small, local, and supportive to the local community. It has always been important to my vision that life-skills like budgeting and public speaking are incorperated into Terranism’s praxis. I think its important that a religion enriches the community with charity and emotional support. I like the idea of a reverse tithe back to the congregation of 10% of their monetary sacrifices. A more recent addition to this vision is to replace pastors or priests with a secular mental health professional and to make the theological leader a voluntary thing. None of these plans are set in stone yet, but rereading this book has asserted its importance their origin.

Small is Beautiful is a foundational Terranic text.

Further Study

Small is Beautiful – E.F. Schumacher

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