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Book Review: Small is Still Beautiful by Joseph Pearce

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Written by biographer Joseph Pearce, Small is Still Beautiful is a summary of the ideas of environmentalist economist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher, a founder and inspirational figure of the environmentalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Schumacher, a student of John Maynard Keynes, realized that the economy of the 20th century was unsustainable. From the deep and fundamental flaws of GDP to measure economic health, to the social insecurity inherent of modern economics, the large scale economy touted by both modern capitalist and communist was doomed to inevitable failure. 

There are two themes in Schumacher’s thinking, as presented by Joseph Pearce. One is the material concerns of the modern large-scale economy. The second is the spiritual consequences (or rather, damages) of the modern large-scale economy.

The modern economy is materially unsustainable for a few reasons. One, it depends on total exploitation of the environment; the economy needs to continually “grow,” meaning that more and more natural resources need to be extracted. Obviously, at faster and faster rates, whatever is renewable can’t be renewed in time, and whatever isn’t renewable… well, we’re just doomed, aren’t we? Two, globalization serves to drain one’s country’s resources in exchange for higher end products. In the third-world country’s case, resources are lost. In the developed country’s case, the rich-poor gap increases due to outsourcing, causing societal problems. 

The modern economy damages the spiritual dimension of society as well. For example, GDP doesn’t take into account a mother’s hard work cooking dinner every night for her children. But if she takes them to McDonald’s instead every night, GDP drastically increases! Even prisons contribute to GDP. Furthermore, the inherent instability of a globalized economy means that people are constantly anxious about their jobs, which translates into a deep and intense anxiety of how parents can support their children. At the same time, parents are withheld from spending time with their children by having to spend more time at the workplace, because inflation and other factors result in longer hours for lesser wages.

Small is Still Beautiful is long and densely packed with great insights. (For a more detailed summary, see here.) A strong recommendation for anybody who is interested in environmentalism, believes in small community, or has trouble with the false assertion that “what is good for the environment is bad for the economy, and vice versa.”

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