Weekend Special: Small Is Beautiful

by Carl Kline

E.F. Schumacher wrote the book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered back in 1973, more than 40 years ago. In it, he argued that the modern economy was unsustainable.

Some of the major problems he saw were in our assumptions about production.

One problem was that fossil fuels, the primary source of energy for productivity, was treated as income rather than as capital that depreciates. You can’t renew fossil fuels. Once expended they are gone. Natural resources are depleted as they are used. Eventually you come to the end of the line in a finite universe.

A second problem he saw was the earth had limits to absorbing pollution. He couldn’t have known then that the tonnage of plastic in the oceans in the 21st. century would be approaching the tonnage of fish. But perhaps he was becoming aware at the time of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Today we don’t need Schumacher’s foresight. The evidence is all around us of how fossil fuels are killing us. And our attachment to an economy of “more and bigger” puts the carrying capacity of the planet in greater and greater danger.

Most of the legislation of import that comes before the S.D. legislature needs to be framed with Schumacher’s “Buddhist economics” in mind. What’s best for the village? What’s the most appropriate scale for an activity? It’s not always “big is better” or “growth is good” that should determine a policy. Increasingly, sustainability and regeneration should be the fundamental principles in decision making. They should provide the framework for a human future.

As our legislators consider bills that: address the needs of small farmers and ranchers; protect public assets like water and land resources; regulate CAFOs; insure health care to all our citizens; encourage independent solar and wind energy use; let them ask how materialism might take a back seat to justice, harmony, health and beauty, to sustainability. Let them make their decisions for at least the next generation of small beings, if not the seventh.

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