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Small is Necessary

Economics as if the planet mattered

Four decades since Schumacher wrote the potent and poignant text ‘Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered.’ Its essence rings truer than ever today. The text came along at a time when the idea of economic development was being increasingly challenged, and the Westernised model of ‘the good life’ was being uncovered as a modern fantasy dependent upon exploitation of the poor. Thus the need to re-situate economics, as if people mattered. This contributed to a wave of social development, humanitarian focus and right-based approaches, to mixed levels of success, as inequality continues to rise and cultures are eroded with dozens of languages going extinct each year. With the extinction of those languages comes the loss of the most valuable worldviews that are needed to guide us through this century. Ecological worldviews, kinship, gift economies of reciprocity and universal consciousness. So unfamiliar to our western models, and yet they are our lineage, lasting for thousands of years prior and with many more millenia ahead of them.

Schumachers Buddhist Economics, intermediate technology and localised production are increasingly relevant in today's world of escalating climate crisis, technological take-over and continual expansion of economic giganticness. The UN 2018 report gives humanity this decade to make transformative changes in all sectors of society in order to even have a chance of a stable, safe planet where we can all live. In the 3 years since that report, the systemic shifts have not happened at the required rates or in the most appropriate ways, inviting a revisitation of Schumacher’s lessons. In the 21st century, people and planet are synonymous. It is not a trade-off or a competition for resources. We are one and the same, and what we do to Earth we do to all beings including ourselves. Thus the second part to my title; economics as if the planet mattered. This points to the pre-requisite of planetary survival and ecosystem health if people are to have an opportunity to live beautifully, or even exist at all. It is no longer just a beautiful choice to steward our earth or adopt radically ecological worldviews, it is now a necessity. Given this, Schumachers thesis must be reframed as an economics for thriving humans within a flourishing biosphere, which is both beautiful and necessary. This is the vision that is at stake; rather than saving nature itself, we are called to save our relationship to nature, from the brink of separation and divorce, and we must do the hard inner and outer work to transform this chapter into a lesson for entering a deeper relationship, a new socio-ecological paradigm that does not exploit and extract but gives abundantly and regenerates.

Finally, we need to go beyond the myth that big is successful, and small is ineffective and inefficient. The fetishised nature of growth and continual expansion has served to erode so many communities, livelihoods and lands, whilst reducing real efficiency and increasing negative externalities. Reak efficiency, from a permaculture perspective, means no waste and an appropriate scale. This means that loops are closed, each output from one cycle (e.g. woodchips/logs from a tree surgeon) contributed to the inputs of another (e.g. mushroom growing using woodchips/logs) which then feed into another regenerative cycle (mushroom compost for vegetable growing), which feeds into another until it has returned to nourish the sources of life i.e. the land, water, people and animals. This is life-affirming design that eradicates the inefficiencies of mass scale production. This is no longer an abstract idea of circular economics, but a reality grounded in thousands of small scale regenerative project, organisations, enterprises and communities. The market garden model is one case which is demonstrating how small scale producers can not only be more ethical and ecological, but also more efficient and economic.

Large scale agriculture is now completely debt ridden, financed by loans and subsidies, to pay for endless machinery, chemicals and artificial fertilisers. Market Gardens and small scale food producers are now able to produce local, affordable, healthier alternatives to the global food system - and require less land and inputs for greater yields. And the yields spiral upwards over time as soil health increases, biodiversity flourishes and local support booms. Conversely, industrial agriculture yields are in crisis, due to heavy tillage and non-organic practices which are eroding the topsoil so fast that the UN estimates less than 50 harvests left if this broken global food system continues. We can feed the world with small scale production. Small scale producers, mostly women in developing countries, currently produce the majority of world calories and nutrients, on less land and through more ecologically regenerative mechanisms. Gigantic scale Ag and its ‘distribution’ systems allow 40% of production to go to food waste, and 75% of the rest of the remainder is fed to livestock that could be eating a wilder, healthier diet on less land. So who exactly is global agriculture feeding? How efficient is this really? And at what cost?

Small is beautiful, necessary and successful. There’s a revolution of small scale growers and stewards reclaiming what it means to be content with an appropriate scale. In the coming decades, as our ecological systems become even more stressed and as people increasingly seek local empowered alternatives, we will witness a revolution in scale, that takes us in the opposite direction of blind giganticness and towards a fulfilling and nourishing smallness.

Hamish Evans

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