50 years later, small is still beautiful

Spring has arrived in the northern hemisphere: trees are greening, flowers are blooming, and plants are putting out new shoots. At this electric time of year, it’s only natural to think this is what we were made for. Pity about that pause in winter, we think. Spring persuades us that our natural state is growth.

It’s a seductive thought – but a false one. Every living thing has its limit. We cheer on a child’s growth (“My how you’ve grown!”), but an adult that never stopped growing would collapse under their own weight. When plants or animal populations don’t stop growing it’s because they’re out of synch with their environments, organisms whose predators have disappeared, invasive species like kudzu and zebra mussels, or deranged cancer cells. Growth is good and necessary – but for the health of the organism it also must stop.

But as German economist E. F. Schumacher argued in his 1973 book Small is beautiful, humankind has a tendency to see itself outside nature. Outside its rules. Which is why our eyes light up when we talk about unlimited growth. Economies that know no limits. Global mega corporations that straddle the globe. We want growth without limits – and without consequences.

The consequences, however, have always been there. In the middle of last century, an Austrian economist named Leopold Kohr argued that the problems of World War II arose from the size of the combatants. When others championed a powerful European Union to counter the size of the Soviet Union, he said our best chance for peace was the Swiss model, a confederation of 22 separate cantons. Bigness is the problem: “Whenever something is wrong, something is too big.”

Schumacher was a student of Kohr’s, and not the only one to pick up on the idea of the consequences of bigness. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring revealed the terrible impact of indiscriminate use of agricultural pesticides like DDT on bird populations. Biologist Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb shocked the West with a vision of population growth spurring a “race to oblivion”. And the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth, a dire warning about resource depletion. When Schumacher published Small is beautiful in 1973, the same year as the first oil shock, he wasn’t, like his teacher, a lone voice in the crowd.

To some extent rejecting the dire tone of these books, Schumacher’s book is subtitled Economics as if people mattered. He, too, warns against the ill effects of “gigantism”. But he argues positively for companies and economies to find a harmonious, appropriate size in relation to the environment. And Schumacher rejected the disproportionate application of alienating technologies, saying that people are happiest when they’re creative, useful, and productively engaged with our hands and minds.

In a time when we’re all wondering if the next AI app will replace us, or whether our favourite tech company is really too big to fail, Schumacher’s book is still a timely reminder to take a lesson from the natural world. Growth is good, but small is beautiful.