Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (16 August 1911 – 4 September 1977) was a German statistician and economist who is best known for his proposals for human-scale, decentralised and appropriate technologies. He served as Chief Economic Advisor to the British National Coal Board from 1950 to 1970, and founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now known as Practical Action) in 1966.
In 1995, his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered was ranked by The Times Literary Supplement as one of the 100 most influential books published since World War II. In 1977 he published A Guide for the Perplexed as a critique of materialistic scientism and as an exploration of the nature and organisation of knowledge.
Schumacher was born in Bonn, Germany in 1911. His father was a professor of political economy. The younger Schumacher studied in Bonn and Berlin, then from 1930 in England as a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford, and later at Columbia University in New York City, earning a diploma in economics. He then worked in business, farming and journalism. His sister, Elizabeth, was the wife of the physicist Werner Heisenberg.
Schumacher moved back to England before World War II, as he had no intention of living under Nazism. For a period during the War, he was interned on an isolated English farm as an "enemy alien". In these years, Schumacher captured the attention of John Maynard Keynes with a paper entitled "Multilateral Clearing" that he had written between sessions working in the fields of the internment camp. Keynes recognised the young German's understanding and abilities, and he was able to have Schumacher released from internment. Schumacher helped the British government mobilise economically and financially during World War II, and Keynes found a position for him at Oxford University.
According to Leopold Kohr's obituary for Schumacher, when "Multilateral Clearing" "was published in the spring of 1943 in Economica, it caused some embarrassment to Keynes who, instead of arranging for its separate publication, had incorporated the text almost verbatim in his famous "Plan for an International Clearing Union", which the British government issued as a White Paper a few weeks later."
After the War, Schumacher worked as an economic advisor to, and later Chief Statistician for, the British Control Commission, which was charged with rebuilding the German economy. From 1950 to 1970 he was Chief Economic Adviser to the National Coal Board, one of the world's largest organisations, with 800,000 employees. In this position, he argued that coal, not petroleum, should be used to supply the energy needs of the world's population. He saw oil as a finite resource, fearing its depletion and eventually prohibitive price, and viewed with alarm the reality that "the richest and cheapest reserves are located in some of the world's most unstable countries"
His position on the Coal Board was often mentioned later by those introducing Schumacher or his ideas. It is generally thought that his farsighted planning contributed to Britain's post-war economic recovery. Schumacher predicted the rise of OPEC and many of the problems of nuclear power.
In 1955 Schumacher travelled to Burma as an economic consultant. While there, he developed the set of principles he called "Buddhist economics", based on the belief that individuals need good work for proper human development. He also proclaimed that "production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life." He travelled throughout many Third World countries, encouraging local governments to create self-reliant economies. Schumacher's experience led him to become a pioneer of what is now called appropriate technology: user-friendly and ecologically suitable technology applicable to the scale of the community; a concept very close to Ivan Illich's conviviality. He founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action) in 1966. His theories of development have been summed up for many in catch phrases such as "intermediate size", and "intermediate technology". He was a trustee of Scott Bader Commonwealth and in 1970 the president of the Soil Association.
E. F. Schumacher was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and J. C. Kumarappa and Gandhi's concepts of "Economy of Permanence" and appropriate technology. While delivering the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at the Gandhian Institute of Studies at Varanasi (India) in 1973, Schumacher described Gandhi as the greatest 'People's Economist' whose economic thinking was compatible with spirituality as opposed to materialism.
He and his solution to the great economy problems influences E. F. Schumacher Society, The Arche, George McRobie, William Schweke, and many people in the World.
Schumacher wrote on economics for London's The Times and became one of the paper's chief editorial writers. At this post he was assigned the task of compiling information for the obituary of John Maynard Keynes. He also wrote for The Economist and Resurgence. He served as adviser to the India Planning Commission, as well as to the governments of Zambia and Burma – an experience that led to his much-read essay "Buddhist Economics".
The 1973 publication of Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered, a collection of essays, finished in the house of his friend Leopold Kohr, brought his ideas to a wider audience. One of his main arguments in Small is Beautiful is that we cannot consider the problem of technological production solved if it requires that we recklessly erode our finite natural capital and deprive future generations of its benefits. Schumacher's work coincided with the growth of ecological concerns and with the birth of environmentalism, and he became a hero to many in the environmental movement and community movement.
In 1976, he received the prestigious award Prix Européen de l'Essai Charles Veillon for Small is Beautiful.
As a young man, Schumacher was a dedicated atheist, but his later rejection of materialist, capitalist, agnostic modernity was paralleled by a growing fascination with religion. He developed an interest in Buddhism, but beginning in the late 1950s, Catholicism heavily influenced his thinking. He noted the similarities between his own economic views and the teaching of papal encyclicals on socio-economic issues, from Leo XIII's "Rerum novarum" to Pope John XXIII's Mater et magistra, as well as with the distributism supported by the Catholic thinkers G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Vincent McNabb. Philosophically, he absorbed much of Thomism, which provided an objective system in contrast to what he saw as the self-centered subjectivism and relativism of modern philosophy and society. He also was greatly interested in the tradition of Christian mysticism and read deeply such writers as St. Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton. These were all interests that he shared with his friend, the Catholic writer Christopher Derrick. In 1971, he converted to Catholicism.
Schumacher gave interviews and published articles for a wide readership in his later years. He also pursued one of the loves of his life: gardening. He died of a heart attack on 4 September 1977, in Switzerland, during a lecture tour.
Schumacher's personal collection of books and archives is held by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics library in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Center continues the work of E. F. Schumacher by maintaining a research library, organising lectures and seminars, publishing papers, developing model economic programs, and providing technical assistance to groups all for the purpose of linking people, land, and community to build strong, diverse local economies.
The Schumacher Circle is a family of organisations which were founded in E.F. Schumacher's memory or were inspired by his work, and which co-operate to support each other. The circle includes the Schumacher College in Totnes, Devon, Resurgence Magazine (now Resurgence & Ecologist), publishing company Green Books, international non-governmental organisation Practical Action, the New Economics Foundation in the UK, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics (heir to the legacy programs of the former E. F. Schumacher Society) founded in New England, the Soil Association, the educational Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) North Wales, the Jeevika Trust, and the research organisation the Schumacher Institute in Bristol.
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