E.F. Schumacher Essay

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Ernst Friedrich Schumacher is best known for his book Small is Beautiful, which argued for social and environmental sustainability as a radical critique of mass industrialization, the culture of consumerism, and the logic of globalization. Upon its release, Schumacher became an instant celebrity and a sort of guru of the burgeoning global environmental movement, which embraced his vision of human-scaled development, social decentralization, and the deployment of intermediate and appropriate technologies as alternatives to the destructive aspects of modern life.

Moving beyond orthodox economic thought, Schumacher outlines a “Buddhist economics” that rationally utilizes local resources for local needs and seeks dignified, meaningful, and creative work in the name of human development. Schumacher’s later writings highlight the role that religion and spirituality play in fostering a more sustainable existence. Schumacher believed that humans are essentially homo viator, or beings created with the purpose of recognizing God, and that it was the failure to recognize this that led to the growth of social problems rooted in individual selfishness.

An economist by training and profession, notably as an early protege of John Maynard Keynes and later, from 1950 onwards, as the chief economic adviser for Britain’s National Coal Board and consultant to many international leaders and developing nations such as India, Burma, and Zambia, Schumacher brought an understanding of public policy to the matters that commanded his attention. Presciently, Schumacher perceived a growing energy crisis after World War II and he took a leading position against the adoption of a petroleum-based economy as the global standard. Schumacher foresaw the rise of oil cartels such as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and argued that because oil is a non-renewable resource that has many significant deposits located in the world’s most politically destabilized regions, making oil the centerpiece of national energy platforms would prove short-sighted, costly, and non-facilitative of international peace. Additionally, Schumacher derided high-technological solutions to the energy crisis such as nuclear power, and while he initially promoted coal as a sensible long-term solution to the world’s energy needs, his belief in the need for intermediate and appropriate technologies accords most directly with renewable forms of alternative energy such as wind, hydro, geothermal, and solar power.

In 1966 he co-founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group-now known as Practical Action-dedicated to fostering sustainable social solutions for the developing world. Schumacher recognized that technical changes often produce unexpected social, economic, and cultural transformations, and that the developing world thus required a middle path between cultural imperialism and indigenous technologies in order to combat growing poverty, environmental disasters, and the legacy of colonialism at the regional and community level. Such technologies, he felt, could decrease unemployment and raise efficiency by an order of magnitude, while building upon traditional knowledge and values that promote conservation of the environment.

Many organizations, such as those that comprise the Schumacher Circle, are dedicated to carrying on his legacy. Schumacher’s philosophy has shaped key aspects of modern environmentalism, the global justice movement, and what has come to be called Post-development theory. Further, as informationcommunication, genetic modification, and other emergent technologies revolutionize global life, questions about their appropriateness for the developing world mount.


  1. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973);
  2. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (Harper & Row, 1977);
  3. Roli Varma, “E. F. Schumacher: Changing the Paradigm of Bigger is Better,” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society (v.23/2, 2003).

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