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<nettime> Loka Alert: E.F. SCHUMACHER: A RETROSPECT

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Subject: E.F. SCHUMACHER: A RETROSPECT (Loka Alert 8:6)

Loka Alert 8:6
November 1, 2001

                  E.F. Schumacher: A Retrospect and 
                 Reflection After September 11, 2001
                          By Bruce Piasecki
   When E.F.Schumacher visited the Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)  
campus in the late l970s, he made a strange request. He wanted to speak at
Sage Chapel, the old red stone brick sanctuary, not far from the equally
odd and submerged Cornell campus bookstore. Sage at the time was seldom
frequented by students, let alone the future business leaders that needed
to hear his words. I protested mildly, as the precocious undergraduate who
first invited this past chair of the British Coal Board during World War
II to campus, but he prevailed.  To my surprise, the Chapel was full, and
the master was at his prime.  I left that cool Fall night feeling changed.
Everything Schumacher said, from his critique of centralized power
systems, to his love of the poor, sounded right to me. Little did I know
how right.
   The next week I wrote my first published book review, a glorification
of _Small Is Beautiful_.  I still appreciate the power and grace of his
mind, and the lasting value and good sense of this classic text in
appropriate technology, world affairs, and the logic and need for properly
scaled organizations and programs. I picked up _Small Is Beautiful_ again
after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, and found both
solace and insight in those pages now first shared in l973.
   Across time, E.F.Schumacher has influenced directly the likes of Amory
Lovins, whose l979 classic on decoupling energy consumption and GNP, can
now be seen as the first child of consequence following Schumacher. I can
see the fingerprints of Schumacher, for instance, in the new book by my
friend and colleague Peter Asmus, whose _Reaping the Wind_ (Island Press,
2001) verifies why wind turbines are a small but powerful instance of
distributed power now available at the right price in the right locations
across the globe. It is hard, in short, to visit the public affairs or
environmental ethics sections of most bookstores without seeing this large
shadow of Schumacher on the shelf of both doers and thinkers.
   What follows itemizes how the work of E.F.Schumacher has shaped the
last three decades. As I was asked to write this with reference to how
Schumacher influences my own books and consulting practice, please forgive
the occasional notation on how this master in word and deed also
redirected and focused my topics of concern. Just as another late 20th
Century creative force Federico Fellini showed me how a corporate meeting
can have the feel of a circus in its recurrent mixture of dramatic
technique, precision, and improvisation, _Small Is Beautiful_ in
particular, and the works and arguments of E.F. Schumacher in general,
have helped me choose my battles and arguments. He set the table, upon
which many of us still feast.
   Schumacher had that rare gift of telling the truth. Note the
astonishing lack of high or distracting rhetoric in these now classic
1. "The future cannot be forecast, but it can be explored" (page 226, in
the chapter exploding the myths of economic predictability called "A
Machine to Foretell the Future?")
2. "To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now."
(page l9, in his still stunning critique of modern manufacturing called
"The Problem of Production")
3. "The technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically
damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and
stultifying for the human person. The technology of production by the
masses, making use of the best knowledge and experience, is conductive to
decentralization, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use
of scare resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of
making him the servant of machines. I have named it intermediate
technology to signify that it is vastly superior to the primitive
technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and
freer than the super technology of the rich." (page l45, from the now
classic chapter "Technology with a Human Face")
   You can see Schumacher's redemptive imagination at work in the phrase
"designed to serve the human person", but you can also sense, even in
these short excerpts, the bold simplicity and strong authenticity of his
work. The entire book, all 271 pages of it, feel to me like the
conversations I have with my wife and best friends on the way down from a
long luxurious Adirondack high peaks hike. After all the huffing and
puffing that gets us up the mountain, when the limbs are warm and
exercised, a bold plainness embraces our speech.  Certainly any good book
is rehearsed and refined, more like a fine speech by former U.S. President
Abe Lincoln than a out in the woods talk, but the grandness in the style
and vision of Schumacher is its experienced plainness. Let's look a little
closer at this disarming honesty.
   During the late l980s, after finishing two books on hazardous waste
management in Europe and the United States, I decided that I was writing
in black and white, books that were too technical and legalistic. In
reviewing _Small is Beautiful_, among others, I decided, with the help of
a new literary agent, to try my hand in color.  Most of us know that
trying to write about social and ecological problems in color is
counterintuitive. It is not easy, at least for me, to transcend the
inherently legal and technical densities of the subject matter, from
alternatives to the land disposal of chlorinated hydrocarbons to the
competing computer models now defining our best options regarding CO2 and
other greenhouse gas magnifiers like SF6.
   At the time, I was also reading a great deal of the Scottish writer
Lord Macaulay, a frequent contributor of literary essays to the _Edinburgh
Review_ in the l820s to the l840s. As I combed thru Macaulay's forty pages
on Machiavelli or his one hundred and twenty four pages on the short
amazing life of Lord Byron, I was reminded of how segmented my thinking
had become regarding social problems. I was falling prey to the common
modern conceptual allergy. If I couldn't count it, I couldn't comment on
it. Macauley's grand and colorful style helped me reconsider my bearings,
but it was a bit too much. In fact, when I brought home the passages that
I loved the most to my wife, an editor and publisher, she noted how crazed
they were, and often compared them, rather accurately, to those crazed
conversations we sometimes have when stuck with a stranger on a long night
train ride.  Nonetheless, Macauley had touched a nerve, so I decided to
calibrate his style next to Schumacher's' plainer style. It was night and
day. In contrast to both Macauley and Schumacher, most professional
writing appears stultifying. But a hybrid of Macauley's exuberance and
Schumacher's level headedness seemed intriguing. I decided to give it a
   By l990, I had published thru Simon and Schuster my book with the
journalist Peter Asmus, _In Search of Environmental Excellence:  Moving
Beyond Blame_. It was not written in the language of experts, and selling
in paperback for less than ten dollars, it got wide circulation for a book
of its kind, winning a book of the year by the Nature Society of England,
and being selected by several quality paperback book editions and
collections. Once again, embedding my thoughts in the realm of E.F.
Schumacher had helped. Gregg Easterbrook, then the Environment Editor of
_Newsweek_ magazine, listed the title in his colossal _Moment on Earth_ in
its general bibliography section, in the neighborhood of some twenty-two
other general environmental writers last century that included Aldo
Leopold, Rachel Carson, Schumacher himself, and their direct descendents.
   Why do I mention this? We don't have many decades to forge our
compositional style. Schumacher, in his plain but argumentative style,
helped me settle on the manner of communication that worked for me. More
importantly, it also helped me discern one of the best ways to engage the
many clients, affiliates, and stakeholders in my consulting firm's basic
practice. If you can tell the truth, some will listen.
   Schumacher can also help one become a more competent teacher.  During
the l990s, I taught graduate business seminars at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute's (RPI) Lally School of Management and Technology. Being
America's first engineering school, RPI tended to attract
technology-gifted individuals, still does. I chose in the early l990s to
teach them _Small Is Beautiful_ in one of the core- required seminars.
While I must admit, in retrospect, that many of the purer gear heads often
slipped two or three speeds, downshifting into disdain on such chapters at
"Buddhist Economics" (Part I, chapter 4) or "The Problem of Unemployment
in India" (Part II, chapter 4). Nonetheless, some took a solid liking to
the following passage:
   "The structure of the organization can then be symbolized by a man
holding a large number of balloons in his hand. Each of the balloons has
its own buoyancy and lift, and the man himself does not lord it over the
balloons, but stands beneath them, yet holding all the strings firmly in
his hand. Every balloon is not only an administrative but also an
entrepreneurial unit."
   Students of business read this passage, and it caffinates them.  They
already have inherited a sense of the monolithic organization, which
Schumacher colorfully characterizes as a "Christmas tree, with a star at
the top and lots of nuts and other useful things underneath." Even the
recalcitrant RPI engineer was moved, if only momentarily, by Schumacher's
application of this insight to his work at the British National Coal
Board, one of the largest commercial organizations in Europe at the time.
   Here Schumacher notes how they found it possible to set up "quasi-
firms" under various names for its opencast mining, its brickworks, and
its coal products..."Special, relatively self-contained organizational
forms have evolved for its road transport activities, estates, and retail
business, not to mention various enterprises falling under the head of
   Today, even after the recent disasters, it makes sense to think
thru this distinction in our own organizations and lives. The man or woman
holding balloons is in desperate need. The problem I found with many U.S.
business school graduates is their narrowness.  They have trouble
empathizing with the needs and logic of their direct reports, and often
can't see the value of inputs from their customers or stakeholders. Gifted
in diagnostics, they are like doctors unable to articulate their
prognosis, unwilling to schedule the cure. Schumacher, and others writing
in the great humanistic tradition like Macauley, Max DePres or Donald
Phillips (whose _Lincoln on Leadership_ I give to any leader I meet
willing to take the time) know better. It is all about people not just
numbers, no matter how alluring and telling.
   In fact, Schumacher chose to end _Small is Beautiful_ with this
forceful warning: "Everywhere people ask: 'What can I actually do?' The
answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: We can, each of us, work to
put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work
cannot be found in science and technology, the value of which utterly
depends on the ends they serve; but is can still be found in the
traditional wisdom of mankind." The traditional wisdom of mankind,
something I know you can get at the "Great Books"  curriculum at a few
fine U.S. schools like Columbia University, but not many other places. I
guess it pays to just buy the books yourself.
   Schumacher's insight centers on how a trust in people, their needs, can
allow the refinement of complex management systems, not vice versa. He
would get a kick out of the billions of dollars now invested in
forecasting and customer relations software, in the absence of basic
eye-to-eye relationships. I once met a brilliant New York based
advertising executive who summed it up for me: he said every business
resides in relational marketing, not in machines. In the end, E.F.
Schumacher taught many of us that if we trust in public participation, it
will prove the most reliable means to make the world more intelligible.
   Of course, there are many other places the readers of the Loka
Institute can go to get this advice. But Schumacher was a particularly
intelligent provocateur, a conceptual conversationalist par excellence.  
Watch, for example, how he pricks his readers into attentiveness in this
opening to his chapter called "Resources for Industry" (Part II, Chapter
   "The most striking thing about modern industry is that it requires so
much and accomplishes so little. Modern industry seems to be inefficient
to a degree that surpasses one's ordinary powers of imagination. Its
inefficiency therefore remains unnoticed." (page ll0).
   Amory Lovins echoes this "illusion of certainty" argument in his now
famous preamble to _Soft Energy Paths_. I have heard the same echo in my
mind several times, as I march in to make a presentation before a Board or
Management Council of one of my clients or affiliates. In fact, my firm's
focus on emerging trends in energy, materials, and the environment can be
thought to have its enabling mantra found in the author under review.
   Readers of _Loka Alert_ know far more than I ever will about the
importance of citizen science. When citizens ask the right questions
(about siting, about complex technologies, about how the police might use
their new onstar satellite systems embedded in their cars), higher
efficiencies and more sound social policies are bound to prevail. Call
this optimistic, but it is a belief based in a kind of conceptual
empiricism I see at the base of Schumacher's work. To test the legitimacy
of these claims, let's look at the issue of energy security.
   Since September 11, many U.S. government experts and corporate
strategists have begun to reassess their respective beachfronts from the
point of view of security. This is an especially important issue when it
comes to energy: how we make it, how we might best distribute it, and what
the real needs of business are at a time when power outages can add up to
millions of dollars in lost profit.
   While U.S. dependency on imported oil from the Middle East is the
obvious vulnerability linked to the terrorist strikes, our information
intensive economy is also highly dependent upon a reliable supply of
electricity. The rolling blackouts that have hit California attached some
real dollar signs to the cost of unreliable power supplies. Silicon Valley
firms lost $100 million in one day in June of 2000 when the power went
out. All told, businesses in the U.S. lost $80 billion per/year due to
power outages, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.
   Whether it is Toyota or GM competing in auto-making, or Intel and its
archrivals competing over the shape of future chips, modern manufacturing
increasingly requires higher and higher degrees of reliability.
   Over 8 percent of current U.S. consumption of electricity is directly
linked to the entire wired state of play necessary to make better cars,
better homes, or better appliances. In each of these cases, a steady
stream of highly reliable electrons is required.  Whereas electricity
represented only 25% of total energy needs in the mid-70s, it will
represent 50% of total U.S. energy by 2020, when my daughter enters her
   What would E.F. Schumacher say about this current predicament, and
outline as our search for solutions?
   The terrorist attacks, and corresponding increases in U.S.  security
costs at nuclear power plants, natural gas pipelines and long distance
transmission lines, amplify the shortcomings of the old transmission and
distribution grid. I am sure Schumacher would say this boldly. A perfect
strike at one of these targets could result in crippling outages that
could last for days.
   Since September 11, some key U.S. decision makers are taking a fresh
look at our energy infrastructure needs. There are some real business
opportunities merging in the realm of clean and distributed electricity
technologies, especially for the nimbler small businesses that abound.
Wind turbines, solar photovoltaics, fuel cells and highly efficient
micro-turbines are being incorporated into the corporate strategies of
firms as diverse as Walgreen's, Fetzer Winery, First National Bank of
Omaha, Neutrogena, Johnson and Johnson, Bently Mills and Arden Realty. In
fact, our _Corporate Strategy Today_ quarterly tracks these developments.
These companies are walking in the shadow of E.F. Schumacher, some
knowingly, some by good fortune.
   After September 11, we need as a nation and as a larger community of
intellectuals to revisit the question of scale, first articulated by
Schumacher since World War II. This is the most annoying feature of
Schumacher's perennial success as a writer. He creates mental mosquito
bites, like Socrates, that cause cognitive itch. If we rebuilt the World
Trade Center should it remain 110 stories high?  When we ready the new
Pentagon, should it all be so centralized? When we modernize our
electricity grid, as now hotly debated in the U.S.  Senate versions of
President Bush's Energy Bill, should we do it at the exclusion of the
small business innovator stretching for energy independence thru
distributed power?
   At age forty-six, I have now lived with Schumacher's vision since I was
that Cornell University undergraduate when the book came out, thirsty for
redirection and even guidance. I still ask myself some mornings: Why did
he choose to speak at Sage Chapel? Why did he place so much emphasis on
the end use of energy? Why did he constantly question if we were efficient
enough? In fact, why did he believe we have some much trouble asking the
question "What Is Enough?" in the vast paradise of consumer delight? I
also ask at the end of some brutal days as a consultant: "In retrospect,
has he become more like a perfect fossil, glittering in its translucent
amber, but actually mostly historic debris?"
   The answer resides in use. The greatest pleasure for writers of
non-fiction may be that their books not only be read, but also used, used
by corporate decision-makers and technical innovators, used by citizens
and scientists, employed and engaged by other intellectuals.
   As I travel around, when I spot _Small Is Beautiful_ on a shelf, I ask
to hold it. It is often a used copy, with marginalia, and earmarked. This
is the final honor to an author.
   In our more dangerous world, in a time when data is transferred in
seconds but often left uninterpreted or even unopened, and when the pace
of professional life itself is nothing short of turbulent, the long,
low-frequency of E.F. Schumacher's message remains heard.
   Think in closing about how elephants herd. Lately scientists have begun
to discern that in Africa at sunset elephants capitalize on heat
inversions. The nasal vibration emitted to alert other herds to keep their
distance, especially during droughts, now travels up to six miles rather
than the usual one hour doable without the inversions to bounce the
frequency. This is an important toll-free message when each herd these
days consumes several square miles of food in places where food is scare.
It is during this time of day, when there can be 20 degrees F of
difference between the coolness at the knees of a giraffe and the
temperature hovering in the inversion at their Dr. Suess like heads, that
these elephant families choose to speak to their neighbors.
   This small curious detail, just one among billions in the gloria known
as our natural world, might bring--even in a time after the lost of so
many lives--a smile to Schumacher's normally stern face.

Lord Macaulay, _Literary Essays_ (Oxford Edition, l9l3)
E. F. Schumacher, _Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered_,
(Harper and Row, l973)
Bruce Piasecki, with Peter Asmus, _In Search of Environmental Excellence:
Moving Beyond Blame_ (Simon and Schuster, l990)
Martin W. Lewis, _Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical
Environmentalism_ (Duke University Press, l992)
Gregg Easterbrook, A Moment on Earth (Harper and Row, l995)
Bruce Piasecki, _Corporate Environmental Strategy: the Avalanche of Change
Since Bhopal_ (John Wiley and Sons, l995)
Bruce Piasecki, Frank Mendelson, Kevin Fletcher, _Environmental Management
and Business Strategy: Leadership Skills for the 21st Century_ (John Wiley
and Sons, l999)
Peter Asmus, _Reaping the Wind_ (Island Press, 2001)


Bruce Piasecki ( is the Founder and President of the
American Hazard Control Group Inc (, a management
consulting firm specializing in energy, materials and the environment
since l98l. Many of the Senior Associates of the AHCGroup are published
experts or attorneys or retired executives from major manufacturing firms.
Our clients have included Toyota North America, Con Edison, PPL,
Constellation Energy Group, and a set of 33 multinationals that have used
our programs and emerging issues workshops to benchmark their innovations
and management systems across the last ten years. Dr. Piasecki was the
founding Director of RPI's Environmental Management and Policy Masters
program in the Lally School of Management and Technology, and the author
of six books on energy and environmental strategy.

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