The Recent Press and E.F. Schumacher’s Warnings

Having just completed research on economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977), I have been struck by how relevant many of his warnings are to today’s events. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything he wrote, his comments are well worth considering as we struggle to deal with all our complex problems. If our leaders over the last three or four decades had acted more intelligently to address some of the concerns he expressed, we would be in less dire straits today. Below I provide some brief excerpts concerning various issues recently in the news, followed by relevant Schumacher quotes.

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill; Oil Consumption and Dependence
News Item (May 8th) “The Crisis Comes Ashore” (Al Gore’s article in The New Republic, May 8, 2010)

On the early results of the oil spill resulting from the oil blowout that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010:

“The oil is having a direct impact on fish, shellfish, turtles, seabirds, coral reefs, marshes, and the entire web of life in the Gulf Coast. The indirect effects include the loss of jobs in the fishing and tourism industries; the destruction of the health, vitality, and rich culture of communities in the region; imminent bankruptcies; vast environmental damage expected to persist for decades; and the disruption of seafood markets nationwide.

And, of course, the consequences of our ravenous consumption of oil are even larger.

. . . We are now draining our economy of several hundred billion dollars a year in order to purchase foreign oil in a global market dominated by the huge reserves owned by sovereign states in the Persian Gulf. . . .
[See also President Obama’s April 2 remarks on oil rigs and energy, and Andrew C. Revkin, “America’s Energy Crossroads]

I am far from the only one who believes that it is not too much of a stretch to link the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan—and even last week’s attempted bombing in Times Square—to a long chain of events triggered in part by our decision to allow ourselves to become so dependent on foreign oil.”

Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful , Perennial Library ed., 1975, pp. 29, 30, 132-33)

“The greatest danger . . . is a continuation of rapid growth in oil production and consumption throughout the world.”

“The consumption of fuel on the indicated scale . . . would produce environmental hazards of an unprecedented kind.”

“We find, therefore, that the idea of unlimited economic growth . . . needs to be seriously questioned on at least two counts: the availability of basic resources and, alternatively or additionally, the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference implied.”

“Assessments vary about the length of time that will elapse before fossil fuels are exhausted, but it is increasingly recognised that their life is limited and satisfactory alternatives must be found.”

Chemicals, the Oil Spill, Health, and Agriculture

News Item (May 5): Elisabeth Rosenthal, “In Gulf of Mexico, Chemicals Under Scrutiny” (New York Times)

“As they struggle to plug a leak from a ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, BP and federal officials are also engaging in one of the largest and most aggressive experiments with chemical dispersants in the history of the country, and perhaps the world.”

News Item (May 5): “New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer” (Nicholas D. Kristof’s New York Times column)

President’s Cancer Panel report recommends that individuals “give preference to food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and growth hormones.”

News Item (May 6): “Invasion of the Superweeds” (from New York Times blog)

“American farmers’ broad use of the weedkiller glyphosphate — particularly Roundup, which was originally made by Monsanto — has led to the rapid growth in recent years of herbicide-resistant weeds. To fight them, farmers are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.”

Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful, pp. 18, 158):

“Scientists and technologists have learned to compound substances unknown to nature. Against many of them, nature is virtually defenceless. There are no natural agents to attack and break them down. . . . These substances, unknown to nature, owe their almost magical effectiveness precisely to nature’s defencelessness— and that accounts also for their dangerous ecological impact. It is only in the last twenty years or so that they have made their appearance in bulk. Because they have no natural enemies, they tend to accumulate, and the long-term consequences of this accumulation are in many cases known to be extremely dangerous, and in other cases totally unpredictable.”

“Modern agriculture relies on applying to soil, plants, and animals ever-increasing quantities of chemical products, the long-term effect of which on soil fertility and health is subject to very grave doubts.”

Nuclear Energy and Safety

News Item (May 6): “Al Qaeda’s Nuclear Plant” (New York Times op-ed by former CIA officer Charles Faddis)

Writing about Sharif Mobley, a New Jersey native, who worked at five U. S. nuclear power plants before moving to Yemen allegedly to join Al Qaeda:

“It doesn’t take top-level clearance to know how to set off a nuclear meltdown. All it takes is information on perimeter security — information Mr. Mobley possesses about every plant where he worked. . . . For too long we’ve assumed that a nuclear plant is safe as long as its reactor is protected. Sharif Mobley knew better. Now, chances are, so does Al Qaeda.”

[See also "Renewable Energy: A Conservative Approach"]

Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful, p. 135, 140):

“Of all the changes introduced by man into the household of nature, large-scale nuclear fission is undoubtedly the most dangerous and profound. . . . The insurance companies . . . are reluctant to insure nuclear power stations anywhere in the world for third party risk, with the result that special legislation has had to be passed whereby the State accepts big liabilities. Yet, insured or not, the hazard remains.”

“Radioactive pollution is an evil of an incomparably greater ‘dimension’ than anything mankind has known before.”

Economics and Greed

News Item (April 27): “Olive Oil and Snake Oil” (Maureen Dowd’s New York Times column)

On the congressional testimony of executives from Goldman Sachs:

“Luckily for Goldman, greed may trump ethics. The firm’s stock closed higher Tuesday.”

Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful, p. 31, 69-70, 101, 134):

“The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed.”

“Ecology, indeed, ought to be a compulsory subject for all economists.”

“It [economics] tends to absorb the whole of ethics and to take precedence over all other human considerations. Now, quite clearly, this is a pathological development.”

“We have even degraded the very words without which ethical discourse cannot carry on, words like ‘virtue,’ ‘love,’ ‘temperance.’ As a result, we are totally ignorant, totally uneducated in the subject that, of all conceivable subjects, is the most important.”

The Stock Market and Technology

News Item (May 7): “The (Almost) Crash of Wall Street” (Robert Reich)

“Ninety minutes before the end of the trading day today, the U.S. stock market almost melted down. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,000 points. . . . it’s further evidence that the nation’s and the world’s capital markets have become a vast out-of-control casino in which fortunes can be made or lost in an instant . . . . So much of the market now depends on computer programs and mathematical models that no one fully understands . . . that we are toying with financial disaster every day.”

Schumacher (Good Work, Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 30-31; Small Is Beautiful, p. 146):

“Who, it may be asked, calls the tune? Fundamentally, the technologist. Whatever becomes technologically possible—within certain economic limits—must be done. Society must adapt itself to it. The question whether or not it does any good is ruled out on the specious argument that no one knows anyhow what is good or evil, wholesome or unwholesome, worthy of man or unworthy.”

“Strange to say, technology, although of course the product of man, tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or of living nature in general.”

Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008).

Comments

  1. says

    I have had that book for years and remember thinking, upon first reading, how powerful the concepts were. Thanks for reminding me! Wish more people would read this little gem and give it some careful thought.

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