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E. F. Schumacher, Jerry Brown, Japan, Bees, and Wisdom

Walter Moss: Jerry Brown’s election as governor of California, the recent nuclear accident in Japan, and a late March episode of Bill Maher’s Real Time have all reminded me that 2011 marks the hundredth anniversary of E. F. Schumacher’s birth.

Jerry Brown’s election as governor of California, the recent nuclear accident in Japan, and a late March episode of Bill Maher’s Real Time have all reminded me that 2011 marks the hundredth anniversary of E. F. Schumacher’s birth. Brown was a great admirer of the insightful economist/environmentalist and spoke at his London funeral in 1977—although born in Germany, Schumacher spent most of his adulthood in England.

E.F. Schumacher

Japan’s accident calls to mind Schumacher’s fears about nuclear energy. In his most famous work, Small Is Beautiful (1973), he lamented that industrial nations were not cutting back on energy consumption or relying more on energy alternatives like solar power, but instead seemed to be shifting more toward nuclear energy. He thought that such a shift would just take the energy shortage problem to a different level, one that produced “environmental hazards of an unprecedented kind.” He concluded that “no degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances [nuclear materials] which nobody knows how to make ‘safe’ and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages.” In recent years, his belief that “ionizing radiation has become . . . the greatest threat to man's survival on earth,” was often perceived as just overblown rhetoric. Nuclear energy, we were assured time and again, had become safe. Once again, however, we humans overestimated our ability to manage safely and wisely the technology we have created.

Linked to Schumacher’s environmental concerns is the present plight of bees. Bill Maher’s Real Time brought up the subject when he interviewed actress Ellen Page, who had recently narrated a documentary film, The Vanishing of the Bees. He started off the interview by reading an Albert Einstein “quote”: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Although there has been considerable speculation as to if, where, and when, Einstein actually said these words that Maher had first quoted years earlier, that controversy should not sidetrack us from realizing that the declining bee population in some parts of the world is a serious concern. It is also one symptomatic of a deeper problem that Schumacher zeroed in on decades ago.

First, let’s address the seriousness of the bee decline. In March 2011, a UN report, authored by knowledgeable people such as Dr. Peter Neumann (Swiss Bee Research Centre), provided the latest findings on bee decreases in regions like Europe and North America. “Losses of honey bee colonies since 2004 has left North America with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the last 50 years. In this region, honey bees pollinate nearly 95 kinds of fruits such as almonds, avocados, cranberries and apples, as well as crops like soybeans. In 2000, the value of crops pollinated by bees was estimated at US$ 14.6 billion in the USA alone.”

As earlier indicated, less bee pollinators equals less food. The UN Report makes this clear.

Many fruit, nut, vegetable, legume, and seed crops depend on pollination. Pollination services are provided both by wild, free-living organisms (mainly bees . . . ), and by commercially managed bee species. Bees are the predominant and most economically important group of pollinators in most geographical regions.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that out of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated. In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal pollinated and 4 000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.

In a press release about the report, the UN noted that “more than a dozen factors, ranging from declines in flowering plants and the use of memory-damaging insecticides to the world-wide spread of pests and air pollution, may be behind the emerging ­decline of bee colonies across many parts of the globe.” It added that “scientists are warning that without profound changes to the way human-beings manage the planet, declines in pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue.”

In addition, the press release stated that “increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, including ‘systemic insecticides’ and those used to coat seeds, is being found to be damaging or toxic to bees.” Furthermore, “climate change, left unaddressed, may aggravate the situation, in various ways including by changing the flowering times of plants and shifting rainfall patterns. This may in turn affect the quality and quantity of nectar supplies.” Among the recommended steps to deal with the bee decline is the following: “Farmers and gardeners can rely on alternative non-toxic methods, such as natural enemies and environmentally friendly practice to control pests, insects and weeds, therefore reducing wildlife exposure to insecticides, herbicides and fungicides.”

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Schumacher was already encouraging such methods in the 1950s, when he practiced organic gardening himself and joined the English Soil Association, of which he became president during the 1970s. In Small Is Beautiful he wrote of the creation by modern scientists and technologists of many compound substances unknown to nature and that “the long-term consequences of this accumulation are in many cases known to be extremely dangerous, and in other cases totally unpredictable.” He also noted a related effect: “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.” Although Schumacher did not foresee all of the specific consequences of increasing industrialized chemical farming, he was wise enough to perceive that there might be adverse consequences that would appear only in the future—like our bee decline.

Maher’s Real Time program during which he interviewed Ellen Page also stimulated mulling over another question: why we as a nation do not concern ourselves more with the environmental and other type problems that troubled Schumacher. One of Maher’s panelists the night Page appeared was Newsweek editor Tina Brown—former governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell and one of America’s most articulate and thoughtful conservatives, New York Times columnist David Brooks completed this admirable panel. Maher brought up a test Newsweek gave to 1,000 Americans. On the test, 29 percent could not name our current vice president; 61 percent did not know the length of a U.S. senator’s term. One of the Newsweek articles that commented on the test also observed that when it came to knowing about international affairs, “the Europeans clobbered us.” Maher went on to mention the large number of Republican and Tea-Party supporters who believe that President Obama was foreign-born and/or a Muslim or who deny man-made global warming. Such ignorance and denseness makes one ask, “Why in our country do so many reject facts or the best scientific thinking?” Why do we know, or care, so little about our own political realities, environment, and the larger global society that surrounds us?

Of course, there are no easy answers. But I think Schumacher was insightful when he declared in Small Is Beautiful that “more education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.” He also believed that “the exclusion of wisdom from economics, science, and technology was something which we could perhaps get away with for a little while, as long as we were relatively unsuccessful; but now that we have become very successful, the problem of spiritual and moral truth moves into the central position. . . . Ever-bigger machines, entailing ever-bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever-greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the nonviolent, the elegant and beautiful.”

On Schumacher and wisdom I have written more elsewhere, but it’s sufficient here to say that wisdom is partly about making good choices and coordinating and prioritizing those choices with noble values like truth-seeking, compassion, empathy, and tolerance, all of which imply knowledge and concern about social and political realities. In our present economic difficulties, it is understandable that many unfortunates are concerned about jobs and economic sufficiency. But most Americans are still far better off financially than most people in the world. And one of our most distinguished thinkers, William James, was on to something when he wrote a century ago, “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS . . . with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success . . . is our national disease.” Simply put, the pursuit of material well-being, along with our consumer, celebrity-oriented mass culture, has diverted too many of us from taking the pursuit of wisdom or our responsibilities as citizens as seriously as we should.

Thanks to the efforts of Schumacher’s children and others he will receive special attention this centennial year. At least one two-day conference devoted to “Responsibility in Economics and Business: The Legacy of E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977)” is planned for late September in Antwerp. Speakers and panelists from around the world, including India and China, will participate. I can only hope that in America, old Schumacher admirers (like Jerry Brown), as well as new appreciators of his wisdom, will also help revive his insights and apply them creatively to our common national and global problems.

walter moss

Walter Moss

By 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).

See these related Walter Moss articles:

The Recent Press and E.F. Schumacher’s Warnings
From an Economy of Consumption to an Economy of Sustainability>