The Curse of Cassandra, and Her Prophetic Heirs
Some of them are even vilified, especially during the good times that intersperse global crises. Cassandra, for those of you who are rusty on Greek mythology, was the beautiful prophetess that Apollo cursed so that her accurate prophecies would from then on be disbelieved.
In short, civilization needs to prepare for the looming ground at the bottom of the tower, to implement the precautionary principle to soften the otherwise inescapable hard landing. Of course, ingenuity exists and it is possible there are other forms of escape from our collision—at least temporary ones. For example, pessimists might miscalculate the height of the building: perhaps this crash is several generations away. Yet sober recognition of the danger we face is a necessary part of the solution. Denial that we are on a collision course is the most dangerous strategy of all despite the temporary comfort it offers. As the prominent US psychologist and organizational theorist Karl Weick has written, society is often frozen by large-scale problems which induce “dysfunctional levels of arousal” (Weick 1984). This seems applicable today.
Activists, Optimism, and Denial
One contributing reason for our collective behavior, which to me seems folly but to many could appear courageous, may be that humans are “hard wired” for optimism (Sharot et al. 2011). Relatedly, the psychologist Steven Pinker (1997) has argued that our species is especially good at deceiving itself. Excessive optimism concerning the future of civilization arguably also characterizes much of the scientific literature, and not only in the social sciences.
Demographers, Economists, and Epidemiologists
Johnson also argued for the preeminence of technology, going so far as to argue that the world has escaped the “Malthusian trap” due to the “creation of knowledge” (Johnson 2000). However, knowledge cannot always trump resource scarcity. At the time of the Irish potato famine of the late 1840s (and the Somali famine of 2011), ample knowledge existed to provide nourishment. In Ireland, the calories being exported as grain could have been used to feed the indigenous population (Woodham-Smith 1962). What was lacking was more than knowledge. In the more recent Somalian case, the rebel group Al Shabab deliberately blocked foreign attempts to reduce suffering, even closing the United Nations office (BBC 2011; Gettleman 2011).
Knowledge and technology are clearly essential to human well-being, but this does not mean that human population size can be infinite. At some point the marginal demand exerted by additional people is likely to exceed the marginal increase in carrying capacity contributed to by knowledge, resources, and technology. Like a balloon, human carrying capacity is elastic, but its indefinite inflation is impossible. This was also implicitly recognized by Boserup in her review of the book Investing in People: The Economics of Population Quality written by Thomas Schultz (1902–1998), the 1979 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics.
Boserup wrote thus: “He (Schultz) overlooks that there may be different reasons for poverty in sparsely and in densely populated countries, in each case related to population density—in the latter because of the unfavourable man–land ratio, in the former because of high costs of investment in and operation of rural infrastructure where population is sparse” (Boserup 1982). This passage links an unfavourable “man–land ratio” with “dense population.”
With extrapolation, and upon reflection, this clearly shows that Boserup did not share the fantasies of her contemporary, the US libertarian economist Julian Simon (1932–1998), who claimed that a human population of perhaps 100 billion is possible and that “we now have the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years” (Myers and Simon 1994).
Some of the recent epidemiological literature is also disappointing concerning these issues. An article called “What is the future of epidemiology?” discussed the 2011 congress of the International Epidemiological Association but was entirely silent on these issues of global civilization survival (Bhopal et al. 2011; Butler 2012). This is particularly disappointing, as two leading epidemiologists gave prominent warnings of these issues at the corresponding meeting held in Sydney, Australia, in 1993 (McMichael 1993; Last 1994).
The Manufacture of Calm
Another reason is that we lack experience of the collision. Many readers will have heard of and watched with horror people falling from the burning World Trade Towers in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001. However, Ehrlich in 1989 was using the analogy of the parachute not to save a single economist (or ecologist) but to rescue the whole of civilization. At that time he had co-authored a book called New World New Mind: Moving toward Conscious Evolution (Ornstein and Ehrlich 1989), which argued that humans have not yet developed the collective evolutionary capacity to prevent global collapse, not least because we have no collective memory or understanding of anything like it despite the demise of numerous previous civilizations (Yoffee and Cowgill 1988; Diamond 2005). Humans have, of course, learned and adapted well to short-term hardships, such as seasonal variation. Through myth and archaeology, including such effective communicators as Brian Fagan (Foundation for the Future 2008), many can conceptualize localized collapse, far away, long ago—not in their or their children’s life span.
A minority of people govern, own, and attempt to control mainstream media and, thus, public opinion. They are loyal to the dominant economic system, represent very powerful interests, and appear perfectly comfortable with high inequality—as was Greenspan.
Leading US dissident Noam Chomsky is particularly associated with the term the “manufacture of consent,” embedded in the title of one of his books (Herman and Chomsky 1988). The term is apparently older, dating at least from Walter Lippmann (1889–1974), who employed this term in his book Public Opinion (Lippmann 1922). Lippmann wrote,
The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic [sic], because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.
A Newsweek journalist asked Paul Hawken to name the leaders of the Seattle movement. His list contained only intellectuals, none of whom advocated violence but all of whom challenged the system supported by Greenspan—and by Newsweek. Among his suggestions were Vandana Shiva, Jerry Mander, Lori Wallach, and Maude Barlow. But none were acceptable to the journalist, who reportedly said, “Stop, stop, I can’t use these names in my article because Americans have never heard of them” (Stauber 2007). Consciously or unconsciously, the use of Kaczynski’s picture for the cover helped to link the anticapitalist Seattle protests with violence, paranoia, and virulently antisocial behavior—the antithesis of the idealism felt by most of these protesters, whose most recent manifestation is the global “Occupy” movement.
An increasing quantity of literature documents how powerful and wealthy individuals have used public relations firms and techniques to try to modify public opinion (Beder 1998; Oreskes and Conway 2010). Denial and suppression are used not just to create ignorance, they also generate calmness that paralyses action, which is dysfunctional in the face of today’s evidence. Aldous Huxley’s vision of soma, a soporific described in his book Brave New World, has come to pass not only in the form of pharmaceutical medication and illegal drug use but also through the wide availability of sport, gambling, and other entertainment, including on the Internet.
Decadence also manifests in evidence of increased retail spending in the face of perceived threat in modern society, including after the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States (Arndt et al. 2004). Embedded in our language is the phrase “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die” (Ferraro et al. 2005). Again, such behavior may be reasonable at the individual level; at the social level it is perilous.
As the French Revolution neared, the ostentatious, resentment-provoking behavior of the French court continued. Whether or not its advisors recognized the danger, a combination of paralysis, inertia, and irrational exuberance, almost certainly rationalized by denial, eventually proved fatal to the monarchy and the social class protecting it. British forces invading Tibet in 1904 were met by soldiers who fortified their defense using spells and ancient muskets (Fleming 1961). Local interpretations of ancient prophecies assisted the outnumbered forces of Cortez in its conquest of the emperor Montezuma. The Roman emperor Nero is still remembered for fiddling while his city burned. Indeed, the collapse of the Roman Empire has long been blamed on materialism, decadence, public extravagance, and the pursuit of false glory (Parry 2001).
There are many ways to interpret how denial, suppression, procrastination, and decadence lead to the loss of public goods. These are materials and values commonly owned and of widespread benefit. The examples above reveal a contest between rational adaptive behavior and denial, leavened with belief systems which are forms of magical thinking that result in the channeling of limited resources into maladaptive display.
Might such decadence be symptomatic of a terminally ill civilization? Or might such a squandering of wealth simply accelerate the decline of our civilization? Of course, humans are materialistic. Many societies have long been inequitable, and humans love luxury. But given the growing scale of our problems, which apart from climate change are scarcely recognized (by science) at their proper scale, could not such behavior share with denial an anaesthetizing, distracting quality?
Some writers have speculated that previous civilizations collapsed because elites grew so disconnected from the masses that they no longer felt a common destiny and chose instead to seek their own enclave, to escape their responsibility (Toynbee 1948). Such behavior may be occurring today; if so, it is highly dangerous, given the interconnectedness of global civilization and the dependence of wealthy consumers on both nearby public goods (such as a functioning transport system, including roads, airports, and air travel) and distant laborers whose toil underpins the global economy.
Recently, several technologies have been prematurely heralded as saviors of oil scarcity, including biofuels (Somerville 2006), carbon capture and sequestration, and fourth-generation nuclear power (Smil 2011). Sections of the fossil fuel industry may be preparing for large-scale coal-to-liquids industry with which to postpone peak oil. While a few such plants already exist, especially in China (Anonymous 2008), the process is inherently wasteful and polluting. Critics claim that global coal resources are too small to make a substantial contribution (Croft and Patzek 2009).
Cockatoos and “Real National Wealth”
Around the time that I first heard Paul Ehrlich speak, I had read that Australian cockatoos could be bought on the black market in Florida for about US$20,000 each. At times, I had counted flocks of up to thirty of these birds flying above my fragment of forest. So, I calculated, at such times I was watching (and hearing) about $600,000 worth of entertainment. Yet, even though these long-lived creatures (Brouwer et al. 2000) enjoy theoretical legal protection in Tasmania, much of their habitat does not. I also realized that the death of these cockatoos would not lower the officially calculated Australian gross national product by even a cent.
This is because national accounts did not and still do not measure stocks of natural capital any more than they measure stocks and flows of other non-financialized forms of wealth, such as social, human, and cultural capital (Daly 1996). This led to more thought and reading, and in 1994 I published in The Lancet an essay linking global population and consumption with future global population health. It also called for two new measures of economic well-being, which I proposed be called “real national” and “real global” wealth (Butler 1994). The latter, larger indicator was intended as the sum of the national wealth measures, with an addition for the global commons, such as the ocean, the atmosphere, Antarctica, and space (Buck 1998). In it, I wrote,
We need to challenge economic assumptions that emphasize indices of human welfare such as disposable dollars for consumption per head. Schumacher has done so, trailing in his wake more and more forward-thinking economists and scientists, including those who signed the Heidelberg Appeal.
I also cited Hazel Henderson’s wonderfully entitled book, The Politics of the Solar Age: Alternatives to Economics (Henderson 1988). Twenty-four years after this was published, the solar age seems our best chance not only to generate climate change–neutral energy but to also eke out supplies of ever-dwindling fossil fuels, including coal and coal seam gas (Jacobson and Delucchi 2011a, b; Schwartz et al. 2011).
As mentioned, Schumacher was acutely aware of energy, and he clearly foresaw that depletion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas also represented a running down of global stocks of natural capital, a form of real national and real global wealth. His writings on energy were extensive and considered of sufficient public interest to be published posthumously as an edited volume (Kirk 1982). However, Schumacher, as far as I am aware, did not link energy use with climate change, an issue then only faintly on the scientific horizon (Callendar 1958).
Nuclear energy, too, today remains highly problematic—expensive, waste-producing, and with a constant risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. Nuclear power (using current technologies) is also far less “carbon-neutral” than its proponents increasingly claim, especially in comparison to wind and solar power plants. The carbon cost of nuclear power is mainly due to the energy cost of mining and refining uranium, of building and decommissioning the plants, and of the storage of the radioactive wastes (Kleiner 2008).
Further, reserves of high-grade uranium are limited. Lower grades of uranium will require additional energy for enrichment (Mudd and Diesendorf 2008). A switch to thorium to generate radioactivity is increasingly promoted as a safe alternative, yet formidable obstacles remain (Dracoulis 2011).
An even more fundamental problem than climate change or nuclear waste is that our economic system creates a smorgasbord of incentives, many of which are beneficial but too many of which are deeply harmful.
Schumacher, Natural Capital, and the Problem of Permanence
My 1994 essay had singled out E. F. Schumacher. I had started to read him in the 1970s, and no doubt this was fundamental to my understanding of natural capital, such as the value of the cockatoos, fish stocks, and, for that matter, uranium remaining in the ground, a reserve source of power for future generations. I read Schumacher long before I read anything by Herman Daly (Daly and Cobb 1989; Daly 1996) or Clive Hamilton, whose book The Mystic Economist was another influence (Hamilton 1994).
It is clear on rereading Schumacher, and also reading about him, that he deserves considerable credit for his work on natural capital. I think his contribution in this field has been overlooked by more recent commentators, for factors that I will try to explain. Consider the following passage, from Small Is Beautiful, first published in 1973:
As one problem is being “solved” ten new problems arise as a result of the first “solution.” As Professor Barry Commoner emphasizes, the new problems are not the consequences of incidental failure but of technological success.
These passages are insightful, illustrating Schumacher’s capacity to foresee how technology not only is not necessarily the answer but can contribute to problems. This was also recognized by Joseph Tainter (b. 1949) in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies (Tainter 1988).
Schumacher also wrote illuminatingly about the problem of “permanence,” perhaps a forerunner of sustainability, and sustainable development, popularized in the report Our Common Future, by the World Commission on Environment and Development (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). This was chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland (b. 1939), thrice Norwegian Prime Minister and later the first female Director General of the World Health Organization.
In the brief period leading to the 1992 Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janiero, this report was influential, giving hope that the world would turn from rhetoric to action. Such hopes were dashed, not only because of the power of the conservative economic and demographic literature, discussed above, but also because the US president at the time, George Bush Sr., made it clear that the American way of life is not negotiable (Buckallew 2005).
I digress. On permanence Schumacher wrote,
Farmers of Forty Centuries
Schumacher may have been influenced in choosing this term "permanence" from F. H. King’s classic work Farmers of Forty Centuries (King 1911; Paull 2011). This book, subtitled Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, has been a foundational text for the movement for sustainable agriculture, based in recent decades in the West, but building on older traditions used especially in Asia, which stressed the recycling of human waste, as a means to retain soil fertility. Schumacher was interested in organic and sustainable forms of agriculture and devotes one of his chapters to the “proper use of land.” In this he quotes extensively a book called Topsoil and Civilisation (Dale and Carter 1955), which in turn was probably influenced by King’s classic. However, Schumacher does not appear to have directly discussed King’s book, at least in Small Is Beautiful.
The term “permanence” was also used by William Clarke, a prominent ecologist awarded the 2002 Humboldt Prize, who acknowledged Schumacher in his essay, “The Structure of Permanence: The Relevance of Self-Subsistence Communities for World Ecosystem Management” (Clarke 1977). In this, Clarke also cites the ecologist Howard Odum (1924–2002) for his law “net energy is the only energy with true value to society,” a principle that Schumacher would undoubtedly have approved of. But in general, use of the term seems to have lapsed, though Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence and founding director of programs at Schumacher College, has also used it (Kumar 1996).
Schumacher is thus associated with both permanence and Buddhism, yet Buddhism is itself much more closely associated with impermanence (“anicca”), the recognition of the transitory nature of all phenomena. Buddhism also cautions against unskillful desire and attachment (“tanha”), including the desire for permanence—which can never be realized. However, at the same time, Buddhism stresses compassion (“karuna”), the middle way and law of karma (spelled “kamma” in Pali)—the linking of cause and effect. In this way, Buddhism is not fatalistic. There is nothing in Buddhist teaching which advocates that humanity should simply observe the approach of the ground as we fall from a building. It would be more compassionate to open the parachute, and wiser and kinder not to fall out the window in the first place.
Buddhism: Universities, Science, and Scandals
My third introductory story relates to my credentials to write about the “Buddhist” part of the title of this chapter. Since 2009, I have been the science adviser to the International Association of Buddhist Universities, a consortium of about sixty members, all tertiary institutions, mainly in Asia, though two are in the United States, and one is in Europe (in Hungary). One of the US founding members is Naropa University in Colorado. This university is famous to many Western Buddhists as it was established by one of the earliest Tibetan lamas (religious teachers) to move to the West, the late Chögyam Trungpa, who died in 1987. His premature death at the age of forty-eight was hastened by alcohol poisoning. Before that, Trungpa wrote a book called Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, which I thought lucid when I read it almost forty years ago (Trungpa 1973).
Unfortunately, however, some of Trungpa’s misjudgment continued after death. His chosen spiritual successor not only was infected with HIV but is reported to have transmitted this disease to several students before he died. This scandal caused a major trauma within the board of directors of Naropa University, which was worsened by the attempts of some to suppress awareness of it (Fields 1992).
It is good that the association of Buddhist universities exists, and there is recognition within at least part of its management that science is relevant to Buddhism and that science and Buddhism are not entirely mutually exclusive. Some prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) (Dawkins 2006) and the late Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) (author of God Is Not Great: The Case against Religion (Hitchens 2007) share an almost religious conviction in the absence of an afterlife. They believe nothing can happen to consciousness after death, other than its extinction. But since so much else about the universe remains a mystery (including the reason for the potential of the big bang, or why anything should exist at all), I am not so sure. For me, science starts with an open mind, a questioning about the universe, and its relationships and associations. I personally believe that science and religion, including Buddhism, have much they can contribute to each other.
Economics “as If People Mattered”
The topic of Buddhist economics is very large, and this chapter is deliberately entitled “toward” that goal, as I cannot be comprehensive. Instead, my main strategies are to reflect on aspects of Schumacher’s life from a Buddhist perspective and to comment in more detail on his chapter on Buddhist economics.
In the English-speaking world Schumacher is often thought of as the leading “Buddhist” economist, even though Schumacher died as a Catholic (Hession 1986). Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered (Schumacher 1973) was published, eventually being translated into fifteen languages. According to Wikipedia, this was ranked by the Times Literary Supplement in 1995 as among the one hundred most influential books published in the fifty years since World War II. Schumacher became a household name, especially in Britain. The chapter “Buddhist Economics” is particularly famous. Yet Schumacher himself writes about this chapter thus:
[W]e shall explore what economic laws and what definitions of the concepts “economic” and “uneconomic” result, when the meta-economic basis of western materialism is abandoned and the teaching of Buddhism is put in its place. The choice of Buddhism for this purpose is purely incidental; the teachings of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism could have been used just as well as those of any other of the great Eastern traditions. (Emphasis added)
This disclaimer was perhaps included to try to illustrate Schumacher’s inclusiveness. Yet it also reveals a degree of fuzziness, perhaps even confusion. Schumacher seems to be lauding a lack of materialism as the basis of his new system of economics. Is this possible? Is he also suggesting that all the great religious traditions equally espouse a lack of materialism? Further, since the core spiritual tradition of Western civilization is Judeo-Christian, does this suggest that religion (at least in the West) has limited power to change the material superstructure? But, for that matter, are Eastern civilizations really more resistant to materialism? Thailand is a devoutly Buddhist nation, yet its royal family enjoys immense wealth and secular power. Even a minor criticism against the very wealthy Thai king is a serious offence which can lead to many years of imprisonment (Streckfuss 1995). It may be that the average Thai is today less materialistic than the average American, but to what extent is this because of poverty (at least until fairly recently) rather than Buddhism? Burma, where Schumacher most intensely encountered Buddhism, has until very recently endured a despotic and superstitious dictatorship. This rule was not Buddhist, but it is disturbing that such a government could not be resisted in this predominantly Buddhist nation. In some ways Buddhist passivity may undermine good governance. If so, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge provides another example.
However, returning to Buddhist economics, we will return to Schumacher’s life, interspersed with ruminations about what forms and principles Buddhist economics, if it existed, might take. This section draws extensively on the biography published by Schumacher’s eldest daughter, Barbara Wood (Wood 1984).
Schumacher’s Early Academic Life
Schumacher was born to a distinguished academic and professional family from Berlin, in the German capital,where his father was a professor of economics (Moss 2010). A sister, Edith, married the eminent atomic physicist (and Nobel laureate) Werner Heisenberg, best known for his formulation of the uncertainty principle, in regard to quantum physics (McCrum 2011).
In the late 1920s, Schumacher briefly attended university in Berlin, where he encountered the famous economist Joseph Schumpeter, who made a great impression on him and who gave him his first taste of international economics (Wood 1984). He then briefly visited England, a highlight of which was to be invited by the leading British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), to attend a seminar he gave for students at Cambridge University (Wood 1984). This invitation was to be crucial for Schumacher’s career (Hession 1986). When at Cambridge, Schumacher also met Prof. Arthur Pigou (1877–1959). Pigou is still remembered by ecological economists for his trenchant criticism of national accounts: "If a man marries his housekeeper or his cook, the national dividend is diminished" (Pigou 1920).
Soon after return to Germany in 1930, Schumacher was awarded one of two of the newly reestablished Rhodes scholarships that were available to Germans, an opportunity that had been denied since the Great War (1914–1918). Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), a leading colonial figure in the then British-occupied southern Africa, had stated in his final will that the purpose of his scholarship was “to promote freedom, justice and peace throughout the whole world by awakening a desire for unselfish public service in a number of young men in every generation, selected from all parts of the English-speaking world and Germany.” Recipients were intended to have “the qualities of mind and character to enable them to see visions and devote their lives to realizing them in action,” in the hope that “an understanding between the three strongest powers [at that time Britain, Germany, and America] would render war impossible, for educational ties make the strongest ties.”
Consequently, Schumacher attended Oxford University for the next two years. He felt that Oxford contrasted poorly with his brief impression of Cambridge. His daughter wrote that he was also disappointed by the social life and the English sense of humor, though he made several important contacts and friends, including David Astor, a member of one of England’s most prominent families, whose family owned a newspaper called the Observer. Astor was later to become editor of this paper and was to promote some of Schumacher’s ideas.
At Oxford, Schumacher was called on to explain the rise of Hitler to audiences who were, not surprisingly, unsympathetic. He stressed the role of Germany’s war debt and reparations, which he argued had contributed to the deflation following World War I in Germany and Hitler’s consequent popularity (as the rise of Hitler coincided with a return to German economic prosperity). Schumacher also made remarks at this time in Oxford that even his daughter concedes (with regret) were anti-Semitic (Wood 1984, p. 30). Schumacher’s reliance on the unreasonable burden imposed by the Allies at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles as the dominant cause for Germany’s problem was consistent with the explanation favored by Keynes (Keynes 1919, 1929).
German Reparations, Historical Memory, and Collective Karma
From a Buddhist perspective, the arguments of both Keynes and Schumacher make sense. It may be understandable, and indeed Abrahamic, to take an eye for an eye, though perhaps not Christian, since the New Testament enjoins the faithful to “turn the other cheek.” Whatever the true causes of the “War to end Wars,” a conflict at that time of unparalleled savagery and cruelty in scale, there was (and still is, among those who study this issue) widespread acceptance that the triumphant powers, especially France and Britain, sought to recover as much as possible of their material losses suffered via war from their former rival. This was done by the imposition of reparations and the ceding of German colonies such as German East Africa and the northeast quadrant of New Guinea, as well as the industrialized Saar Basin. These reparations and acquisitions were intended as a burden for the German taxpayer and consumer, to last for well over a decade. Their punitive intention was certain to provoke German resentment, even if, as has been argued, Germany was subsequently able to substantially avoid its treaty obligations through a variety of economic and political maneuvers (Temin 1993). Keynes, who was a young official with the British delegation at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, considered the terms imposed on the Germans as reparations to be too harsh, and to an extent foresaw the emergence of this resentment, along with the risky and highly unpredictable consequences for the allies (Keynes 1919).
Keynes’s misgivings may be considered as consistent with the Buddhist (and Hindu) teaching on karma. From a Buddhist position, a greater forgiveness and tolerance for the vanquished German power would have been more likely to have fostered long-term European prosperity, including a reduction of the collective German resentment. Following WWII, the same main victorious powers, the UK, France, and the United States, forewent seeking reparations from Germany (and Japan) even though responsibility for WWII of these nations was so clear in 1945. However, causal analyses which looked beyond Germany’s invasion of Poland, or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may identify other factors for these nations' aggression.
Instead, the Marshall Plan, which followed WWII, greatly assisted in the economic recovery of Europe, including West Germany. However, given the massive loss of life incurred by the Allies in the trenches of the Western Front, where millions of young men died, it is unsurprising that few were sympathetic to Keynes’s proposition in 1919. On the other hand, it seems plausible that the catastrophe that ensued in Europe in the 1930s, and which culminated in WWII later, contributed to the acceptance of the Marshall Plan, rather than a repeat second attempt to extract punitive reparations from a defeated Germany. Almost seventy years later, Germany is still a crucial ally of its enemies in WWII. The latter response (and positive result) can be regarded as strategic; however, it could also be regarded as a form of Buddhist economics, where enlightened self-interest led to a win–win result. After all, the rule of karma is not only to do good for the sake of others but to do good for the sake of oneself. That is, benefiting others (or trying to) also brings good fortune, luck, and, sometimes, gratitude and appreciation.
Other Examples of Long Memory and Failed Peace
Schumacher in America
In 1932, Schumacher was able to extend his scholarship and sailed to North America to study in New York at Columbia University for a year. There he studied with Professor H. Parker Willis, a critic of the role that Wall Street bankers had played in the crash of 1929, which heralded the subsequent Depression. Willis, though not as well remembered today as is Keynes, is still recalled. For example, in 2004, Ben Bernanke, then a member of the Board of Governor of the US Federal Reserve (and later successor to Alan Greenspan as chair of this board), delivered the H. Parker Willis Lecture in Economic Policy. In it, Bernanke attributed the Great Crash of 1929 neither to speculative greed nor to any inherent unsustainability of stock market bubbles but, instead, to the concerted, though erroneous, intervention by the Federal Reserve (Bernanke 2004). Others also pointed out the international and contagious nature of panic and gloom (Temin 1993).
While studying at Columbia University, Schumacher enjoyed a fine social life, albeit combined with financial hardship worsened by an unfavorable exchange rate. He met several wealthy and powerful individuals, and dined with Mrs. Rockefeller. However, his daughter again reveals prejudice that the later “Buddhist” economist might have lived to regret. In one letter home he wrote, “For my taste there are rather too many colored people, but that is very bad and, for God’s sake, I am not allowed to say that here” (Wood 1984, p. 46).
In April 1933, Willis offered Schumacher a post as an assistant lecturer, though Schumacher had yet to complete his degree. Schumacher accepted but, prior to commencement, decided to cross the United States with three other students, using two old Fords and a single tent. The journey from New York to Berkeley, California, lasted fifty days and took them to every state except Florida. The return journey was far more direct and rapid.
Back in New York, Schumacher combined part-time academic work with practical experience, including for the Chase Bank. In that time he also wrote a theoretical chapter for a book coedited by Willis (Schumacher 1935). In a summary of a draft of this chapter, he describes social science as a “pseudoscience” (Wood 1984, p. 53).
At this time, Hitler was tightening his grip on power, and news of atrocities in Germany were filtering to the United States, including of the first mass burning of “un-German” books on May 10, 1933. Understandably attached to Germany, Schumacher (aged only twenty-two) continued to publicly defend Germany, including to an audience that contained newly arrived German refugees, some of whom were Jewish. On one occasion Schumacher required police protection from an audience who was enraged, if not by his apparent defense of Hitler, then at least by his reluctance to denounce himself with sufficient zeal (Wood 1984, p. 59) Soon after, in early 1934, Schumacher returned to Berlin, foregoing further development of an academic career with Willis.
Early Career and Marriage
The next period of Schumacher’s life was physically, emotionally, and psychologically difficult. He fell ill on the voyage, and then endured a prolonged time of depression, when back on European soil. Life in Germany had transformed from a fragile but still recognizably free society to one that was totalitarian and alien. Even worse, Schumacher’s father, then retired and in his midsixties, advised his son to make the best of life under Hitler, including by joining the Hitler Youth, as Schumacher’s youngest brother (Ernst) had.
This time was also difficult professionally. Although his chapter for Professor Willis’s book was accepted for publication, it was not considered suitable for his degree. An alternative was to study for a doctorate under the supervision of his father, but Schumacher rejected this for both academic and emotional reasons. Instead, he became focused on the writing of a paper that attempted to solve the crippling problem of unemployment still affecting 6 million people in Germany at that time. Prefiguring both Small Is Beautiful and also Gandhian principles of self-sufficiency, Schumacher conceived of a plan to try to motivate manufacturers to employ labor rather than machinery (Hession 1986).
In April 1934, Schumacher met the woman he was to marry, Anna. According to his daughter, Anna was not an intellectual but a warm, emotional person who possessed many qualities that Schumacher felt he lacked. Through contact with Anna’s brother, he started to work for a syndicate of barterers, some of whom were Jewish, who were engaged in a legal means to overcome the trading obstacles that had been imposed on Germany by the Allies, following the decision of Hitler’s economics minister, Hjalmar Schacht, to renege on additional war reparations.
In October 1936, he and Anna were married in a Christian ceremony though, at that time, Schumacher criticized and even occasionally ridiculed religious matters. A combination of increasing discontent with Nazi totalitarianism, including firsthand observations of anti-Semitism directed toward his Jewish business partners, prompted Schumacher to move again, this time back to Britain. Schumacher also felt uncomfortable that their bartering business was helping the Nazi regime. Soon after his marriage, Schumacher was offered a job, by George Schicht, head of the conglomerate Unilever, to be based in London. He left for London almost immediately. His decision to emigrate was courageous, not least because of the active opposition from his own family and that of his new bride, who Schumacher’s biographer reports was initially “shattered.” Nonetheless, Anna followed Schumacher to London in early 1937.
The Bodhisattva Ideal
Earlier than this, in 1937, Schumacher had drafted an unpublished letter to the Spectator. In it, he had appealed not just for hard work to overcome the numerous problems that he could clearly perceive. Schumacher seems to have been more consciously Christian than his daughter admits, at this time of his life. However, he also acknowledges the possibility of other routes, if not other faiths, as a “guide for the perplexed” (Schumacher 1977).
Commenting on this, Wood denies that her father was at this time Christian and reports that he was particularly influenced by Nietzsche (1844–1900), Schopenhauer (1788–1860), and Goethe (1749–1832).
For a while, Schumacher struggled to please his wealthy employer, the Unilever executive. But inevitable tension existed; Schicht wanted to multiply his investments; Schumacher was more interested in returns that were moral and productive rather than financial. He did, however, perceptively advise Schicht to remove his funds from Europe in March 1939 due to the proximity of war. Schict declined. One investment, however, was pursued. For a while Schumacher was involved with the Battery Traction Ltd., a company that aimed to manufacture and promote the use of electric cars. This was attractive at a time when the import of oil looked increasingly problematic due to the approach of war. Unfortunately, however, the plan did not work. Even today, battery-driven cars are not practicable on a large scale, though the need for them is very clear, and some advocates think their time will yet arrive.
Labor, Employment, Keynes, Gandhi, and Buddhism
Though Schumacher’s plan to lower German unemployment was surely well-intentioned, some of its principles appear both naive and un-Buddhist. It is naive because it fails to sufficiently acknowledge market forces. Like an earlier generation, allegedly inspired by “Ned Ludd,” a possibly mythical English weaver who destroyed labor-saving machinery, perhaps a stocking frame, in the late eighteenth century (Dowrick and Spencer 1994) Schumacher appears to have thought he could swim against the tide of history. However, if a competitor is using such machinery, then hard-working laborers cannot compete. Their output may be more distinctive but is also likely to be inferior to mass produced goods, especially when created under time pressure. Factory-produced goods will also in general be far cheaper and more abundant than those made by hand.
But of perhaps more relevance to this chapter, there is nothing noble, desirable, or Buddhist about repetitive and often strenuous manual work (such as digging holes with a shovel or moving goods by hand, rather than with a forklift). Buddhism talks at length of “right” livelihood, but this refers to work that results in benefits other than income to the worker, such as the production of useful goods, and the avoidance of contributing to harms such as weapons or addictive substances.
Factory work is also often repetitive and stultifying and can be dangerous. It is not necessarily noble and preferable or the right livelihood. But as the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen (1771–1858) recognized in the nineteenth century, factories themselves need not be evil or places of more drudgery and danger than are sites of mass production by hand of goods (or services) that could be made as easily by machinery or other automated processes. Owen for several years operated an ethical factory in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where factory workers were provided enough resources for a reasonable living and worked only eight hours per day (Pollard and Salt 1971).
If the reader is unconvinced about the benefits of automation, perhaps she or he might contemplate preparing their papyrus this evening, on which to write a note to be sent by carrier pigeon (itself once a highly innovative technology). Neither Schumacher nor Gandhi nor Ludd was the first to recognize that machinery could displace labor and cause discontent and unemployment. Indeed William Lee, the Englishman credited with inventing the stocking frame in 1589 (an early knitting machine which eventually evolved into textile mills) (Lewis 1986), was twice refused a patent, first by Queen Elizabeth and then by King James, apparently because of concern about opposition from the hand-knitting industries.
Buddhism is silent about the comparative virtues of factories and handmade goods. But wrong livelihood surely should not be interpreted automatically as the operation of machinery, but instead related more to the motivation and effect of the occupation, especially if this involves harm to other people or other species. For example, the growing or marketing of addictive substances, such as tobacco, is not right livelihood, anymore than the construction of a missile or another form of weapon would be. A contemporary example of wrong livelihood is the mining and marketing of asbestos, which still occurs in Canada (Joshi and Gupta 2003; Kazan-Allen 2003). Today, any involvement in coal mining or coal burning could arguably be considered wrong livelihood. This is ironic, in light of Schumacher’s principal occupation, though at the time Schumacher was employed the danger of climate change was far less understood than it is today (Weart 2003).
The reader may reflect that the burning of coal creates useful heat and power, and that if kept within limits this would not harm the climate. Even asbestos is not entirely harmful; it had many uses before its carcinogenic propensity was widely recognized. Even weapons may have a legitimate place, such as for deterrence or protection. Buddhist philosophy is not Manichean. Not only do many shades of gray exist between good and evil, but solutions that are entirely free of harm, problems, or difficulty scarcely exist. Some Buddhist schools teach that there are grades of bad karma, the worst form not only requiring the motivation and intention (i.e., prolonged planning) to commit harm but the action itself, combined with lack of remorse or even rejoicing.
Schumacher’s work for the coal board had many good motivations, such as the generation of employment and the benefits provided by the energy released. Buddhist economics, were it to exist as a coherent discipline, would undoubtedly advocate a fair distribution of both opportunity and income. In the sense that Schumacher’s motivation for advocating labor-intensive production was to reduce inequality, it could be called Buddhist. Buddhism also stresses that motivation is not sufficient—“right wisdom” is also needed. It is unlikely that the deliberate exchange of the prodigious output of machinery for the comparatively miniscule production by intensive labor could by itself create prosperity. It could all too easily generate scarcity and impoverishment, a point that Ayn Rand makes in her book Atlas Shrugged, which has a scene in which impoverished peasants toil as “human horses” to pull a plough (Rand 1957).
Schumacher’s proposition involved conscious intervention by the state. Here, he is also on firmer economic ground. The New Deal, implemented by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 (when Schumacher was still in the United States), was one such example. Keynes also was a strong supporter of state action to create employment, as is a far more recent (and also eminent) economist, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who has praised the use of state funds to create work, such as by the Indian state of Karnataka to reduce famine in 1970–73 (Drèze and Sen 1990).
Interdependence versus Swadeshi
However, as far as I know, neither Keynes nor Sen ever advocated that populations be encouraged to perform physical labor that could be done as easily by machines, though this might be a lesser evil than unemployment, and certainly than of starvation. Schumacher became increasingly interested in Gandhi (1869–1948), at one point claiming that the Mahatma had laid the foundation for a system of economics compatible not only with Hinduism but also with Buddhism (p. 247). According to his daughter, Gandhi’s economics were derived from the concepts of Swadeshi (self-sufficiency) and Khaddar (voluntary simplicity) (Kumar 1996).
Years later in 1973, Schumacher delivered the Gandhi Memorial Lecture in Varanasi, India. Schumacher used this occasion to describe the Indian Mahatma as the greatest “People’s Economist,” lauding his stress on self-sufficiency and his rejection of excessive materialism. The second principle, if interpreted as a middle path between asceticism and luxury, is consistent with Buddhist teaching. But the first— self-sufficiency—is far from Buddhist.
A core Buddhist principle is interdependence. Self-sufficiency and separation from others are, ultimately, illusory. Of course, many traditional Buddhist communities are substantially self-sufficient in material terms, as many isolated, largely agrarian societies have been for millennia. But most such communities still practiced trade when they could. I am unaware of any Buddhist teaching that could be interpreted as advocating self-sufficiency as a virtue. Indeed, Buddhist teachings stress tolerance and cooperation, traits conducive to trade and exchange, rather than self-sufficiency and separation.
Though Schumacher was highly appreciative of Gandhi, he seems entirely silent concerning Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956), the framer of the Indian Constitution and a bitter Gandhian opponent (Omvendt 2004; Zelliot 2005). This rivalry is relevant to the theme of this chapter, because Ambedkar, though born “untouchable” (called by Gandhi the Harijans, the children of God), died as a Buddhist. As champion of the dalits, the main oppressed class within India, Ambedkar has so far inspired the conversion of perhaps 30 million dalits to Buddhism. Many dalits today claim that Gandhi tried little to reform the caste system and was patronizing toward them. Schumacher can more accurately be considered a Gandhian than a Buddhist economist, even though, for a brief time, he described himself as a Buddhist, especially on return from Burma.
The Economic Problem
An increasing sophistication of machinery, combined with cheap energy, may lead to material abundance with high unemployment. Governance, in theory, may be used to distribute those goods in a way to minimize or even avoid material lack, for example using rationing or welfare. But this is not without problems, such as resentment by those who work harder and dependency by those who receive goods without much work.
An infusion of goodwill within a community could smooth out the very high levels of inequality found in some modern societies, such as India and the United States, though perhaps not eliminate all hardship. It could even be that after a more egalitarian society is arrived at, many within it would find it preferable—not just the poor, but even the formerly rich. The problem is, however, how to engineer such an infusion. Missionaries and media campaigns could perhaps promote egalitarian values, but in the world in which we start (i.e., one with high inequality), such campaigns would be immediately opposed by those with greater resources, who seek to retain, if not increase, their advantage. This has been called the “Matthew principle,” or the law of increasing returns (Wade 2004).
In fact, shifts toward more equality seem more likely to arise through trauma or revolution. After the sacrifice of WWII, the UK Conservative Government lost office, even though Churchill had been central to success of the British war effort. The average person in Britain, whether or not a returned soldier, wanted to weaken, rather than continue, the British class system. It seems similarly difficult to create a society that is not based on materialism. Schumacher, who had eight children (the youngest born in 1974) (Wood 1984, p. 356), could scarcely have thrived without material.
Good government could also distribute occupations that ensured reasonably full employment, without requiring repetitive manual labor. But such concerns and possibilities are, at present, highly theoretical. Keynes, in 1928, had speculated in an essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” that in a century the standard of life in developed countries might be four to eight times its current level and that such places might be on the verge of an economy of abundance and leisure (Hession 1986). In the preface to his Essays in Persuasion, Keynes again forecasts that the day is not far off when the Economic Problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and that the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied, or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.
Today, over eighty years since 1928, many people in high-income countries do experience material abundance, yet many of these populations who are employed are working as hard or even harder than their forebears. One reason for this is partly amenable to Buddhist practice (and perhaps the practices of other faiths too)—alighting from the “hedonic treadmill,” the relentless pursuit of “positional goods” whose possession is associated with status (such as voluntary indebtedness to purchase a large house, a fashionable car, or a trendy mobile phone). After all, one of the central teachings of the three Abrahamic faiths is to “not covet.” If this commandment was practised, then a major motivation for “affluenza” (Hamilton and Denniss 2006) would disappear.
Two other reasons apply. One is not amenable to Buddhist practice; indeed its intractability exemplifies Buddhist teaching. This reason refers not to the pursuit of items that are thought to reflect or bestow individual status but to reasons of competition and security. The history of humanity is one of struggle, both within our species and between our species and others, not just for status but often for survival. It is not coincidental that the two main originators of the theory of evolution (Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace) both credited the English political economist Thomas Malthus as inspiring them to develop their understanding. The central message of Malthus, that demand for resources tends to outstrip supply (unless human numbers are restricted), is sometimes credited with putting the “dismal” into the “dismal science” that economics is called.
The first noble truth of the Buddha relates to the inevitability of “dukkha,” translated as unsatisfactoriness or suffering. Dukkha refers not just to the inevitability of death, decay, disease, and other forms of hardship and loss but also to the consequences and reality of competition and struggle. It is perhaps possible to conceive a world of perpetual abundance, where everyone is secure. Such a world would have no cheats, bullies, free riders, or stress. Perhaps if such a state exists, it is “offshore” (for example, in a mental realm or another planet) rather than here on Earth. Our planet is subject to the natural laws of biology and evolution; no other world exists, other than in the imagination, or a non-human realm.
Schumacher’s Internment During World War II
Schumacher, though born into a privileged background, was to experience substantial personal dukkha (suffering) as World War II approached. There were several ingredients for this. One was the personal rift with his family, who hoped to the end that Schumacher would return to fight for the Nazis. Another was the increasing tension that he felt as an alien living in England. Worse was to come. As the Battery Traction company foundered, so too did Schumacher’s relationship with his wealthy employer, leading to Schumacher’s impulsive resignation, and with it the loss of his income and the pleasant house that he had been allowed to rent. Soon after the declaration of war, Schumacher and his growing family moved to far more modest quarters, to live in a farm cottage owned by a friend of David Astor. Schumacher had to accustom himself to manual work. Worse was to come.
Classed as an enemy alien, Schumacher was separated from his wife and family and interned with about 1,400 other foreigners from the countries with which Britain was then at war, in a hastily built camp on Prees Heath, on the Shropshire–Wales border. Here, forced to mix with fellow refugees, he took a leadership role and was praised for his humanity. He wrote to his wife that his motto was “I have never met a man I didn’t like,” words that his daughter reports that he had seen on the gravestone of the famous American cowboy, Will Rogers (Wood 1984, p. 110). The internees were a mixed group, some Jewish and some Communist refugees, some loyal Nazis. Schumacher found himself sharing a tent with a former Communist and anti-Nazi activist called Kurt Naumann, who had escaped to England via Czechoslovakia. Schumacher and Naumann were elected as camp leader and deputy, respectively. They proved able organizers, with Schumacher explaining to his wife that he found kindness and persuasion as the most important strategies essential in a time when so much misery existed.
Naumann, though he had resigned from the Communist Party, remained deeply committed to Marxist thought and was an able communicator. Schumacher was also far more receptive than a decade earlier when he had been exposed to Leftist thinking at Oxford. His daughter comments:
Marxist analysis came to life around him. Prees Heath was a microcosm of the ideas Marx had put forward: the oppression and exploitation of the masses of prisoners by a few captors. Fritz’s intellectual and academic mind was exposed to the realities of life. He had always been an elitist, mixing by virtue of his birth and intelligence with the intellectual aristocracy; and he saw as he mixed with the men that although he was a prisoner without rights or status, he was still privileged and that others had far harder deprivations. (Wood 1984, p. 113)
Schumacher’s privilege was evident in other ways. Within three months the lobbying of his wife and influential friends saw his return to the farm cottage at Eydon Hall, where he was to stay for another eighteen months. This experience of practical farming led to an important insight, that human capital, the quality and flexibility of the farmers, is at least as important as any physical factor. He explained to his former employer (Robert Brand, uncle of his friend David Astor) that "[t]he best have left the land and the dullest stayed behind. The rural population of today strikes me as less enterprising, less adaptable, less efficient, less methodical than the town population. But farming needs people who are enterprising, adaptable, efficient and methodical" (Wood 1984, p. 118).
Beyond this, reflective of his newly acquired interest in Marx, he tried to persuade Brand (later Lord Brand) that estates such as his should be divided, through the intervention of the state. Wood does not record Brand’s reply. When the fourteenth Dalai Lama first met the Chinese Communist leader, Mao Tse Tung, he too was attracted to certain elements of Marxist thought, especially its stress on fairness (Gyatso 1990). Schumacher also seemed receptive to Mao, at least initially (Wood 1984, p. 342).
Schumacher and Keynes
Further correspondence led to an invitation to visit Keynes in London. While living in the farmhouse, Schumacher worked hard at night on a complex economic plan intended to deliver sustainable peace. Though politically naive, this plan shared similarities with a scheme that Keynes was also working on and which he would eventually unveil at the Breton Wood conference, which saw the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Energy and Limits: Raiding Nature’s Larder
There is a third reason that the economic problem is today far from solved. This concerns limits to growth, a concept presciently understood by Schumacher when he recognized that humanity was living off its natural capital of fossil fuels and uranium, rather than the interest of solar energy (Kirk 1982). Schumacher started to write and speak about this in 1954, eighteen years before the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972).
Schumacher in Burma
When young, as mentioned, Schumacher was a convinced atheist. But in the early 1950s he started to become interested in spiritual alternatives—Gurdjieff, astrology, and the orientalist Edward Conze, who he met.
In 1955, Schumacher was sponsored by the United Nations to go to Burma, as an economic advisor. On return, to the consternation of many of his colleagues, he announced that he was now a Buddhist (Wood 1984, p. 254). But this seems to have been a brief interlude in his rather eclectic spiritual development, whose other influences included Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer (popularizer of the Hindu term “ahimsa”—nonviolence), yoga, and the Alexander technique, in addition to Buddhist meditation (probably Vipassanna, mindfulness). His experience of Buddhism also seems to have provoked a deeper study of Christianity. However, he firmly rejected one description of him as a Catholic economist.
Perhaps the strongest element clearly recognizable as Buddhist in his chapter on Buddhist Economics is his insistence that all people should matter, a value that some scholars think distinguishes Buddhism from its parent faith, Hinduism (Sangharakshita 1986). Schumacher also argued that the root of capitalism is greed (Wood 1984, p. 265), thus rejecting the fiction of Homo economicus. Others have too (Levitt and List 2008), but this rejection was early. On the other hand, one might think that the Abrahamic religions would similarly affirm that human beings, even the poor, have high intrinsic value. If people mattered, practitioners and employers of economics would surely voluntarily restrict the temptation to enslave people, to use strong market forces to reduce human beings to units of production.
Indeed, Schumacher wrote a later book, which he called A Guide for the Perplexed (Schumacher, 1977), a title identical as that used by the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides.
Ancient Inequality, Including Slavery and Caste Systems
Around the time that Schumacher was becoming famous, the US anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published his own minor classic, Stone Age Economics (Sahlins 1972), which also has a particularly well-known chapter, called “The Original Affluent Society.” In this chapter Sahlins points out that neither specialization nor ample leisure is the sole prerogative of farming societies or modern elites. At least some peoples, such as hunter-gatherers in Northern Australia, had structured societies which enjoyed considerable affluence.
In that chapter, Sahlins does not write about inequality (although age-based hierarchies existed within Aboriginal groups); however, other anthropologists have documented remarkable levels of inequality, including slavery and caste systems, within non-European (and non-Asian) societies, such as within tribal economies based around the rich salmon resources of the northwest Pacific coast of North America (Price and Feinman 1995) and among the Natchez, an especially aggressive group originally from the southeast United States (Brain 1971). The Natchez practiced a rigid hierarchy with four main groups, the poorest of which was derogatively known as “stinkards” (Wright 2000). Despite protests to the contrary, similar practices are still observed by many people today in parts of South Asia.
Inequality in Early-Nineteenth-Century Britain: Economics as If People Do Not Matter
In the fourteenth century, the Black Death killed approximately one-third of the population of Europe, leading to a relative scarcity of labor and hastening the end of the feudal period, at least in Western Europe (Hatcher 1994). From then until the onset of the Industrial Revolution, inequality in England may consequently have been lower than before the Black Death (Hilton 1973), though of course many hardships persisted in these centuries, including due to climatic fluctuations that led to intensely cold winters. Life for the masses must have been harder than today, and life expectancy remained fairly brief. However, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution (in about 1750) and perhaps for the next few decades a middle-class group of peasant farmers and small producers appear to have enjoyed a quality of life which then then declined, though of course the hardships that indisputably did occur in the first half of the nineteenth century may consequently exaggerate the virtues of that yeomanry period.
For a while, a view dominated that in the first half of the nineteenth century life expectancy in England had continued its slow, inexorable rise. After all, England was not only the leading center of industrial innovation but also the heart of a vast empire. However, careful analysis of records during this period by the economic historian Simon Szreter showed that indeed life expectancy declined in this period (Szreter and Mooney 1998). Other evidence also supported this, including the harrowing descriptions of poverty, disease, and class exploitation published in 1845 by the German-born political economist Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). Engels published in German a book that was both wonderful and appalling and which become a landmark text in public health. It was called The Conditions of the Working Class in England (Engels 1845 (reprinted 1958)). It predates and prefigures many of the ideas later published by Engels’s close friend, the much better known German philosopher and scholar, also active in Britain, Karl Marx (1818–1883).
In his book, Engels vividly points out that while slavery had been abolished in Britain, scarcely regulated capitalism in some ways allowed workers to be treated far worse than slaves. Due to the “reserve army”—a large number of workers available for hire at market rates—wages were kept to the barest minimum to enable their day to day survival. Engels in turn strongly influenced Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902) (Brown and Fee 2006) an eminent nineteenth-century German pathologist and scientist. Virchow made many contributions, including to “One Health” (Saunders 2000), but is perhaps best remembered for his phrase “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing more than medicine on a grand scale” (Starfield 2011).
Of course there were exceptions, especially the Quakers such as William Wilberforce and chocolate entrepreneurs, including Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree, all of whom, like Owen, voluntarily reduced their exploitation of workers (Cadbury 2003). To this day, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a leading think tank concerned with inequality in the United Kingdom (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Barclay et al. 1995). But in the heyday of free market capitalism, such exceptions were rare.
The last few decades have been marked by extraordinary economic growth in China, and to a lesser extent India and other parts of South and South East Asia. Yet inequality in both countries remains severe. China has a floating population “of well over 100 million people, who perform the most menial and dangerous work” (Zhu 2003; Chan and Wang 2004/05). Members of this group endure multiple forms of discrimination, including lower pay, long working hours, and poor or nonexistent health care. If killed through negligence, compensation is lower. The working conditions faced by this population are frequently disguised from them until it is too late.
Some Chinese employers may trap vulnerable employees by retaining or confiscating the internal permits which are vital to travel within this enormous country. This largely compliant, floating labor force underpins much of the Chinese economic miracle, and indeed much of the global economy, allowing the inexpensive production of myriad goods and services. Some are very useful, such as mobile phones. Much is either junk or unnecessary decoration, stuff that gets bought and used because it is so affordable but that rarely generates thought about the conditions of the laborers who make it.
In May 2010, the eleventh suicide was reported to have occurred at the Foxcomm factory in Guangxi, southern China, which manufactures electronic goods for Apple. In response, nets were put on buildings to deter people from jumping, and to catch them if they did, while about one hundred mental health counselors were said to be being trained (2010). Roof patrols were conducted, and the company also asked staff to sign a letter promising not to kill themselves. One employee told a reporter for the South China Morning Post how he refused to sign because he feared that the company was seeking the right to institutionalize employees. “If I bicker with my supervisor, will I be sent to a mental hospital?” he asked.
Another employee, aged twenty-one, told the reporter how she worked twelve hours a day, six days a week: “The atmosphere inside our workplaces is so tight and depressing that we’re not allowed to speak to each other for 12 hours or you’ll be reproached by your supervisors.” Another worker complained that the assembly line moved too fast, and she had to check thousands of mainboards for electronic gadgets every day.
The idea that many workers in the modern global economy are treated even worse than slaves (as “disposable people”) was returned to by Kevin Bales (Bales 1999). Bales, however, also describes the fate of about 30 million people, who are effectively slaves, including charcoal makers in Brazil, water carriers in Mauritania, and indentured laborers in India. It is thus clear that, today, global economics is not practiced as if people mattered. There is a long way to go.
Economics and Astrology
Prof. Martin McKee, an expert in the health status of the countries of the former Soviet Union, published in 2005 (McKee 2005) a scathing but hilarious review of Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling’s 2003 book Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing (Ackerman and Heinzerling 2004). He quotes the authors as writing “Astrology has been placed on earth to give economists credibility.” He concludes by observing that the dominant US economists have constructed a paradigm similar in its lack of evidence, though abundance of faith, to astrology. Writing three years before the global financial crisis and the mea culpa of Alan Greenspan, former helmsman of the US economy (Hartcher 2008; Wessel 2009; Burry 2010), McKee predicted that further decline in the well-being of the US economy was likely, a prediction that every day seems more accurate.
Ackerman and Heinzerling also discuss the close cooperation between irrational but powerful economists and politicians, who are either conflicted by greed or terribly gullible—perhaps both. A recent example of antiscience by a high-level US political candidate was provided by the recent US presidential candidate, Michelle Bachman, who linked the anticervical cancer vaccine to mental retardation (Editorial 2011).
National Political Economy and Karma
The White Australia Policy
When Australia gained its independence from Britain in 1901, a priority was to establish racist policies known as the “White Australia” policy. This had a fundamental economic as well as racist motivation and was particularly favored by the trade union–supported Labor Party. It remained in place, though slightly relaxed, until well after World War II. Some Australians were contemptuous of the Japanese, even though they were Australian allies in the Great War. The Paris Peace treaty, following that war, was attended by both Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the Japanese delegation at which time the prime minister offended the Japanese by calling for the rejection of the Japanese racial equality proposal. Around that time a perceptive Australian critic (E. L. Piesse) warned that this would have repercussions (Meaney 1996). Two decades later the Japanese attacked Australia in World War II; many thousands of Australians died fighting the Japanese; thousands survived slave labor conditions.
The Oceans, the Japanese, and the Tsunami
Tuna and many other piscivorous fish are highly prized for sushi in Japan and elsewhere. Early in 2012, a single tuna fish sold for over US$700,000 (2012). Soon, such fish may be unavailable at any price. Activists (almost exclusively outside Japan) have long campaigned for both the Pacific and Atlantic bluefin tuna. Tuna are remarkable, long-lived animals, which can weigh up to nine hundred kilograms and regularly make transoceanic migrations, including to actively hunt in cold high latitudes (Safina and Klinger 2008). Typical of many forms of natural capital, bluefin tuna populations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean are now less than 15 percent of their historic levels. In 2008, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna voted for a quota of 22,000 tonnes, almost 50 percent more than the level recommended by scientists as sustainable (15,500 tonnes). The commission also rejected scientific advice to protect fragile spawning areas. It was also alleged that the European Union had threatened developing states with trade retaliations if they supported mechanisms to protect tuna (Williams 2008).
Until recently, the state of Pacific tuna stocks has been considered less perilous than in the Atlantic. A rare exception, Toshio Katsukawa, a leading Japanese fisheries expert, recently warned that Japanese boats are increasing their target of the Pacific tuna spawning grounds, contributing to the risk of this fishery collapse (Cyranoski 2010).
In Japan, a country with a large Buddhist population, activists who oppose the clubbing of dolphins and factory-killing of whales have been vilified, censured, and labeled as antinationalist. For example, consider the case of the “Tokyo two” (Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki). These exposed corruption in the taxpayer-funded Japanese whaling industry (Voorhoof and Gutwirth 2010). They intercepted whale meat, allegedly embezzled by whaling crews programme, and called for a public prosecutor. But it was the activists themselves who were investigated, then held for twenty-three days without charge before being charged with trespass and theft. This action infringes the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Japan has signed and ratified. Such treatment also sends what the European Court of Human Rights calls a “chilling effect,” an attempt to discourage the peaceful dissent integral to a free and open society (Voorhoof and Gutwirth 2010). The relentless Japanese pursuit of food from the ocean (especially whale, dolphin, and tuna) is in breach of international norms. It could perhaps be seen as more justified soon after WWII, when food was comparatively scarce. Today, however, Japan has the longest average longevity of any nation. While, perhaps, this may in part be due to its high per capita fish consumption, there is more to life than its duration. Could the catastrophe of the 2011 tsunami in part be another form of divine wind, a karmic retribution? It is at least plausible, from the perspective of Buddhist economics.
Karma, the Political Economy of the Oceans, and the Tragedy of the Commons
The oceans are part of a besieged Earth system, threatened by a mentality, technology, and human population with the means to undermine numerous life support systems (Brown 2011). Just as a tiny but powerful fraction of the world’s population acts vigorously to obstruct efforts to slow climate change, others have acted to disguise harm to the ocean. One example is the oil corporation BP, largely responsible for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But corporations are not alone. They are assisted by a public which is very often quiescent and passively participant in this process.
Few people, including most Buddhists and Hindus (each of whom absorb concepts of karma from a young age), seem to really understand the connectivity of the global system (Butler 2011). Thus, when a charismatic species, coral, or forest is lost, few pay attention—until something we value is lost, on our own doorstep. From a karmic perspective, it is clearly beneficial to develop awareness and to campaign to protect global public goods, such as the climate, energy stocks, and fisheries. Yet very few Buddhists are thus engaged. The efforts of David Loy perhaps are the exception that proves the rule, though a few other Buddhists have also pleaded for more ecological care (Badiner 1990; Akuppa 2002). His Holiness the Karmapa, the young leader of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, who lives in exile in India having fled from Tibet at the age of fourteen, in 1999 (forty years after the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight), is also very concerned with ecology (Karmapa 2011).
The “tragedy of the commons” was first advanced concerning the oceans (Gordon 1954; Hardin 1968). Pessimistic formulations of this theory, especially that advanced by Garret Hardin (1915–2003), notorious for his “lifeboat ethics,” considered common resources of the ocean especially vulnerable, because they could not be fenced. Hence, Hardin argued, the self-interest of the most aggressive parties is served by being the earliest to raid marine and other common resources. This applies not just to fish but the atmosphere, fossil energy supplies, and forest products. To hold back—to share—is to risk a competitor appropriating an unfair portion. There certainly seems much evidence to support this principle. On the other hand, critics of the tragedy of the commons theory have pointed out how often the commons have historically been protected by good governance (Buck 1985; Ostrom 2000). A world governed by Buddhist economics would surely protect critical common resources, but so would a world governed by Christian principles, especially ones that espouse stewardship of nature.
An example of the connectivity that the Karmapa also refers to in his concept of “ecobuddhism” is the increased piracy off Somalia, a nation whose fisheries have collapsed since the failure in 1991 of effective governance in that northeast African nation. Somalia’s fisheries have been repeatedly raided by foreign fleets, including from Europe (Hassan and Mwangura 2008). Foreign-owned fishing fleets displaced much of the local, less capital-intensive industry, deepening Somali poverty, destroying livelihoods, and making a locally available marine protein scarce. These events are a highly plausible underlying factor for the great increase in Somalian piracy, most of which involves Somalian fishermen (Middleton 2008; Waldo 2009). Pirates now regularly target comparatively wealthy ships off the Somalian coast, raising money through kidnapping and ransom. These actions receive far more attention than the earlier form of international piracy, where the victims were poor Somalis. This sequence illustrates collective karma; it could serve as a case study in a textbook of Buddhist economics. Recently, there are claims that piracy has abated, due to concerted military action.
In India, there is a common understanding that high-caste Hindus think that low-caste and “untouchable” Hindus have caused their lowly status by their actions in a past life. Among Hindus, the caste system is integral to the exploitation of the poor, described in 2006 by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as akin to apartheid (Rahman 2006). However, low-caste status affects far more people than apartheid ever did and has persisted far longer. While many high-caste Indians consider the worst excesses of the caste system something from the past, their relaxed view is not shared by many dalits, the name many low-caste people choose for themselves. To quote from Patrick Dowd, a US graduate student recently studying in India:
Among the great modern Indian industrialists, two names are prominent: Tata and Birla. Both employers have an unusually favorable reputation for providing working conditions better than average. Neither is Hindu. It is unlikely to be coincidental that both of these families are Parsees, followers of Zarathustra, descendants of migrants who fled Persia to India, about one thousand years ago.
For many centuries the Tibetans practiced political and social isolation, denying the dharma to European seekers (Harrer, 2009). Tibet declined to join the League of Nations, between the wars, when they probably could have. Then, when the Chinese invaded them, they had very few international friends, prepared to try to help them. The Dalai Lama has admitted this connection.
Schumacher was a major intellectual figure of the twentieth century. He had deep insights into the concept of natural capital and in some ways foreshadowed the “limits to growth” study. He also served as a bridge between East and West, bringing an early appreciation of some Eastern concepts, especially Gandhian values, into the West. At a time when many young people in the West were rejecting aspects of their culture, including the Vietnam War, Schumacher had wide appeal as an elder statesman. His daughter describes the final period of his life as one in which he was public property, a commonly owned guru. Jerry Brown, in his first term as governor of California, promoted Schumacher (Wood 1984, p. 354).
Schumacher was born into a privileged intellectual family, in Germany, most members of whom—even if perhaps reluctantly—sided with Hitler. When studying in the United States before WWII, he revealed traces of anti-Semitism and color-based racism. But he seems to overcome this, including by working with Jewish colleagues before voluntarily going into exile from Germany, with his new wife. Indeed, the anti-Semitism that he observed in Germany seemed to have figured in his decision to leave. He also seems to have overcome some of his class-based privilege, developing sympathy with Marxist views, after the forced exposure to workers and Marxists when interned in Britain in WWII.
It seems very likely that, for a time, Schumacher regarded himself as a Buddhist, particularly during and after his visit to Burma, in the mid 1950s. But though he called his most famous chapter “Buddhist Economics,” it would be more accurate to call it Gandhian Economics. At the time, it seems plausible that his rather limited knowledge of Buddhism would not be noticed. Knowledge of Buddhism among his readers was limited, and knowledge of “Buddhist economics” even more so. Although Ambedkar had died in 1956, he was scarcely known outside India at that time. Perhaps Schumacher cannot be criticized for not knowing of Ambedkar, but he at times does seem to have been gullible. For example, he commented to his family on return from a trip to India in 1973 that the country was a “sewer” (Wood 1984, p. 353). This is surely a fair description of at least an aspect of India; the surprise perhaps is the suggestion that this was a new insight. The Dalai Lama has said that a basic Buddhist principle is to thoroughly investigate any claim before accepting its validity. I am not sure that Schumacher always did this.
Schumacher’s chapter on Buddhist economics, though neither complete nor very Buddhist, is a valuable contribution, especially to the emerging discipline of ecological economics. The first noble truth of the Buddha is the truth of suffering, of dhukka, which creates a world of problems, sometimes called samsara. A fundamental principle of Buddhist economics, therefore, is not insight into an idealized system in which people of integrity trade limited, useful, and appreciated goods in an idealised world of voluntary simplicity which is limited in scale to the local. Nor is it of permanence.
Instead, Buddhist economics might recognize the reality of karma, the law of cause and effect, and provide useful insight into human psychology, at scales from the individual to the global. Unfolding elements of behavioral economics, such as the limited tolerance of most people to high inequality, are not surprising from a Buddhist perspective.
Buddhist economics would recognize the inevitability of impermanence, of constant change, of arising and passing. It would try not to be indifferent to suffering (especially to accept injustice as a deserved consequence of past bad karma), but at the same time recognize that the capacity of humans to create a heaven on Earth is profoundly limited.
In 2012, forty years have elapsed since Donella Meadows (1941–2001) and her three colleagues published Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972). Donella Meadows died young. I don’t know if she ever wrote about Schumacher, but for years she did try to live a life of relative simplicity and restraint, on an organic farm (AtKisson 2001).
Meadows’s understanding of the need for a parachute to recue civilization was, I think, more profound than Schumacher’s, but she was of a different generation, building on more information and, indeed, the pioneering work of people like Schumacher. History is tumultuous, but modern turmoil is increasingly global, including the dawning realization that humans now constitute a geological force. Schumacher’s book followed an earlier phase of this shock, including an intensification of the Cold War and anxiety about global food insecurity. His ideas then lost favor as the bubble of the global economy grew, fuelled by cheap energy, the successful Green Revolution, and increased material consumption in Asia. Today, however, several characteristics that stimulated the original appreciation of Schumacher’s ideas are reemerging. Global food prices have recently been at a record high, as are oil prices. The evidence of severe climate change is overwhelming, and we now seem locked into at least two degrees of warming, with its risk of feedback leading to runaway effects.
Garret Hardin, sometimes also seen as a prophet of collapse, in contrast to both Schumacher and Meadows supported a much more selfish vision to sustain civilization, a lifeboat world, in which those in the lifeboat exclude (drown) those in the water (Hardin 1974). Such selfishness is not Gandhian, Christian, or Buddhist. Although good people of all faiths (and many of no faith) are trying hard to make the world fairer, actions, rather than promises, show that Hardinian policies in fact are dominant. From a karmic perspective, this augurs poorly.
Creation of the parachute requires recognition of the ground. The forces of capitalism and the magic of mass production can yet be liberated to give humanity another breathing space, as the Green Revolution did in the early 1970s. But rather than the localism and smallness that Schumacher valued, we need recognition of global interconnectivity. Voluntary simplicity will help, but we also need mass production of clean energy systems, of smart electricity grids, of schools, teachers, and learning materials such as the Internet. We need better healthcare, especially of neglected diseases, and ways to improve nutrition for the poor. We need to recognize the fragility of civilization and the risk of its impermanence in our own lifetime. We need people of all faiths to work together. With luck, and effort, we might muddle through.
Schumacher’s main book is available, for free, on the web at http://dl.dropbox.com/u/19515292/SmallIsBeautifulSchumacher.pdf. A biography by one of his daughters (Barbara Wood) is also available, without charge, at http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/Wood%20bio/index.html.
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