Small is Beautiful – four aims for positive land management

I have recently been re-reading E.F. Schumacher’s classic work, first published in 1973, Small is Beautiful. It is a book that remains relevant for the Western world and, I would hasten to guess, will remain increasingly relevant as time marches on this century. Rather than carry out an elongated review or synthesis of ideas contained in the work, dipping in and out of myriad of topics, I would like to briefly discuss and raise awareness of Schumacher’s four pointed orientation of goals for man’s management of the land. The first is ‘health’, the second ‘beauty’, the third ‘permanence’ and the fourth, which he points out as being the most prominent in society at the time (and I would like to add remains so today), ‘productivity’.

To succeed in fulfilling the ‘health’ aspect Schumacher suggests that humans must ‘keep in touch with living nature’, assuming that humans remain animal species within a biosphere reliant on mutual support mechanisms. Certainly ‘food health’ and ‘healthy eating’ campaigns have become increasingly prominent thanks to the ‘obesity epidemic’ and food warriors such as Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver fighting the corner for a ‘healthful’ food culture. However, the reality remains that we have an agriculture that is based around industry, economics and the bottom line, meaning this first goal has largely fallen by the wayside.

The second aspect, ‘beauty’, refers to ‘the wider habitat of man’ meaning the realms of the landscape and the environment. In this aspect policy makers have been more aware and schemes have been put in place to ensure a future for this aim. However, again looking at the bigger picture slightly pessimistically, I would be inclined to suggest an ultimate failure on this part also.

The third aspect, permanence, is perhaps the most important and the most politically controversial. We live in a consumer society, a society of seemingly ‘endless’ raw materials and a society where most people are distant from the primary sources of life – the water cycle, the carbon cycle and food production. Schumacher saw permanence as bringing ‘forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed for a becoming life’. This ‘becoming life’ is however increasingly distant and even with a growing awareness and knowledge of climate change and an ethics of provision for future generations we live in a ‘presentist’ society, obsessed by its addiction to consume and to ‘grow’. Permanence is one of the aims I am least confident in humans achieving over the next few generations. Ecological modernisation may provide for a degree of self-conservation but the ‘habitat’ described in aim number two will be vastly changed, offering up a permanence that would be lacking in the diversity of species, a hugely morbid existence for many people.

Then we come to the fourth aspect: production. With a rapidly growing world population it is right that production should remain as part of these key aims. However, Schumacher’s predictions that production and economics would come to overwhelm all other factors has come true to a great extent. Our obsession with producing more and more and consuming more and more, without sufficient thought regarding the ecological, environmental-health and social impacts of such an obsession, is topping us over the edge. Demographics will be, it is more than clear, the key issue of our time and yet it is one of the key philosophical questions that isn’t given sufficient profile. Why do we need so many more people on the planet and if so, how many is enough? If we do not forge a ‘sustainable’ future by following the advice of thinkers such as Fred Kirschenmann then future generations will keep a culture such as ours; a culture of consumption and greed. A population of 9.6 billion in 2050 cannot afford to live as we do if humans want to fulfil the first three aims of Schumacher’s ideas of good land management; three aims that whilst we, today, may feel we can brush aside, favouring production, they will become increasingly precious in the future.

3 thoughts on “Small is Beautiful – four aims for positive land management

  1. Don’t mix your productivity with your production. We might need to curtail the latter but improve the former.
    I would love to see ‘dead skylark/voles’ labels on supermarket food – the cheaper it was, the more expensive on the environment, the higher the count (and visa versa) That might curtail consumption!

    I’m doing a piece on ‘Intensive farming – is it all bad?’ The answer is no but only if done by experts and we scare ourselves with a land share;spare debate (something probably not of concern in the 1970s).

    1. Thanks for the comment Rob. Always good to hear your views on things. I certainly take on board your point about confusing ‘productivity’ with ‘production’. Perhaps I should have made it clearer in the post that productivity is indeed improving and my confidence that land management will become increasingly efficient in the future whilst also becoming sustainable ecologically (again, so long as land is managed by people who truly know what they are doing and why they are doing it!). However, I cannot see how, eventually (many generations down the line), unless population growth rate curtails and we reach a ‘natural climax’ of population, ‘production’ is going to have to increase meaning destruction of more habitat and accepting a life that is increasingly industrialised and urbanised.

      Will look forward to your ‘intensive farming’ piece.

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