A couple of people have jokingly asked if there is a reading list for the Live Local movement (as if there is anything else one can ask a bookseller). So far my answer always refers to the best book on the topic: “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” by E. F. Schumacher.
Though I have been hesitant to write a recommendation for it, because it is a dense read, “Small is Beautiful” is an incredible work. First published in 1973, it is still striking to read almost 40 years later.
To me, a great work of art is one that speaks to me at different times in my life. As my personal world-view evolves and deepens my understanding, I can re-visit the work and see it in a new way each time. Applying this to music, visual art or literature is not difficult, but to apply it to a book on economics might sound a little strange.
I was introduced to Schumacher’s work because my father’s Ph.D. (circa 1972) dissertation was on Brook Farm and the transcendentalist movement. “Small is Beautiful” addressed the issue of personal and collective fulfillment during a working life, which was a question the transcendentalists wrestled with in their utopian vision of the world. One of the greatest surprises and assets of the Live Local experiment has been deepening my relationship with my community. I have, without question, a richer life than I did shopping on the Internet or in big-box stores. In addition, as a small business owner, I unquestionably have a richer working life (when the store is open) than most of my friends. Many of them who work in customer service-related fields will talk about the one person they helped that day who was really nice and stood out against the back drop of unpleasant, unhappy, complaining people. For me, it’s the opposite: Almost everyone who walks in the door of the bookstore is a delight and has something interesting to say. We really average only about one person a week that insists on inflicting themselves on humanity.
Re-reading “Small is Beautiful” (this time aloud to my father), the passages about meaningful and fulfilling work in all areas of the economic system almost moved me to tears at the revelation of its real possibility. We talked for a few minutes about how fulfillment can take on certain forms in the imagination; images that are almost too precise to be real. So, when you encounter real happiness or fulfillment in day-to-day life, it can be hard to recognize. In the midst of a hectic schedule, sometimes it can be hard to realize how happy we really are.
I had picked up “Small is Beautiful” again about nine years ago when he was first launching the Full Belly peanut sheller. Schumacher talks a lot about what he terms “intermediate technology,” which is not that different from Jock’s spiel about how small farmers have been left in the dust by John Deere. From the E.F. Schumacher Society:
“Schumacher believed that it was vital for poor people to be able to help themselves and that intermediate technology could enable them to do so. He traveled widely, advocating small-scale technologies, as well as enterprises, workshops and factories that would serve communities in such a way that no one need be exploited for another’s gain.”
Jock’s factory-in-a-box is the manifestation of this vision. To see people unpacking a cardboard box and build a factory that can begin producing tools the next day is breathtaking—all possible without multi-national corporations. It couldn’t be more de-centralized. While Jock is famous for inventing the peanut sheller, he has many other inventions and works closely with small North Carolina farmers to develop affordable (under $100) agricultural technology that can be used on a small farm (40 acres or less).
Nine years ago, we had no idea where this work would take Jock, but looking back on it now, the insistence on de-centralization, empowerment at the village and farm level, and simple reusable parts made from locally available materials, all of which have been the guidelines of Jock’s work, were taken almost off the page from Schumacher. Economic Theory made manifest?
My initial passionate embrace of this book had occurred at 16, the year before I ran off to join a commune and see if these principals could be put into practice. Schumacher’s discussion of energy resources, community-land development, and agriculture rang true with what I was seeing around me. But in my youth and naiveté, I thought I had to move to somewhere like Brook Farm to put those principals into practice. Now, as I re-read this book, I realize that everyday I make decisions about my economic reality and place within it. Small is beautiful, people do matter, and day-to-day life is local.
For more info about E. F. Schumacher, please visit www.smallisbeautiful.org or buy a copy of “Small is Beautiful” at a local, independent bookstore.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author of “The Promise of Peanuts: A real life fairy tale about a man, a village, and the promise that bound them together.” All profits go to Full Belly Project.