Chapter 25: E.F. Schumacher

A project of the Schumacher Center for New Economics   |   The Autobiography of Bob Swann


Chapter 25

E. F. Schumacher—Small Is Beautiful

Fritz Schumacher died in 1977, the same year as Ralph Borsodi. These two men have had the most influence on my thinking about economics and on my life work. Although I had known of them for many years and had read their books and articles, I didn't meet either of them until 1967, ten years before they died. Fritz and I had similar experiences during World War II, when we were both incarcerated and this experience played an important role in our thinking. Because Schumacher was a German, he and his family were detained in northern England during the war.

John Papworth, then editor of Resurgence magazine (published in England), had "discovered" Fritz sometime in the 1960s and regularly published articles by him. When I first read one of these articles, particularly the one on Buddhist Economics, I had a sense of him as a "fellow traveler." I wrote John Papworth and urged him to collect Schumacher's articles and put them into book form. I can't say that my urging was a major factor in getting the book published, but I like to think that it helped.

Ultimately, I became so taken with his writings that I wanted to meet Schumacher. This came about when Borsodi and I visited him in London in 1967 to discuss Borsodi's plan for small-scale credit and how it could mesh with Schumacher's idea of intermediate technology. We agreed that they fit together very well and that we should keep in touch, which we did occasionally over the next few years. But at the time I was concentrating on the Community Land Trust movement, which was growing at a rapid pace, while Schumacher was preoccupied with the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), which he and George McRobie had recently founded.

Schumacher continued writing articles for Resurgence, and I urged John Papworth to publish them in book form. This finally happened in 1973 when Harper & Row brought out Small Is Beautiful. Later that year I called Harper & Row to see how sales were progressing, only to learn that the book was languishing on the shelves. I was determined to do something about it, so I wrote Fritz to ask if he would be willing to make a one-month speaking tour to promote the book in the United States. He agreed, and with $1000 from Harper & Row, we set up a national speaking tour. The American Friends Service Committee in particular did a great job arranging meetings.

Fritz met with Jerry Brown (then governor of California), the governor of Oregon, several senators, and even Merrill Lynch and Co. (thanks to Hazel Henderson). Fritz spoke from the perspective of a "fuel economist," as he called himself, because he was Chairman of the Coal Planning Board in England and knew a great deal about fuels, not only coal. His visit coincided with the 1973-1974 energy crisis, during which the price of oil was raised several times by the cartel known as OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries). As a result there was great interest in the issues he was talking about, and the book began to sell like hotcakes.

When Fritz returned East on his one-month speaking tour, I set up several speaking engagements before he returned to England. One of these was at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state, where there was a great deal of interest in his message on science and technology. It was a natural then to take him for a visit to New Alchemy Institute in Cape Cod where the message was quite different. As it happened, the day we visited New Alchemy, an open visitor's day, there was a Life magazine photographer and reporter who had just returned from Germany with a story about a woman—a nun, I believe—who had been on a total fast (no food or water) for a number of days. I don't remember exactly how long, but longer than it was "scientifically" possible for a human being to live. As it happened, George Wald, a recent Nobel Prize winner in biology, was also visiting. When he heard the Life reporter telling this story he couldn't resist challenging the reporter and began giving all the scientific evidence as to why it was impossible, but the Life reporter continued to persist and maintained that he had checked all the evidence and he could see no reason why the woman was lying. He and George Wald continued to carry on a lively discussion with neither one backing down from their position. At that point, to my surprise, Fritz jumped into the argument on the side of the Life reporter. His argument was simply that we do not know enough to be able to say "without doubt" that such a thing could not happen. But George continued to insist that if it could not be proven "scientifically," then it could not be true. It struck me at the time that there were two men representing the two opposing philosophies of our time and age.

Fritz lived to see his ideas relating to the importance of small-scale technology, small work groups, and worker ownership become a reality on the world level. ITDG now has 600 full-time workers all over the world focusing on appropriate intermediate technologies. In the United States, for example, Appropriate Technology International was founded with the help of Schumacher's right-hand man, George McRobie, and remains funded by the Agency for International Development.

At the end of his trip, Fritz asked me if I would be interested in becoming the U. S. liaison for his Intermediate Technology Development Group. I said no because I did not have administrative skills, which I felt was what Fritz needed. But while Fritz was here, I organized a meeting between him and Borsodi—the two leading decentralists, in my judgment. It is my deep regret that I didn't tape-record their conversation. Borsodi maintained that no social reform would be possible without monetary reform. Schumacher seemed unconvinced that such reform was necessary. He made it clear that he wasn't opposed to monetary reform but didn't think it was essential. Later, on the way to catch his plane for England, he gave what seemed to me a valid reason for his position which I no longer recall. It appears that during the war while he was interned in northern England he had written several policy papers, which he sent to economist friends. He sent one to John Maynard Keynes, probably the most influential economist of the time. He never heard from Keynes, but it was later revealed that this policy paper (on establishing a world monetary clearing house) was in fact what became known as the famous "White Paper" that set international monetary policy for years. Keynes never acknowledged Schumacher's authorship.

Schumacher spent the last years of his life speaking and promoting his ideas all over the world. Small is Beautiful became the longest-term bestseller of any nonfiction book Harper & Row ever published. In 1998, it was reissued by Hartley & Marks Publishers.

After his death, friends and co-workers set up the E. F. Schumacher Society in England, headed by Satish Kumar, who had become the editor of Resurgence when John Papworth left for Zambia. When Satish came to the United States in 1980, he asked a few of Fritz's U. S. friends to set up a Schumacher Society here. I had some concern that he might want us to simply organize lectures, as he was doing in England, but he assured me that was not the case. We would be free to follow our own path as the U. S. Schumacher Society.

Satish's suggestion coincided with a change in my life. I had fallen in love with Susan Witt, a woman who had come to the Institute for Community Economics after hearing me talk on the radio about what the Institute was doing to implement Borsodi's ideas. She was so inspired that she offered to be a volunteer with the project. When she first called our office, she told us she had a degree in English and thought she might be able to help us keep our files in order. (In 1978, Marj and I and the others at our home in Ashby had moved the office to Cambridge and were concentrating on creating the Community Investment Fund.) It soon became clear that Susan's skills extended far beyond organizing the files; before long she began taking on broader duties. Technically I was still the director, but in reality it was Susan.

Susan and I later became partners. We moved together to a small apartment near Harvard Square. Although our apartment was on the fourth floor, we were happy there, gladly climbing the stairs. By 1979-1980 we were both ready to leave Boston, for a variety of reasons. We wanted to live in a rural area on CLT land and had begun looking for opportunities. (We considered Tennessee, for example.) Satish's letter, which opened up a whole other option to us, coincided with a letter from the DeRis family in the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts, soliciting our help on a complicated land issue.

Fortunately, the owner of this land, which was her major asset, was somewhat familiar with Henry George and the CLT concept. She was dying of cancer and wanted to distribute her assets equally among her five children. One of her sons had built a house on the ten-acre tract but was unable to buy out the other siblings' portion of her assets. In order to divide equally, the only option seemed for everything, land and buildings, to be sold. She also owned a large home on the property. The land trust solved the problem by having her agree to take back a mortgage for the land in return for giving the land title to the CLT corporation (which was created shortly thereafter). The land value was set at $26,000, and a buyer acquired the owner's house for $40,000, allowing her to distribute her assets equally among her children.

Susan and I fell in love with the Berkshires and decided to stay. We began organizing a CLT with the help of many local people. Members of the DeRis family were helpful in this process and we were able to put together a structure exactly as we hoped, with the ten-acre tract as the CLT's first land acquisition. On the property was an existing garage that had housing possibilities. Susan and I bought it for $10,000, and I immediately began remodeling it into a small two-bedroom house while we lived in it. Without a bathroom we used a compost toilet for a couple years and hooked up a shower to the faucet of the kitchen sink. We added a greenhouse and depended on a wood stove as our only source of heat—that is, until 1997, when we installed a gas furnace. The wood stove remains as a reassuring backup.

In 1982 I designed and built a large dance studio for one of the DeRis family members. When the owner later left, the Schumacher Society purchased the building, which now houses the Society's offices together with a library which specializes in books on decentralization. The centerpiece of the library is Schumacher's personal collection.

The individuals who eventually founded the E. F. Schumacher Society in 1980 include Ian Baldwin, who shortly after became co-founder of Chelsea Green Publications; David Ehrenfeld, professor at Rutgers University; John McClaughry, former state senator in Vermont; Kirkpatrick Sale, author on environmental issues; Satish Kumar, and I. Susan Witt became the Executive Director, taking responsibility for the overall planning and daily operation of the Society as well as for the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires.

Since moving to the Berkshires in 1980, we have largely been consumed with carrying on the educational work of the E. F. Schumacher Society on a nationwide level. We have also organized locally—starting and managing the Community Land Trust in the South Berkshires, which currently holds title to two tracts of land.

Although I left the Institute for Community Economics to move to Great Barrington and help found the Schumacher Society, a very capable group of workers has carried on the work of the Institute, first out of Greenfield, Massachusetts, for several years and now in Springfield. The Institute has focused on urban housing while the Schumacher Society has focused on rural land, particularly farmland. Together the two organizations are responsible for approximately fifty CLTs throughout the United States.

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©2001 Robert Swann