Why Small is Beautiful: The Size Interpretation of History

Why Small is Beautiful:

The Size Interpretation of History

by Leopold Kohr






I have many things in common with Fritz Schumacher. Somehow our thoughts began to develop in parallel lines, and people always wondered, Who has influenced whom? I will tell you a story to explain our relationship. It seems that before the Second World War Siamese twins were spotted in Munich in the 1930s. I read about them in a café in Innsbruck where I did my usual preparations for my work and examinations at the university. It was fascinating, the writer pointed out, that these twins had an unusual bond. Normally Siamese twins are joined together at the shoulders or at the hips, but the characteristic feature of these twins was that they were joined by their beards. The writer discovered them on a winter day at a telephone booth made of glass. One of them was standing outside reading a paper, and his beard was extending into the telephone booth. So the investigating reporter asked himself, What is a beard doing in a telephone booth? As he came closer he saw the other twin inside the booth, and that is how the phenomenon was discovered. It was only after finishing the article that I checked the date of the newspaper. It was April 1st.

Still, even though we had different perspectives, in the end there was a sort of Siamese-twin relationship between Fritz Schumacher and me. The twins in the article had grown together by their beards, and their beards could of course develop only later in life. So in our youth Fritz and I developed our systems each in our own way and with our own points of view, but later in life it turned out our work had similarities.

The great difference between us was that I confined myself to theoretical speculation, pursuing a thought of which I was totally convinced but never dreaming of attempting to make it a reality. I was just trying to show that if the world as we know it is to be safe, then we have to break up the big empires, the big powers, which are the cause of our troubles. It does not bother me that very few people agree with this idea because I am totally convinced that there is no other way out. Fritz Schumacher, too, had faith. He was convinced that ultimately this message would take root. He believed that every new idea took three generations to establish itself, and I agree. Unfortunately, by the third generation, when all have embraced the idea, then the different factions supporting it begin to quarrel with one another, and the same problem may appear all over again.

Unlike me, Fritz put his ideas into practice. He founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) [now Practical Action—ed.], which had ramifications all over the world and carried out his ideas properly. When he founded the ITGD in India, Fritz was asked by the new chairman whether it would be all right, if he ran into difficulties, for him to come to London to benefit from a consultation with and advice from Fritz. Fritz said: No! If you run into difficulties doing something, don’t do it; do only the things that can be done easily. The moment one has to import help to solve domestic difficulties, it leads to new difficulties.

After he founded the ITDG, Fritz came to visit me in Puerto Rico in 1973, just before his book Small is Beautiful came out. As a matter of fact, that was where he gave the first official lecture carrying the title “Small is Beautiful.” He told the story to the meeting about baking bread. He wondered how long it would take to bake bread himself instead of buying it from the baker. One Sunday he experimented by baking a week’s supply for his large family of eight. It took two hours, and he continued to bake the bread for his family until the end of his life.

A lady in the audience asked, “Yes, but what does your wife say about the mess you leave in the kitchen?” and Fritz answered, “Madam, when I leave the kitchen, no one knows that anyone has been there!” Those words solved a mystery for me. Fritz was my guest in Puerto Rico for ten days. Puerto Rico has a lovely climate but hot and tropical, cooling off gently in the evening. One does need about two showers per day. I never saw Fritz Schumacher take a shower, and yet there was no odor that would indicate anything was amiss. I could not figure it out, but when Fritz told his story about no one knowing he had been in the kitchen, the mystery solved itself. When he came out of the bathroom no one knew that anyone had been there either, but he did take his showers.

I’ve said that Fritz turned his thought into action, whereas I thought and never did. My father often said that with me it was always I should, I could, I would—never I shall, I can, I will. As a result I have always been a skeptic. And as right as I think the idea of “small is beautiful” is, I have great doubt that it will ever be adopted, except on islands here and there, because when something is right and makes sense, that is the last reason for it to convince humanity it should be accepted. People are often a little bit saddened that I don’t keep hope, but this has nothing at all to do with hope itself. The fact is that we live with all the faith that has been given to us as humans along with the evils that came out of Pandora’s box (and as Hesiod said, “Man will continue to destroy the cities of other men”). There is no reason whatsoever to think that the overall picture will change, but individually of course we can change.

My message is fundamentally the same as the one my father once gave a patient. My father was a country physician in a little Austrian village near Salzburg by the name of Oberndorf, which is completely unknown. Yet every Christmas almost everyone will sing “Silent Night,” which was composed in Oberndorf by Franz Gruber in the year 1818. This is an example of how so little a place can produce something that appeals to the entire world. When we think of the great things that have come to us, 99% of all civilization has come from city states, small states that could not dissipate their energies in road-building and car-driving and air-polluting, by being held tightly together in small places, people discovered where the infinite riches of the universe are kept.

My father, the country physician in Oberndorf, had a patient whom he diagnosed with a belated case of measles, which is very uncomfortable if it strikes in middle age instead of childhood. The man said, “Doctor, what shall I do?” My father answered, “Enjoy yourself, because if you don’t you will still have measles.” And so it is that although I have seen nothing but signs that in the future nations and their institutions will grow and expand as they always do, it is all the more important that we not be afraid of the things to come but that we enjoy for as long as possible what we have now.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of a lecture I gave in Toronto as a refugee in October 1939 on the subject of the breakdown of European ideologies. The ideology I suggested was breaking down was the concept of a united humankind, the idea that we are supposed to fulfill the mission given to us to unite humankind as was the case before the Tower of Babel. God was not at all pleased with this nonsense back then and thought it sacrilege for the people He created in his image to fuse into a collective. That is why he created many different languages so that people could not understand one another any more. (Having become deaf, I know that not understanding what the other person is saying makes life very calm and smooth and peaceful.) In my lecture I was challenging the idea of a common world community because it is beyond a reasonable scale that makes sense. Nowadays we grow up with the idea of “united strength.” When President Eisenhower once said with great sincerity and determination that if we are united we can defeat the entire world, I thought, Sure we can, but what sort of goal is that—to beat up the entire world? Similarly, when Schiller wrote in his “Ode to Joy,” “Be embraced, ye millions,” did he—or does anyone—ever think what it means to be embraced by millions of people? I am happy to be embraced by one, but every additional embrace chokes the breath out of me.

That lecture came about because I was staying at the home of a famous Canadian historian for two years and acting as his secretary. Once at breakfast we had a conversation about a best-selling book that had just appeared called Union Now, which argued that since the Allies would unite after the war, the democracies should start the process right away: union now. No one saw anything wrong with this. For the sake of argument I suggested exploring the opposite direction. Instead of uniting the world, which had produced all the conflicts on earth (because one state always wants to unite with another that is not willing), what if we divided the world, making things smaller? We pursued this train of thought for an hour, with amusement, but I was the only defender of the idea that indeed the road to salvation lies in making things smaller, not larger, adjusting to a human not a universal scale.

Since then I have written almost nothing except on this one subject, which proved to have countless ramifications; one will never be able to come to the end of the subject of smallness. The first piece I wrote was called “Disunion Now: A Plea for a Society based upon Small Autonomous Units” in 1941 for a leftist Catholic magazine in New York called Commonweal, which still exists. I used my brother’s name, Hans Kohr, instead of my own, since at that time there was a famous nationalism expert by the name of Hans Kohn, and I thought the Commonweal editor might think it was written by that expert and so would read my article with attention and by the end would be convinced, even after discovering that it was written by someone else.

This article was the first to suggest breaking down the big powers into smaller units. I suggested a different interpretation of history, dealing with the question, “What is the force that changes the course of events?” Is it the great leaders—Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill—who are responsible for the great changes in history? No, they are nothing of the sort! They are the drivers of a defective car whose brakes do not function well so that when it goes downhill, the brakes can make it go faster or slower but cannot stop the descent into the abyss. Or is it the ideological interpretation of history, holding that Christianity or Islam, Socialism or Capitalism or Communism change history? No, they have influence, to be sure; they give color, but they do not change a thing in a country.

Karl Marx’s brilliantly reasoned interpretation was that history was determined by changes in the way we earn our living—changes in the mode of production. A machine mode of production or an atomic mode of production produces an entirely different civilization, philosophy, concepts, and laws from a handicraft mode of production. Everything changes. The only thing this theory does not explain is what it is, periodically in history, that changes the mode of production. If the mode of production is the primary cause, as Marxists tell us, than why does it change? There is another, deeper cause that works upon us, not only on our thoughts and speculations and literature but also on the differing modes of production, and that is the change in the size of society.

Every change in the mode of production—from pasture to agriculture, from agriculture to handicraft, from handicraft to machine-craft—is the result of people getting too crowded in one place. The fundamental, all-history-determining feature is the periodic change in the size of society, and that is why we are in such a mess today. When the twentieth century started, there were a billion people on earth; now there are five billion, and the number keeps on racing ahead. As Thomas Malthus said, population rises at a geometric ratio, but the food supplies needed to cope with this can increase at most at an arithmetic ratio.

The answer to all questions underlying our problems today is the size factor—not unemployment, not warfare, not juvenile delinquency, not business fluctuations, not Black Mondays, Black Fridays, or Black Tuesdays. What matters is the enormous scale of these maladies. It’s huge! The world today is faced with the consequences of nuclear power, but the problems can be solved only by tackling the scale of it and the huge nations that need it, not by demonstrating against it. These huge nations cannot exist, poor creatures, without nuclear power, which is so efficient—so efficient that only 5% of the population is needed to contribute to the economic upkeep; all the rest must be tied to the bureaucracy or the military or the educational institutions that teach people to spend their time with no purpose. The fundamental effect is a vast increase in our human numbers; if there is to be a way out, these numbers must be reduced, and the way to reduce them is by reducing the size of nations, which at a smaller scale no longer depend on nuclear power but instead on muscle power, small electric power, wind power, and so forth.

That is my size interpretation of history. The question I am always asked is, “It sounds nice, but does it make sense in this age of progress to go backward?” Well, as a friend of mine from Wales used to say, “When on the edge of an abyss, the only thing that makes sense is stepping back.” Someone else says. “It is too romantic.” I am always accused of being a romantic, of seeing the charm, the beauty, the perfection of small communities and small cities. Of course I am a romantic! For a rationalist, an economic life makes no sense whatsoever: We come from dust, we end in dust, and in-between we have a lot of expenditures; for a rationalist, life is a lost proposition. The point is that the concept of smallness is intensely scientific. It is a design of nature. It is not romantics who have concluded these things but rather hard-headed philosopher-scientists who were able to penetrate the meaning and design of nature and whom I associate with the principle of smallness. Let me mention a few.

The first one was Pythagoras. He was the first to say that man is the measure of all things. I could never quite understand in school when we were told that this was something very significant; I thought, Well, okay, man is the measure of all things; so what? In due course I realized that I didn’t quite put the accent right: man is the measure of all things—not the community, not the state, not society, not the continent, not the universe. Man is the measure of all things in all his littleness. The way Leonardo daVinci drew his famous figure of the nude inside a circle shows how far we extend and how everything must be adjusted. The human scale!

Pythagoras’s wisdom was made clear to me once by a well-known American economist, Kenneth Boulding, who was with me in Puerto Rico by the sea one night. We were looking at the magnificent tropical sky, the stars so brilliant and clear against the pitch-dark night. He remarked that the number of states in the United Nations had just reached the same number as the named stellar constellations, and he said, “Of course, this seems very reasonable because both have been created by human beings.” I was a bit taken aback by his words, but he gave a beautiful explanation: We cannot comprehend the vastness of the stars, so we have to break them down into stellar images: the Big Bear, Orion, and so on. In this way we bring that vastness down to the human scale and can understand it.

A second man was an Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, who won a Nobel prize in physics and lived in exile in Dublin, Ireland. In a delightful book on biology called What Is Life? he explained why things must be small. Pythagoras said they must be small, but Schrödinger showed us why they must be small: because all creation consists of particles or atoms that are totally free in their movements. As a result they constantly collide with one another. Each collision would cause annihilation if they were as large as tanks, so nature has seen to it that they are all small. And since they are so numerous and always moving (like a universe of individuals), instead of destruction they produce patterns, new forms, new shapes, a myriad of creations. On a dance floor, because we are all small, we can dance with blindness and bump into each other; it is part of the fun. But if there were 600 tanks dancing, then we would need ambulances and an entire police force.

Then there is Isaac Newton. Newton demonstrated how nature goes about keeping things small: by the law of gravitation, which, like every universal law, applies everywhere. But the law of gravitation, which says gravitational power diminishes with the square of the distance, can be taken one step further: everything diminishes with the square of the distance.

In Mexico I once had a class in which I pointed out that all the failing students were sitting in the back and all those with excellent grades were in the front. I explained that grades diminish with the square of the distance at which a student sits from the instructor, because what one says becomes lost at a distance and students are inattentive. The same goes for the administrative power of government, which diminishes with the square of the distance. That is why empires begin to disintegrate at the fringes, as we see now in the Soviet Union and as was true of the Roman Empire and all other empires. Everything beyond a certain point needs an excessive amount of military and administrative concentration in order to keep together that which by nature would otherwise crumble.

The size interpretation of history explains the past, the present, and perhaps the future.

Before I retired from the University of Puerto Rico, the head of the theological college, who said I had the reputation of being a prophet, asked me to give a farewell talk to the theologians. I accepted, and in my talk I said that if I was indeed a prophet, it was only on the basis of my size interpretation of history and the inevitable outcomes determined by the size of society. I also asked, “What did I prophesy every year that has always come true?” It was this: that next year will be worse than this one. Can anyone say that this year is better than last?

The reason for this may be best explained by thinking of waves in the ocean. They are not controllable, so if we want security, we carve out a little land and make a harbor. As a result, the same body of water that throws out huge waves in the open sea adjusts their dimensions to the size of the body it encounters, and thus there are only little waves in the harbor. So the answer to the oceanic magnitudes of our great powers is to adopt the harbor philosophy—to create, as the Dutch have done with their dikes, not a dam but a small wall, a harbor, a refuge; to try, bit by bit, to live in little communities, which is the only way that human society will be able to survive.

Permit me to end with someone else from a very little town who gave the world a great deal: Jesus from Bethlehem. And finally, Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon, where he learned everything, the author of those marvelous plays and Hamlet’s famous monologue, which begins: “To be or not to be? That is the question.” Well, today he would probably start his monologue differently: “To be small or not to be at all. That is the question. The large have no future!”



Leopold Kohr was born in 1909 and died in 1994. He considered himself Austrian by birth, American by citizenship, English by residence, and Welsh by heart. E. F. Schumacher referred to him as “the person who taught me more than anyone else.”

Kohr was educated at the Universities of Innsbruck, Vienna, Paris, and the London School of Economics. He had doctorates in law and political science and taught economics at Rutgers and the University of Puerto Rico as well as political philosophy at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He also had visiting professorships at Cambridge and in Mexico City.

Among the honors Kohr received were the Golden Ring of the State of Salzburg, Honorary Citizenship of Salzburg, and the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) in Stockholm in 1983.

Kohr’s books have been translated into many languages and include The Breakdown of NationsDevelopment Without AidThe Overdeveloped NationsIs Wales Viable?; and The Inner City




Schumacher Center for a New Economics and Leopold Kohr