"SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL" DELIGHT COULD BEAR ABUNDANT FRUIT
by Joanna Manning
My first teaching position in Canada in the late 1970s was in the Social Science Department at Midland Avenue Collegiate in Toronto. Due to a mix-up in the timetabling, two OAC Economics classes had been scheduled back-to-back in the same time slot. One was assigned to the economics expert and the other - well, there’s always a rookie in every department. That rookie was me.
The only economics I had ever studied in the course of an undergraduate degree in medieval history was the financial chicanery of the medieval papacy. But with determination and a lot of encouragement from my colleague, I set about giving myself a crash course in macro and micro economic theory. Math had been my worst subject in high school. So although the correct answers to economic calculations were given in the teacher’s text, the method of getting from question to answer was not, so I had to work painfully and slowly through each stage with a lot of help from my colleague.
One of the key economic texts that had just burst upon the public scene at the time was Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. I was reminded of this book by a recent article in The Tablet, a Catholic weekly published in England, in which the writer paid tribute to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Schumacher’s publication. I had read Shumacher’s book at the time with great relief, not only because it was accessible to the general reader, but also because Schumacher analyzed the ethical implications of economic systems as well as their efficiency
He was one of the first to advocate that macro systems can be changed by micro changes in attitude, and that personal choices can make a difference to the working of the whole. The buyer is not hostage to an impersonal system, bereft of all ability to influence the direction of the market. The economic system is servant to humanity, not its master. But unfortunately Schumacher’s "Economics as if people mattered" enjoyed only a brief heyday before it was swallowed up in the free market competitive agenda relentlessly pursued under Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.
Now, some 30 years later, the ecological and humanitarian havoc wrought by the so-called "free" market is evident even to its proponents. The seed planted by Schumacher’s "small is beautiful" may yet bear fruit in new initiatives. The recent Johannesburg Summit on the Environment made the wide world aware of the importance of "sustainable development." Sustainable development for the poorer majority of the world’s population and its eco-system, will only work if the richer minority adopts micro and macro changes in consumption patterns. Sustainable development for the two-thirds world means changes in unsustainable consumption for the rest of us - a back to the basics of "small is beautiful."
Consumption habits can and do change, at the micro as well as the macro level. Take smoking, for example. When I was teaching 30 years ago, the haze of cigarette smoke was a given in the staff lounge, as it was in any public or private space. It is only within the past 20 years that work and recreational spaces have become smoke free. Despite the enormous clout of the tobacco industry, the persuasive educational work of a small number of advocates has led to a huge shift in public attitudes. The recent court decision to award damages to a non-smoking waitress who worked in a smoke-filled bar in Ottawa, and is now suffering from cancer as a result of secondhand smoke, will give further clout to efforts to secure a healthier, smoke-free environment.
The upcoming debate on the Kyoto Accord will provide further incentives for the adoption of a small but beautiful spirituality. "Our consumer culture," writes theologian Sally McFague in her 2001 book Life Abundant, "defines the abundant life as one where natural resources are sacrificed for human pleasure and profit and human resources are the employees who will work for the lowest wages. It is crucial to redefine the abundant life in terms that encourage sustainable communities." McFague continues, saying "for affluent Christians, this should mean a different understanding of abundance, one that embraces the contradiction of the cross: giving up one’s life in order to find it, limitation and diminishment, sharing and giving - indeed, sacrifice."
This kind of sacrifice involves a conversion to a "small is beautiful" delight. This delight comes from a frugality lovingly embraced out of love for creation and for all its creatures - not least our own children and grandchildren. A frugality that will bear abundant fruit for the future.
Joanna Manning’s most recent book is Take Back the Truth: Confronting Papal Power and the Religious Right published by Crossroad. She has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, Manning received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.