Small Can Still Be Beautiful

The world doesn’t feel like it’s unfolding as it should right now. Inflation is painful; the invasion of the Ukraine is unjustified and cruel; the climate has cost tens of billions of dollars; the pandemic refuses to go away. The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot when events today are described.

It pays to look back a few decades, though. In fact, in 1973, the world looked startlingly familiar.

In 1973, the Canadian inflation rate was 7.49 per cent; today it’s 7.2 per cent. The price of gas had doubled, thanks to the Arab oil embargo. The Republican antihero Richard Nixon won a second term in office. Ironically, the Roe vs Wade court case was heard in the U.S. in 1973, making abortion a constitutional right.

Military unrest? The Yom Kippur War was the largest conflict between Arabs and Israelis. The Irish Troubles were resulting in regular bombings. The war in Vietnam ended, but not in a positive way.

It was a time of deep economic turmoil and political uncertainty.

The one great difference between now and 1973 is that economists today are screaming for more stimulus for the consumer market; politicians are fully behind geometrically increasing rates of growth.

By contrast, in 1973, a British economist by the name of E.F. Schumacher released a little collection of essays called Small is Beautiful. It was the perfect foil to the doctrine of growth at all costs. Schumacher proposed that technologies and policies needed to scale back to improve the quality of life. He used the village and its dynamics as the model for the world’s economies.

Schumacher voiced all the warnings familiar today. The modern economy, he said, was unsustainable. Natural resources were being exploited as though they were infinite. The planet had only limited capacity to handle pollution. He was one of the first to use the term “sustainability” in terms of economic production – and not hypocritically as it so often is today. He even called his model Buddhist economics, based on the belief that individuals and political systems only needed to strive towards “enough” rather than more and more.

The New York Times Literary Review called the book one of the 100 most influential books published since the Second World War. It was a philosophical model for the communes that sprang up across North America at the time. In the suburbs, people revived the old notions of composting and reusing.

Our world has obviously forgotten all about the beauty of small. Next time you’re in a Zehrs, look down at the handlebar on your shopping cart: there’s a promotion there urging you to “Crave More.”

With the price of commodities today, we all need to be able to crave a little less. It isn’t easy. Mall designers talk about shopping as a recreational activity. Advertising strategies use celebrity endorsements and social media influencers to incite “mimetic need” in consumers – the urge to own something, not because it’s needed, but because everyone else seems to have it.

But the planet needs us to scale back. Our bank accounts and our credit cards are offering the same message.

The solution is to step back and think in terms of what we need instead of what we want. There’s a tale about the authors Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut meeting up at a party hosted by a billionaire hedge fund manager. Vonnegut noted that the billionaire had made more in a single day than Heller had from the all-time sales of his bestseller Catch-22. Heller’s response was that he had something the billionaire could never have. Vonnegut wondered what that could be, and Heller’s response was one word.


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