Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, author of the renowned environmental book, Small is Beautiful, was born on August 16, 1911 (died 1977). Schumacher was born in Germany, but immigrated to England before World War II to avoid the scourge of Nazism in his homeland. He lived in England throughout his life and became a British citizen in 1945.
Schumacher was a brilliant but unconventional thinker. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, studying economics. When he later fled back to England, he lived in a cottage in a rural community, working as a farmer and growing his own vegetables. During World War II, he was interned with Germans, Italians and others considered dangerous to the British war effort. Later, serving as an economic consultant for three years in Burma, he further developed his ideas that society needed to be just, not just wealthy. These experiences shaped Schumacher’s worldview that economics, and life, was about more than creating the highest GNP and the largest, most industrialized economy. He wrote, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
From 1950-1970, he was the economist for the British Coal Board, a time when he realized that how we treat the environment was the fundamental issue for the future. In 1966, he formed the organization Intermediate Technology Development Group, which sought to develop—and apply—practical ideas for improving the human condition in the developing world. The group is now called Practical Action and continues to apply his principles around the world.
He wrote and spoke extensively throughout the post-war years, becoming a leading intellectual in England and throughout Europe. His major contribution was the 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. The book speaks to the need for “appropriate technology,” helping developing countries improve their quality of life by creating better small-scale technology that will work in their locales—not by importing industrial-scale technology that works in developed economies. His ideas take the form of today’s mantra to “think globally, act locally.” He also developed the idea of “natural capital,” understanding that over-use of renewable resources will lead to a lower quality of life in the future. Nature, he has taught us, is not inexhaustible.
Schumacher is also inspirational for his indomitable spirit and cheerfulness. Despite seeing the destruction of his beloved Germany and living as an enemy of his adopted England, he reveled in good humor and joy. His wife remembered that “he was the easiest man to live with, incredibly even-tempered, who believed that the first Christian duty was cheerfulness.”
McCrum, Robert. 2011. EF Schumacher: Cameron’s choice. The Guardian, 26 March 2011.
Practical Action. EF Schumacher—founder of Practical Action. Available at: https://practicalaction.org/ef-schumacher. Accessed August 15, 2017.
Schumacher Center for a New Economics. Honoring E. F. Schumacher. Available at: http://www.centerforneweconomics.org/Schumacher. Accessed August 15, 2017.
World Wisdom. E. F. Schumacher’s life and work. Available at: http://www.worldwisdom.com/public/authors/EF-Schumacher.aspx. Accessed August 15, 2017.