A Guide for the Perplexed

An irony endured, and occasionally relished, by those of us whose concerns about peak oil have found their way into print is the awkward fact that it’s difficult to talk publicly about using less fossil fuel energy without using more of it. The networks of transportation and communication left to us by the collective decisions of the recent past demand a great deal of energy input, and social habits evolved during the heyday of cheap energy amplify that, making long-distance trips a practical necessity for the working writer. These days, that usually means air travel.

A passage in Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends explores the chasm between the old romantic dreams of human flight and the utterly unromantic reality that replaced them. More than once, after a few hours packed like sardines in a metal can breathing the same stale air a hundred times over, it’s occurred to me that the crabby oldsters who insisted that humanity was not meant to fly may have had more of a point than most of us suspect. The one consolation I’ve found is that the hours of enforced inactivity on planes and in airports provide some of the few chances an increasingly busy schedule allows me for sustained reading. And that, dear reader, is how I ended up sitting in a tacky restaurant in the even more tacky Dallas-Fort Worth airport a few weeks back, killing time between one flight and the next, with a copy of E.F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful in my hands.

This was by no means my first encounter with Schumacher. Back in the 1970s, when I first began studying the ways that energy, ecology, and history were weaving our future, his name was one to conjure with throughout the environmental and appropriate-tech movements; you could expect to see Small is Beautiful on any bookshelf that also held The Whole Earth Catalog, say, or The Book of the New Alchemists. Still, by the time I stuffed a copy in my carry-on bag and headed to the airport, close to thirty years had passed since the last time I’d opened it. I suspect many other people have neglected it to at least the same degree.

This is unfortunate, because Schumacher’s insights have not lost any of their force with the passing years. Quite the contrary; he was decades ahead of his time in recognizing the imminence of peak oil and sketching the outlines of an economics that could make sense of a world facing the twilight of the age of cheap abundant energy. It’s fair to say that in many ways, the peak oil scene has not yet caught up with him. For this reason among others, a review of the man and his ideas may be timely just now.

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was born in Bonn in 1911 and attended universities there and in Berlin before going to Oxford in 1930 as a Rhodes Scholar, and then to Columbia University in New York, where he graduated with a doctorate in economics. When the Second World War broke out he was living in Britain, and was interned for a time as an enemy alien, until fellow economist John Maynard Keynes arranged for his release. After the war, he worked for the British Control Commission, helping to rebuild the West German economy, and then began a twenty-year stint as chief economist and head of planning for the British National Coal Board, at the time one of the world’s largest energy firms.

He also served as an economic adviser to the governments of India, Burma, and Zambia, and these experiences turned his attention to the economic challenges of development in the Third World. Recognizing that attempts to import the industrial model into nonindustrial countries usually failed due to shortages of infrastructure and resources, he pioneered the concept of intermediate technology – an approach to development that focuses on finding and using the technology best suited to the resources available – and founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group in 1966. His interest in resource issues also led to an involvement in the organic agriculture movement, and he served for many years as a director of the Soil Association, Britain’s largest organic farming group.

I suspect it was precisely these practical involvements that predisposed him to see past the haze of unrecognized ideology that makes so much contemporary economic thought so useless when applied to the real world. Economics as an academic field is notoriously forgiving of even the most embarrassingly inaccurate predictions, and a professor of economics can still count on being taken seriously even when every public statement he has made about future economic conditions has been flatly disconfirmed by events. This is much less true in the business world, where predictions can have results measured in quarterly profits or losses. Working in a setting where consistently failed predictions would have cost him his job, Schumacher was not at liberty to put ideology ahead of evidence, and the conflict between what standard economic theory said, then as now, and the realities Schumacher observed all around him must have had a role in making him the foremost economic heretic of his time.

His economic ideas cover a great deal of ground, not all of it relevant to the project of this blog; readers interested in the overall shape of his ideas should certainly pick up a copy of Small Is Beautiful and find them there. Four of his propositions, however, struck me as core assets in any attempt to make sense of the economic dimensions of the end of the industrial age.

First, Schumacher drew a hard distinction between primary goods and secondary goods. The latter of these includes everything dealt with by conventional economics: the goods and services produced by human labor and exchanged among human beings. The former includes all those things necessary for human life and economic activity that are produced not by human beings, but by nature. Schumacher pointed out that primary goods, as the phrase implies, need to come first in any economic analysis because they supply the preconditions for the production of secondary goods. Renewable resources, he proposed, form the equivalent of income in the primary economy, while nonrenewable resources are the equivalent of capital; to insist that an economic system is sound when it is burning through nonrenewable resources at a rate that will lead to rapid depletion is thus as silly as claiming that a business is breaking even if it’s covering up huge losses by drawing down its bank accounts.

Second, Schumacher stressed the central role of energy among primary goods. He argued that energy cannot be treated as one commodity among many; rather, it is the gateway resource that allows all other resources to be accessed. Given enough energy, shortages of any other resource can be made good one way or another; if energy runs short, though, abundant supplies of other resources won’t make up the difference, because energy is needed to bring those resources into the realm of secondary goods and make them available for human needs. Thus the amount of energy available per person puts an upper limit on the level of economic development possible in a society, though other forms of development – social, intellectual, spiritual – can still be pursued in a setting where hard limits on energy restrict economic life.

Third, Schumacher stressed the importance of a variable left out of most economic analyses – the cost per worker of establishing and maintaining a workplace. Only the abundant capital, ample energy supplies, and established infrastructure of the world’s industrial nations, he argued, made it functional for businesses in those nations to concentrate on replacing human labor with technology. In the nonindustrial world, where the most urgent economic task was not the production of specialty goods for global markets but the provision of paid employment and basic necessities to the local population, attempts at industrialization far more often than not proved to be costly mistakes. Schumacher’s involvement in intermediate technology unfolded from this realization; he pointed out that in a great many situations, a relatively simple technology that relied on human hands and minds to meet local needs with local resources was the most viable response to the economic needs of nonindustrial nations. Since the end of the age of cheap abundant energy bids fair to place the world’s industrial nations on something like a par with today’s Third World, struggling to feed large populations with sharply limited resources and disintegrating infrastructures, the same logic will much more likely than not apply to our own future as well.

Finally, and most centrally, Schumacher pointed out that the failures of contemporary economics could not be solved by improved mathematical models or more detailed statistics, because they were hardwired into the assumptions underlying economics itself. Every way of thinking about the world rests ultimately on presuppositions that are, strictly speaking, metaphysical in nature: that is, they deal with fundamental questions about what exists and what has value. Trying to ignore the metaphysical dimension does not make it go away, but rather simply insures that those who make this attempt will be blindsided whenever the real world fails to behave according to their unexamined assumptions. Contemporary economics fails so consistently to predict the behavior of the economy because it has lost the capacity, or the willingness, to criticize its own underlying metaphysics, and thus a hard look at those basic assumptions is an unavoidable part of straightening out the mess into which current economic ideas have helped land us.

All of these four points deserve more development than Schumacher, in the course of a busy and active life, was able to give them. All four also can be applied constructively to the specific economic questions surrounding the end of the age of cheap energy and the coming of deindustrial society. Over the weeks and months to come, subject to the usual interruptions, I want to explore this latter task in some detail, and propose a few potential lines of approach toward the former. As last week’s post pointed out, the economic dimension is perhaps the least understood aspect of the crisis of industrial civilization, and a good part of that lack of understanding can be traced to the chasm that has opened up between current ideas and economic reality. Anything that can help bridge that gap could be crucial in navigating the challenging future ahead of us.