Carrying the flame of 'Small is Beautiful'
Forty-five years ago E. F. Schumacher was one of a group who started a magazine called Resurgence. In 1973 he handed the reins to Satish Kumar. Resurgence has been carrying the flame of Small is Beautiful ever since. Stephen Lewis recently talked with Satish Kumar.
Back in the early 1970s, awareness of humankind’s destructive impact on the environment wasn’t exactly new. A decade before, the American biologist Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring; a book that had a great influence on the emerging environmental movement. Others, such as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and social ecologist Murray Bookchin, had already alerted us to a looming ecological catastrophe.
But these were the days before the first oil shock. The 1960s were a time during which most political and social struggle had focused on achieving ‘personal liberation’ from a rather stultifying post-war Conservatism, on anti-war protest, and on the fight for civil rights. Except in a few isolated pockets there wasn’t much talk of biodiversity, ecology, resource depletion or the future of the planet.
Looking back, perhaps with a degree of nostalgia for supposedly simpler times, many of a ‘certain age’ will remember the profound effect the writings of the radical economist E. F. Schumacher had on them. The title of his most famous book, Small is Beautiful, is now part of the English language. It is used and misused as frequently as certain Biblical, Shakespearean or Churchillean quotations. Small is Beautiful – which carried the pointed and poignant subtitle Economics as if people mattered – is both a critique of rampant and inappropriate industrialization and a philosophy for life. Schumacher was a devout Christian. Indeed he very nearly called his book Christian Economics, but reasoned, ‘Who would buy that?’ Yet he had also been tremendously influenced by Buddhism and Gandhian thought while working in Burma. Thus perhaps he was a natural soul mate for a young Indian who arrived in the UK on a lecture tour in 1971 - hoping to bring the issue of Bangladeshi independence more into the public spotlight. That person was Satish Kumar.
Kumar had been a Jain monk and was seeped in Mahatma Gandhi’s ethic of non-violent resistance to oppression. At the height of the Cold War, inspired by British philosopher and peace activist Bertrand Russell, he had spent years walking the world bringing a message of Peace and Reconciliation. A journey he has chronicled in his autobiography No destination.
Although they had already met, it was during this visit that Schumacher asked Kumar to take over the editorship of a magazine called Resurgence - which Schumacher had co-founded in 1967. In his own words, Kumar was ‘hesitant’ to accept the offer: ‘I wanted to go back to India to work within the Gandhian movement.’ Schumacher pressed him: ‘Why are you hesitant? Why don’t you stay here? There are lots of Gandhians in India; we need one in the UK. Help build bridges between East and West!’ So he stayed and took over as editor of Resurgence in 1973. He remains its editor to this day. Editor of a magazine the Guardian once called the ‘artistic and spiritual flagship of the Green movement’. He’s also been instrumental in founding the Schumacher College, the Small School and the publishing house Green Books.
Regardless of his extensive travels, we might just be able to imagine how a former Jain monk, coming from a tradition where even stepping on an insect is to be avoided, could have found the transition to living permanently in the Britain of the early 1970s somewhat hard. Kumar admits that he found the move to the West ‘culturally unsettling’, even ‘a cultural shock’. Although, he adds, ‘I never experienced any racism and found plenty of support for all my endeavours.’
The West he experienced was:
A society where money, finance and material possessions were all powerful ... everything was measured in terms of materialistic benefit; everything needed to have a financial validity and needed to be measured in terms of money, even education and health.
But, he adds, ‘I preferred to measure things with other values.’ What are these other values he talks about, and how does Resurgence express them? The first, he stresses, derives from his Jain and Gandhian background, and is embodied in the ‘tone’ of Resurgence. It is, he maintains, a non-violent magazine. Non-violent to Nature, non-violent to others and non-violent to one self:
The way we say things in Resurgence is gentle and non-violent. This is a different approach to other magazines which can be aggressive, critical and didactic. In this we stand out. Spirituality and ecology are two sides of the same coin. Nature is alive and we need to have reverence for it and for people.
Now many would strenuously argue that any distinction between a materialistic West and a spiritual East is unhelpful. Despite a Buddhist history, there is absolutely no evidence that Eastern governments or businesses act better, or less materialistically, than their Western counterparts. Japanese factory ships continue their illegal slaughter of whales in the Antarctic, grotesquely representing their nakedly commercial actions as legal ‘research’. Mitsubishi buys up all the stocks of bluefin tuna it can get its hands on - to freeze them in anticipation of huge profits once they become extinct and their price goes through the roof. The Chinese scramble to claim and appropriate the resources of Africa. While in India, a cruel caste system remains in place. Kumar acknowledges, with regret, that this is true:
Indian governments and businesses have become very much like the West. They are now all about mammon and GDP. They are turning their backs on Gandhi and the Buddha. In the name of progress, development, science and technology, they are sweeping other values under the carpet.
He suggests that this trend is now ‘sweeping the whole world’ and that it isn’t just limited to the s0-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Moreover, it’s a sign that ‘we are entering a new Kali Yuga – a new Dark Age’.
But what are the root causes of the desecration of the earth? Are they political and economic? Or do they lie more in the realm of consciousness? Kumar answers without hesitation that they are political and economic: ‘Children are conditioned in our education system, between the ages of five and twenty, to believe that nothing else matters but getting a good degree and landing a well-paid job.’ Politicians, business leaders, the TV and Radio all tell us, he says, ‘It’s the economy stupid!’ But when we dig a little deeper we will find, he says, people insisting that ‘friendship, love, relationships and families’ - all spiritual values - are infinitely more important:
All spiritual values are suppressed in the capitalist system. People feel disempowered, disengaged and discouraged. They feel they have no power to change anything, they feel the need to succumb to what they are being told and, moreover, they think “I can’t beat it so I’ll join it".
Resurgence sees the correct response as combining political engagement with a change in consciousness. Kumar quotes Gandhi: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ But political action is vital. Without it, Kumar insists, we’re just ‘escaping into an Eco-ghetto!’ According to him, we mustn’t surrender to exploitation, we must actively confront it. So he and Resurgence support direct action, whether it’s for animal rights or to protect the whales, providing only that it is non-violent.
This ethic of non-violent activism is exemplified by Kumar’s choice of three of his heroes. These are: 1) The Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement Wangari Maathai, who was ‘the first person to win a Nobel Prize for planting trees’, 2) Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel, ‘who showed that the power of imagination and non-violence is stronger than all the weapons put together, including nuclear weapons’, and 3) Burmese campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose ‘spirit and resilience are wonderful’.
‘What’s to be done?’ is still a pertinent question today. Kumar’s and Resurgence’s reply is twofold:
Firstly we need to change the institutional structure of society by embracing Small is Beautiful. Capitalism has become too big. We have big cities, big hospitals, big schools, big companies and big banks. Everything is too big; this undermines the human spirit, human imagination and human creativity ... if we want human values everything needs to be on a human scale.
Kumar believes that he and Resurgence have been ‘the one voice upholding this view for forty-five years!’
However we also need a change in philosophy regarding our relationship with Nature. Humans have believed that they are superior to Nature - that it is there to serve us. But Nature has intrinsic worth ... we need a relationship of mutuality not of dominance.
So what about the future of our Civilization? When asked what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi famously replied, ‘It would be a good idea.’ Kumar too thinks ‘we’re not civilized, we’ve been behaving badly, and we need to learn to behave and to live in harmony’. Yet we can’t go back to a pre-industrial age, that’s a fantasy, rather we need to ‘create a post-industrial age; an age where nature, science and technology are in balance with the human spirit’.
E. F. Schumacher once commented: ‘In the name of Gross National Product, modern man will resort to any degree of technological violence and human degradation.’ For forty-five years the magazine he co-founded, Resurgence, has tried to counter this state of affairs. Long may it continue to do so!