Ernst Friedrich Schumacher

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Ernst Friedrich Schumacher


British Economist

EF. Schumacher was an economist who argued that Earth could not afford the cultural and environmental costs accompanying large-scale capitalism. His book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered was named one of the most influential books published since World War II by the London Times Literary Supplement. It also made Schumacher a folk hero on the political left. Although Schumacher died in the 1970s, his opposition to excessive consumption, corporate domination, and growth for its own sake is echoed in the "simple living" movement of the late 1990s.

Schumacher, called Fritz by those who knew him, was born on August 16, 1911, in Bonn, Germany, into an academic family. After attending the universities of Berlin and Bonn, he studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and also at Columbia University in New York. In 1937, appalled by the rise of Nazism in Germany, he settled in England. As a German national during World War II, he was sent into the country to work as a farm laborer. For three months he was confined to a detention camp, where he occupied himself with improving the sanitation and the food.

Back on the farm, he began writing on the economic requirements for peace in Europe. This brought him to the attention of William Henry Beveridge and other prominent people, and he was able to assist with British plans for full-employment policies and the post-war welfare state. He became a British citizen in 1946, and he studied the restructuring of Germany's economy as a member of the British Control Commission there.

For 20 years beginning in 1950, Schumacher served as an advisor to Britain's nationalized coal industry. In that capacity he advocated continuing British coal production while encouraging conservation, as alternatives either to depending upon Middle Eastern oil or increasing the use of nuclear energy, with its intractable problem of radioactive waste disposal. During this period he bought a house with a large backyard and became an enthusiastic proponent of organic gardening. Chemical agriculture, he wrote, worked against nature rather than in harmony with it.

Schumacher visited Burma (now Myanmar) in 1955 on an assignment for the United Nations. His time there led him to the conclusion that advanced technology was not the answer for poor countries, because it would increase productivity but not employment. Instead, he advocated intermediate technology that would allow the rural poor to improve their living conditions. This approach is often called appropriate technology because it must be tailored to the needs of each developing country. In Schumacher's view, employing intermediate technology while avoiding the trap of pursuing constant growth would result in a society that used both capital and energy more efficiently.

Schumacher's arguments for appropriate technology and small economic units transcended developing nations and became a critique of capitalism in general. In Small Is Beautiful, he argued that although capitalism brought higher living standards, the cost was environmental and cultural degradation. Large cities and large industries caused correspondingly large problems, and raised their cost beyond what Earth could bear. Small, decentralized, energy-efficient production units would better serve human needs.

Influenced by the Buddhist and Taoist thought that attracted him in Asia, the non-violent message of Mahatma Gandhi, and the Roman Catholicism in which he eventually found his spiritual home, Schumacher stressed the evils of materialism, the need for economic self-reliance, and service to others. To pursue his ideas he established the Intermediate Technology Development Group in London in 1966. His work has continued to be influential and attract new adherents at the turn of the millenium, in the face of environmental problems and concern about the influence of corporate wealth on culture and politics.

Two years after the death of his first wife, Anna Maria Peterson, in 1960, Schumacher married Verena Rosenberger. Two sons and two daughters were born of each marriage. Schumacher died on September 4, 1977, on a train near Romont, Switzerland.


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Ernst Friedrich Schumacher

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