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E. F. Schumacher

From Academic Kids

Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher (16 August 19114 September 1977) was an internationally influential economic thinker with a professional background as a statistician and economist in Britain. He served as Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board for two decades. His ideas became well-known in much of the English-speaking world during the 1970s. According to London's Times Literary Supplement, his book Small Is Beautiful is among the 100 most influential books published since World War II. Schumacher's basic development theories have been summed up in the catch-phrases Intermediate Size and Intermediate Technology. Schumacher's other notable work is A Guide For The Perplexed, which is a critique of materialist scientism and an exploration of the nature and organisation of knowledge.

Contents

Early life

Schumacher was born in Bonn, Germany in 1911. His father was a professor of political economy. The younger Schumacher studied in Bonn and Berlin, then afterwards in England as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1930s, and later at Columbia University in New York City. He became a professional economist, but his wide-ranging mind never confined itself to a single discipline.

Economist

Protégé of Keynes

Schumacher moved back to England before World War II, as he had no intention of living under Nazism. For a period during the War, he was interned on an isolated English farm as an "enemy alien." In these years, Schumacher captured the attention of John Maynard Keynes with a paper entitled "Multilateral Clearing" that he had written between sessions working in the fields of the internment camp. Keynes recognised the young German's understanding and abilities, and was able to have Schumacher released from internment. Schumacher helped the British government mobilise economically and financially during World War II, and Keynes found a position for him at Oxford University.

When Schumacher's paper was published in the spring of 1943 in Economica, it caused some embarrassment to Keynes who, instead of arranging for its separate publication, had incorporated the text almost verbatim in his famous "Plan for an International Clearing Union," which the British Government issued as a White Paper a few weeks later.

Adviser to the Coal Board

After the War, Schumacher worked as an economic advisor to the British Control Commission charged with rebuilding the German economy. From 1950 to 1970 he was Chief Economic Adviser to the National Coal Board, one of the world's largest organisations, with 800,000 employees. In this position, he argued that coal, not petroleum, should be used to supply the energy needs of the world's population. He viewed oil as a finite resource, fearing its depletion and eventually prohibitive price, and viewing with alarm the fact that, as Schumacher put it, "the richest and cheapest reserves are located in some of the world's most unstable countries" (Daniel Yergin, The Prize [1991], p. 559).

His position on the Coal Board was often mentioned later by those introducing Schumacher or his ideas. It is generally thought that his farsighted planning contributed to Britain's post-war economic recovery. Schumacher predicted the rise of OPEC and many of the problems of nuclear power.

Thinking outside the box

In 1955 Schumacher travelled to Burma as an economic consultant. While there, he developed the set of principles he called "Buddhist economics," based on the belief that individuals needed good work for proper human development. He also proclaimed that "production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life." Schumacher's experience led him to become a pioneer of what is now called appropriate technology: user-friendly and ecologically suitable technology applicable to the scale of the community. He founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group in 1966.

His theories of development have been summed up for many in catch phrases like "intermediate size," and "intermediate technology."

By the end of his life, it can be said that Schumacher's personal development had led him very far afield from the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes, second only to Adam Smith, is widely regarded as the most influential modern orthodox economist. In contrast, Schumacher is one of the most widely recognised heterodox economists.

Schumacher as writer

Schumacher wrote on economics for London's The Times and became one of the paper's chief editorial writers ; he also wrote for The Economist. He served as adviser to the India Planning Commission, as well as to the governments of Zambia and Burma — an experience that led to his much-read essay on "Buddhist Economics."

The 1973 publication of Small is Beautiful, a collection of essays, brought his ideas to a wider audience. Schumacher's work coincided with the growth of ecological concerns and with the birth of environmentalism and he became a hero to many in the environmental movement and community movement.

Schumacher's other notable book, A Guide For The Perplexed, is both a critique of materialistic scientism and an exploration of the nature and organisation of knowledge.

Later life and posthumous recognition

Schumacher gave interviews and published articles for a wide readership in his later years. He also pursued one of the loves of his life: gardening. He died of a heart attack on 4 September 1977, in Switzerland.

The Schumacher College in Totnes, Devon was named after him, and an E. F. Schumacher Society was founded in New England.

Selected bibliography

Further reading

Books about E.F. Schumacher

  • Kirk, Geoffrey, ed. Schumacher on Energy (London: Sphere Books, 1983)
  • Wood, Barbara, E.F. Schumacher: His Life and Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1984)

External links

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