Re-discovering wisdom and spirituality in the economy

Much of the concern of planners and economists focuses on economic growth, foreign direct investments, infrastructure spending and all the traditional indicators of economic success.

Aug 19, 2016

By Anil Netto
Much of the concern of planners and economists focuses on economic growth, foreign direct investments, infrastructure spending and all the traditional indicators of economic success.

But in the second chapter of Small is Beautiful, EF Schumacher takes a more radical look at Peace and Permanence and the whole question of economic growth.

Schumacher recalls how the influential economist, Keynes, once felt that the day might not be far off when everybody would be rich. “But beware!” said Keynes. “The time is not yet.

For at least a hundred years, we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

So basically what Keynes was saying was that ethical considerations are not just irrelevant; they are an actual hindrance, said Schumacher. In effect, Keynes was saying now is not the time for fairness.

Keynes felt that universal prosperity is possible and this could be achieved by everyone embracing a material philosophy of “enriching yourselves.” This would be the road to peace.

Schumacher was concerned about these assumptions. For one thing, they assume that the planet has infinite resources — not least fuel and energy — when we know this is not the case.

First of all, we would need tremendous amounts of energy — whether fossil fuel, coal or nuclear energy to cope with rising individual consumerism and population growth, especially among the rich, who consume more than their fair share of fuel.

Such consumerism and population growth among the rich presents its own serious environmental problems, disrupting the ecological balance.

Moreover technological solutions based on greed and machines which favour large projects aggravate the situation.

Schumacher, on the other hand, says we need methods and equipment which are:

-- “cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone:
-- suitable for small-scale application; and
-- compatible with man’s need for creativity.”

By spreading our technological methods for use among ordinary human beings, we would avoid concentration of these techno solutions in the hands of those fuelled by greed.
Cheaper, small-scale applications would avoid the need for large environmentally damaging projects.

And catering to the need for creativity would minimise the scope for “soul-destroying,” dehumanising work such as those found in many repetitive production assembly lines.?

Let’s just take an example closer to home: in Sarawak, the state government wants mega dams to provide cheap electricity for industry. But will this electricity reach remote areas that currently don’t have electricity?

Instead, if we subscribe to Schumacher’s philosophy, we would be thinking of mini-hydro-turbines along rivers that would be able to provide power to local communities.

In fact, this was what a University of California, Berkeley team found. They concluded that the least-cost option would be a combination of locally managed micro-hydro turbines, small-scale biogasification and batteries.

The greed and materialism that is driving the quest for relentless economic growth has its roots in the neglect of wisdom and spirituality, observed Schumacher. Progress, founded on technological solutions, without wisdom, will not cure much of what is wrong with society.

Without this wisdom, humankind is “driven to build up a monster economy, which destroys the world, and to seek fantastic satisfaction, like landing a man on the moon.”
“Instead of overcoming the ‘world’ by moving towards saintliness, (the human being) tries to overcome it by gaining pre-eminence in wealth, power, science, or indeed any imaginable ‘sport’,” wrote Schumacher.

These are the real causes of war, he observes; we cannot build peace without removing these root causes of violence. We cannot build peace on an economic foundation based on “the systematic cultivation of greed and envy” — the very forces which drive humanity into conflict.

We have to dig deep within ourselves to discover the well of wisdom within us as Jesus himself showed.

Such wisdom and spirituality will show us that we cannot allow luxuries to become needs; it will force us to scrutinise our own need to see if they can be simplified and reduced, he said.

Even if we cannot simplify our needs and curb greed, we should at least stop applauding economic “progress” and all that it implies. Instead, we should support modestly those who are unafraid to be labelled as “cranks”: activists of non-violence, organic farmers, small-scale producers.

But where to find the strength to go against the tide? Schumacher believed Gandhi had the answer: we have to recognise “the existence of the soul apart from the body and of its permanent nature”, which amounts to a living faith in a God of Love. Those who have this faith will practise and uphold non-violence and seek real alternatives to unsustainable economic growth based on greed and envy.

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