Small is Beautiful Part 2

This was meant to be the post. Honest. A look at E.F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful as an explainer of the underlying philosophy of the Campaign for Real Ale. Explaining why the preference for small breweries and independent pubs. Explaining why went on longer than I expected and it’s bloggery so there’s no editor crossing stuff out.

Part 1 of Schumachers book addresses what he sees as the modern world. In 1971. From production of consumer products (like beer!) to national issues of peace and war, the role of economics, a diversion into Buddhist economics (yeh really, imagine that) before tying it up with a question of size.  In the first chapter, The Problem of Production, he argues that the modern economy is unsustainable. Natural resources (fossil fuels), are treated as expendable income, when in fact they should be treated as capital, since they are not renewable, and thus subject to eventual depletion. Schumacher's philosophy is one of "enoughness", appreciating both human needs and limitations, and appropriate use of technology.


Reading it you get the idea that he’s decided his conclusion in advance. He thinks big companies are bad, small companies are good and I’m expecting his rationalisation for believing this. But it isn’t really isn’t a reasoned conclusion. It’s a belief, not rationalisation. It’s a romantic idea that before large national corporations things were better. It all went wrong with the formation of the 1st joint stock company. It’s like when a CAMRA person tells you microbrewed beer is better in an independent pub when your own tastebuds are telling you “maybe somewhere but not in this pub, pal”


There exists a romantic idea that in the past we were all free and lived idyllic lives and made all we needed by hand and were happy in our mud huts. We hunted and gathered and weaved baskets and made sprout wine and had nice naps in the afternoon after a bit of afternoon delight. We weren’t. It was cold, miserable and we were hungry and we died young of diseases we didn’t understand believing gods had smited us for not sacrificing our livestock/pets/children to them. Society evolved into serfs and lords and most people were serfs. That’s what motivated us to invent the things that made life better. Things were shit, we made them better, we continue to make things better because things that are still shit annoy us enough to want to change it. Progress. Schumacher likes the past and want us to return there. This is the point where I saw the appeal of the book to King Charles. Why this was such an influence on our organic farm loving gentleman farmer King. It’s basically a romantic view of feudalism. Which it’s possible to have if you’re the King. It’s less romantic if you’re one of the serfs.


Afternoon Delight

Schumacher makes a number of bold assertions he doesn’t really back up. That large companies are more wasteful of natural resources and energy than small factories of manual rather than machine labour. This isn’t true. Or rather he doesn’t back it up with “here’s the example”


I found myself thinking of examples of my own. Let us say meat. We love the idea of a small farm of happy animals treated well. The bigger it gets, the more industrial, we think the animals are treated worse. As units of production, not living things. We are right to think this, it’s true. It’s immoral by the systems of ethics that have evolved in a society to which we all subscribe even if most no longer subscribe to the underlying religious theologies that underpin those ethics.


In an economic sense there is also what is known as the externalisation of costs. Transferring costs to society rather than reflect them in your operation. Animals produce waste. To be vulgar they shit. In traditional farming this is not a problem. It’s all fertilizer for fields. On an industrial scale there is just too much of it. It becomes a toxic pollutant. A large industrial farm needs its own sewage facility. That’s a cost. Otherwise it pours all the shit into the river, it kills the fish and all the little animals middle class people like to see on BBC2 programmes. Large companies can lobby politicians, shape the law in their own favour, externalize costs and make all us taxpayers pay to clean up their mess. There’s an argument in favour of Schumacher. But I made it myself. He didn’t give it to me. I was expecting him to. Examples to back up his reasoning


Big and small

There’s arguments against Schumacher. You have to explore those even if your only purpose is to refute them. In beer as our example, many think that “local” small batch beer is better for the environment. What if I told you energy efficiencies were gained not by putting lots of small boilers in in lots of sheds, under railways arches, and industrial estate lock ups, but in large factories.


These large factories are able to better measure at each state of the process the inputs and the outputs. Those “evil accountants” cutting costs are making incremental marginal energy savings that add up to a significant energy use difference between a Macro lager and a Local Craft Ale? That to be big is to be able to measure a process and improve it and reduce the environmental and financial bill by small regular incremental changes. Innovation and progress. To be small and manual is to just keep shoving the grain in the boiler and moaning at the size of the electricity bill. To be big is having a department analysing the costs of each stage and reducing them.


On distribution, there are positives to size. Logistics being a tool of large companies. This means a large multi nationals can distribute beer around the world at the lowest environmental cost and return the containers to source. A complex system of working out routes and filling up trucks to capacity reduces the environmental cost of distribution. Employing an administrative layer of people and computers.


Far better than the craft solution of plastic one way disposable “key keg” containers that advocates insists “can” be recycled but never provide proof that they actually are. Plastic Key kegs are an environmental disaster. Complex objects of differing materials that would need to be disassembled and categorised before separating into differing high energy recycling streams where they produce plastic of a lower degraded grade. There are people that actually advocate key kegs as environmentally friendly? WTAF. Twitter is full of these idiots. They’re the ones buying and selling this stuff to a consumer base that like environmentalism and recycling and they are distributing their beer in the least environmentally friendly way you can think of.


Disposable Key Kegs. An environmental disaster.

It's the likes of Heineken, lads, the big boys that can afford depots, lorries, and IT departments, that build a system of global logistics that transport a keg of beer on a truck halfway around the world, and back again at the lowest environmental impact because that’s also the lowest financial cost. Every truck full, no mile wasted, all worked out by people on computers not people manually shovelling grain into a boiler with a spade because that is a more fulfilling dream. Big companies working out the most environmentally friendly way of taking a thing from one place to another.


Okay, Schumacher was seeing the world in 1971, not 2023, but come on. His contemporary believers, this is 2023. Just admit your key kegged craft beer is an environmental disaster but you like it and think its worth polluting the planet for. I’d respect that more than trying to make out small is environmentally better. Schumacher is, you see, short on the detail of how and why a small production facility might be environmentally better. It’s just something he believes to be the case. Like his contemporaries today. It’s what they believe.


When he delves into world peace and the absence of it, we see more of his faith-based arguments. Though clearly of a Christian background he’s read a bit on Hinduism and Buddhism to chuck a few quotes in, but you don’t get the impression he has particularly understood these faiths beyond the fact that josticks and yoga was a thing in and around that time and maybe he’d listened to a George Harrison album.


Schumacher admires the East, because they are poor. He notices the polythetic religions of the East, like the monotheistic religions of the west tell people they should be happy being poor. He assumes they are happy being poor, what with them being poor. How noble of them. We should be more like them. Time has not been kind to this argument, the economic progress of India & China and the mass migrations of people from dirt poor parts of the world to the rich west would seem to indicate he hasn’t quite nailed that one. People don’t like being poor. People want to be rich. People like things. People want things. Things make people happy. Give people things.


I am less scathing on his chapter of Buddhist economics, of which of course, there is no actual such thing. It’s a term he made up to explain village economics. But what he imagines this to be is a harmonious economy of production by renewable inputs and realising none renewables ought to be treated as capital rather than income. Fair enough. Norway did this. They turned their oil into a sovereign wealth fund, capital. We treated our oil as income and spent more than we taxed. I’m not disagreeing. I’m with Schumacher here. None renewable inputs ought to be considered capital rather than income in any economy. He just doesn’t explain how his small village economies would do this.


He makes no argument as to why or how small companies are any different to large in the use of our natural resources. None at all. I’ll make my own, then? Consumer pressure maybe? But here I’m creating my own examples. He hasn’t thought it through.


A question of size is sublime. The book is of its time. Back when the left hated the EEC (what is now the EU) and the Tories loved it. Therefore there is no love of Europe, Thems the bad guys. But it’s because they like big companies and product standards and economic growth. But his argument here breaks down into little more than working for a big corporation is soul destroying and being a bit more hands on and connected to producing what you consume makes you happier and give your life meaning. A fulfilling life is brewing your own beer and weaving your own sandals. Or walking to the micropub in your home weaved sandals to trade a newly weaved sandal for a pint of the landlords homebrew. If he wants one for the other foot, that’s another pint, mate.


Schumacher appears to believe this from things he’s read, not things he’s done. A bureaucratic job is soul destroying because he read it. He’s never done one. It’s not his experience, it’s his interpretation of the Kafka’s The Castle.


But is he right about work satisfaction? I have some personal experience. I work. I continue to do so long after it ceased to be an economic necessity because it gives my life purpose, direction, interest and satisfaction. I like pissing around with computers. I like that people pay me for it. I like that this means I can buy all the things I need and not have to make them or do them myself. I feel no shame in admitting that I’m pretty useless at a lot of things and would not or could not do them well. I’m good at computers and databases though. It’s handy in life to be good at something people will give you money for. Maybe I’d be good at other things if I tried but Clive Sinclair invented the zx spectrum when I was a kid, and that was me sold. I know my stuff there.


So a world where someone else builds me a car and services it works for me. A world where some blokes come around and fit me a new bathroom and my job is to buy a mcvities biscuit selection box and put the kettle on works for me. A world where someone want to chuck the monetary tokens at me to pay for all of this just because I understand computers works for me. It is satisfying to do something you enjoy and get all the material things you need and want. Cheers, this corporate world with division of labour is not a dystopian hell. This is a world better than it was and we have it better than our ancestors and we ought to thank them for making the world this good. We should accept our responsibility to make it even better for the kids coming next by inventing lots more cool stuff like bigger chocolate bars, a cooler iPhone and self-cleaning toilets. Not condemn them to a feudal and poverty stricken past of organic vegan farmers markets where a bottle of wince inducing home brewed pea pod beer sets you back a days pay.


I don’t want to brew beer. I don’t want to serve beer. I want other people to do that and bring it to my table. That works for me. I would not be more satisfied and happy if I had to make my own beer in my own shed. That would make me less happy.


I’ve made my own beer. In a plastic bucket, from a can bought in Wilko. It was ok. It wasn’t as nice as what Tesco will sell me. I’m happier with the box of old speckled hen I bought from Tesco, thanks. It means I spend my time doing things I enjoy like writing SQL, winding people up on twitter and less of what I don’t like, like mopping the kitchen floor for the 3rd time because apparently it is still sticky and I didn’t clean it properly after I stunk the kitchen out making that horrible beer I pretended to like. “It’s not spilt beer my love, I think this kitchen floor is naturally sticky, it’s the materials it’s made of. Maybe you should go in that German Kuchen Haus place on the A6 you were banging on about and pick a new kitchen. Take my credit card off the kitchen table. Ask for one without sticky floors.”


This belief based on small being better persists. I’ve heard the Schumacher story of soul destroying corporate work before. I heard it in a CAMRA meeting. A microbrewer called Toby was telling us all how his well-paid job in finance rotted at his heart and he loved making beer in his shed. Now he has a bigger shed but still small enough not to be evil. He’s now living his dream and making interesting and artisan beer. We can support his dream by buying his beer. And the story resonated with all present. This was indeed the dream, small artisan craft brewers. Support the dream. Buy this beer. To be fair, his beer was nice. But he wasn’t selling beer. He was selling a story and people bought the story and bought his beer.


Toby was a better story teller than Schumacher. He did a better gig. But then again Toby handed out free beer and seemed an amiable sort of likeable chap as people that give out free beer often are. Pretty much every meet the brewer presentation is Schumachers story re written as a first person narrative. It’s a compelling story when told this way. You want to root for the guy.


It’s still bollocks, though.


In the next part of Schumacher’s book he bangs on about resources, then, the third world, then concludes with size and ownership. And size does matter. Only he likes it small. So there’s more to say on this in the next blog.



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