Small is dangerous? Schumacher, science, and social development

Cowan Coventry
3 September 2003

He said he’d be back and – in Hollywood if not yet so clearly in politics – Arnold Schwarzenegger is true to his word. Terminator 3, the good cyborg, is striding across the big screen battling against the new threat of deadly machines built with artificial intelligence, with the latest scientific buzzword – ‘nanotechnology’ – thrown in for good measure.

He is back – but then, he has never been away. From Frankenstein to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, from Hal the chess-playing computer in 2001 – A Space Odyssey to the deadly cyborgs, the message is clear: humanity recklessly dabbles with science and technology at its peril.

As science and technology become ever more complex, ever smaller and ever closer to revealing the mysteries of life, the greater is the public’s anxiety. It would be easy to dismiss their fears as the result of Hollywood and newspaper scaremongering. But concerns go far wider. Prince Charles voices alarm at nanotechnology’s ‘grey goo’; Bill Joy, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, warns that 21st century technologies threaten to make humans an endangered species; while Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, puts the chances of civilisation coming to an end in this century through the impact of new technologies as high as 50:50.

Britain’s science minister, David Sainsbury, responded to this mood by commissioning the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at nanotechnology and report on whether there is a need for new regulations.

Thirty years ago it was supposed to be beautiful. Now, small is dangerous.

A vision transformed by reality

Both the catchy title and provocative content of Small Is Beautiful, the economist E.F. Schumacher’s innovative book, struck a chord with the 1960s generation with its critique of orthodox economics and big projects and its search for a more holistic approach to how we live and govern ourselves. Schumacher’s concern was with our ability to make economic or technological choices in the long-term interest of our communities. In retrospect, Small is Beautiful was an intellectual precursor to both the anti-globalisation movement and sustainable development as we know it today.

The eclectic mix of hard-nosed economics and ethical argument in Small is Beautiful reflected the idiosyncratic trajectory of its author. Fritz Schumacher spent much of his working life as an economist at the National Coal Board and was one of the intellectual architects of the International Monetary Fund. But his restless and curious mind led him to fuse his economic training with the search for a spiritual dimension to life.

The book offered an alternative vision of development. Its central message was that conventional economics and inappropriate technologies were failing both the planet and the developing world. Rather than impose “modernity” on developing countries, what we all needed was a smaller, more human-scale approach to development, using more sustainable technologies.

This call for “economics as if people mattered” (the book’s equally striking subtitle) coincided with the spirit of the age. But thirty years on, the “modern world” described by Schumacher has been radically transformed. The impact of globalisation and wholesale economic liberalisation makes his vision of self-sufficient local economies look both utopian and anachronistic.

There is no longer a Julius Nyerere or Kenneth Kaunda to experiment with visions of a “national road to development”. Economic orthodoxy, as laid down in the Washington Consensus, is universally applied and reinforced by multilateral lending policy. Small-scale manufacturing sectors in developing countries collapse in the face of vast economies of scale in China. Small-scale agriculture is undermined by heavily subsidised northern imports.

Meanwhile, small-scale technology today is more likely to be associated with silicon chips, genetic engineering and nanotechnology than the appropriate, affordable “intermediate technologies” that Schumacher envisaged.

The challenge of poverty

Among these transformations, there is one constant: abject poverty on a vast scale. Now, as thirty years ago, most of the billion poorest people in the world are rural dwellers. As Schumacher wrote: “The heart of the matter is that world poverty is primarily the problem of two thousand million villagers… unless life in the hinterland is made tolerable, the problem of world poverty is insoluble”.

Another linkage between then and now is the arrogant presumption by international development institutions that ‘one size fits all’. Responding to the needs of the impoverished inhabitants of this rural hinterland remains the biggest challenge in reducing obscene levels of poverty. Yet nobody appears able to offer any compelling vision of where their future lies. What Schumacher understood is that the key issues are not so much of scale but of power. His focus was on our ability to make economic or technological choices in the long-term interest of communities. That is why Small is Beautiful resonates with today’s controversies regarding globalisation and bio- or nanotechnology.

The responsibility for making the right scientific and technological choices increases with humanity’s ability to manipulate nature. For some, there may be a moral dimension to ‘playing God’; for all, there is a pragmatic consideration.

Scientific and technological development is hugely exciting. It could, and should, have a major role to play in reducing poverty and restoring our eco-systems – if it can be harnessed to benefit the many rather than profit the few; to prolong rather than foreshorten our custodianship of nature’s scarce resources. But failure to observe a precautionary approach in the research and development of transformational science may well introduce unintended consequences for our societies and ecosystems.

Genetically-modified (GM) food crops, for example, may have the potential to solve world hunger; but in the hands of multinational corporations, they could also undermine the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers. The explosive development of information and communications technology could help developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ the industrial revolution; yet there is also the danger of a knowledge divide opening up to put wealth further out of reach. Can we make new technologies work for the poor? The jury is still out.

Science for survival

If we are to harness technology for sustainable development, we need to reconcile the tension between scientific optimism and growing public scepticism. There is a widening and dangerous gap between rapid technological development and our ability as citizens to understand the science and so make effective choices.

The inadequacy of public consultation on GM foods highlights the need for a more robust approach to the risk management of new technologies at a national and international level. A new social contract, backed up by legitimate and accountable international agencies, could reassert some measure of social control over corporate-driven scientific and technological development.

We also need to reassess priorities in and expectations of scientific and technological development. A recent UN report, commenting on the skewed emphases of the world’s scientific research effort, concluded that we are more likely to find a cure for baldness than for malaria. But if technological resources were appropriately targeted, the Millennium Development Goals would be well within reach. We desperately need to reallocate our scientific efforts to sustain life on earth while building sustainable livelihoods for its dispossessed.

The emerging new technologies might capture the headlines and inspire excitement and anxiety in equal measure. Yet nearly three billion people – almost a half of humanity – continue to rely on biomass for their main energy need, cooking. The key to their future is more prosaic: the availability of affordable, appropriate technologies. What we need is a movement to “democratise” the priorities for scientific and technological development. If we can do that, we can help to deliver the great win-win scenario of this century – to eradicate poverty without it costing the earth.

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