Small is Beautiful
If you were around in the 70’s, there’s a good chance you read Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher. It was largely about economies of scale and appropriate technology. Some of us saw it as a blueprint for survival into the 21st century.
“Right Livelihood — “Everybody would be admitted to what is now the rarest privilege, the opportunity of working usefully, creatively, with his own hands and brains, in his own time, at his own pace — and with excellent tools.”
“Right Livelihood is one of the requirements of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path…The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”
That fits well with what I do. I’m a carpenter, working with mostly antique tools, building small structures for houses.
How does that work? What does this have to do with Schumacher?
Schumacher next addresses economies of scale, in particular the growth of ‘megalopolitan’ areas in the United States, and the undesirable effects of rendering a rural population mobile and without attachment to the land. In this, Schumacher is echoed a decade later by Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America.
Land Use is the next item on Schumacher’s list. Quoting from Topsoil and Civilization by Tom Dale and Vernon Carter (1955, University of Oklahoma):
“Civilized man was nearly always able to become master of his environment temporarily. He has despoiled most of the lands on which he has lived for long. It has been the chief cause for the decline of his civilisations…there have been from ten to thirty different civilizations that have followed this road to ruin (the number depending on who classifies the civilisations).”
This summer, watching people pay $50/sheet for OSB, I began thinking: I can buy three or four pieces of 6x6 native cedar from the local sawmill for that money. Four posts, two beams, two plates … eight principal pieces for a small frame, all the rest is really secondary.
I have a small timber frame, a bit less than 10’ x 12’, sitting on top of my carport, held together for now by half a dozen pegs. It’s made of that same native cedar, with my signature red oxide finish … braces are sassafrass (not going to rot!) and the whole seems to be enduring weather without complaint.
“With the help of a couple of friends…”, I can dismantle that frame and move it in an afternoon. I see this as a form of reserve capital. Not money, precisely, but product that can be moved and erected quickly to establish a presence on another site, or if need be sold. Chattel houses aren’t a novel idea. They existed back in the Middle Ages, and during the Colonial era. Think of it as a big piece of furniture, capable of keeping the rain off one’s head, and becoming a house with a bit more work.
At this point, somebody is thinking: “Good enough for you, but you know how… and you have money and tools, and the leisure to build what you want to.” I haven’t always had money, nor the confidence to design and plan. The tools came a bit at a time. I haven’t always had the internet, and the world at my fingertips, either.
Speaking of fingertips … I have issue with the use of the terms “digital” and “analog”. As I see it, using my fingers is digital. That arrangement of pixels that you call a “desktop” is an analogy for a piece of furniture. A few weeks ago, I was laying out letters for carving on a piece of wood, fussing over font and spacing. My neighbor’s teenage son walked up, and I asked him if there were not another way to go about it. He suggested that taking a photo with a smart-phone, transferring that image into a computer, and further manipulating that image would be possible. We then had a long conversation about what, exactly, do we mean by “digital” and “analog”.
Back to Schumacher… How can a fifty-year-old book written by a British economist be relevant to the way we live today? (How is a several-thousand-years-old collection of myths from a bunch of illiterate nomadic sheep-herders relevant?) The final chapter of Small is Beautiful presents the case of the Scott Bader Company, a manufacturer of polyester resins and other industrial chemicals. In the 1950’s the company’s owner decided to make the company a Commonwealth, with ownership shared among the employees. How has that turned out? You have the internet at your fingertips…