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Saturday, May 31, 2003

ITDG

Shelving for books, some forty-eight lineal feet, was needed. The usual approach, nowadays, is to acquire pressboard cabinets, knocked down, from a giant discount store. These are tolerable painted, but are often left nakedly wood-chip-ish in appearance, due to the difficulty of finding a moment in which to upgrade them; all the available labor time having gone into tapping the tiny nails into the shelves through the sides and back, and cursing as the nails curved in the unpredictable "grain" of the glued and pressed sawdust. The "finished" product then spends its tenure in the household squatting in the darkest available corner, where no one can look at it directly or acknowledge its existence due to its irredeemable ugliness, and the whole time it outgasses unhealthful vapors.

The alternatives are: "steel" shelving, ugly, cheap, sharp-edged, and bendy; or expensive cabinetry, which, if sufficiently sturdy must be built-in, at tremendous cost if hired done, or consuming time one doesn't have, and requiring tools one cannot afford, if undertaken by one's self.

Early in our tenure here, there was a surplus of used planking and even beams, and these were put to use for what I cheerfully called "vernacular" architecture. I built walls, ceilings, shelving, tables, and cabinets utilizing found materials which could stand either to take a deep brown stain or a coat of daubed spackle, followed by a coat of flat white paint.

The effect is cheering and calming, and visitors often use the word "cozy," and if this sometimes said in a tone which I might take as patronizing, I don't mind, as I have done what I could with what I had, a satisfying activity.

This year I ran out of the old materials and of time to cadge old materials from others. For the new shelving, then, I would need new material, which, to match the interior style of the house, should be wood, painted white. I found that pine boards cost much more than I expected, but I could live with that; an abused resource should cost enough to reduce the demand.

In the old days, I would have put all the bits together with fourpenny box nails, but we now have the fast-moving self-setting Phillips-head screws, which are a blessing. In a way, I hated to paint over the attractive built-in pine bookcase I'd created, but it ran the length of a long, dark hallway, and the white would help prevent further loss of light there.

As soon as the drop cloths and tools were put away, I stood in the hallway and admired my (admittedly a bit crude) handiwork for some time. I hadn't chosen the least expensive or least difficult solution for my project, but I had chosen one I found satisfactory; so much so that I couldn't tear my eyes away. It looked as if it belonged, and would last perhaps as long as the house; beyond my time; a statement.

As a civilization, we of the West have begun to lose this capacity for the average person to make statements. I'm reminded of that moment in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano when the protagonist's car breaks down, and a crowd of the great mass of unemployed gathers, which he views with suspicion until one of them wistfully says, as nearly as I can remember it from a distant read: "Maybe I could look at it for you. I used to be pretty good with my hands."

The generation just arriving has mostly not read E. F. Schumacher, which is a sad fact. My copy of Small is Beautiful (Perennial Library, 1973) is thirty years old; it's a crumbling paperback, yellow and a bit musty, that has traveled with me, long un-reread but treasured, crisscrossing the Northwest with me when I worked in the woods, and the nation when I worked in Pennsylvania.

If we thought Schumacher's views were important then, we should read him now. Everything he found urgent has become more so.

Samples:

....one of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that the problem of production has been solved. This illusion ... is mainly due to our inability to recognize that the modern industrial system, with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected .... it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. (20)

And:

An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth -- in short, materialism -- does not fit into [the] world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment within which it is placed is strictly limited. (29-30)

By "limits" he means three things; fossil fuels, natural systems with their feedback loops, and human limitations (that they can tolerate only so much of a life that is functionally no more than slavery, or consumerism, or both). He believes if he can prove his point with any one of the three, he has made his case.

Economics, as practiced by industrial society, is in Schumacher's view fatally fragmentary: the society's judgments

are based on a definition of costs which excludes all "free goods," that is to say, the entire God-given environment, except for those parts of it that have been privately appropriated. This means that an activity can be economic although it plays hell with the environment, and that a competing activity, if at some cost it protects and conserves the environment, will be uneconomic. (43)

Thus you have the strange condition in which extraction of oil from the ground is an activity which can be rationally charted, and leaving it there so that we can breathe, avoid being roasted by climate change, and survive as a species cannot.

One effect of the fragmentary view of the world encouraged by industrial economics is that agricultural work is regarded as of little value; since agriculture is seen in this view to be simply another kind of factory, and no "profit" can be extracted from it unless it is practiced on an industrial scale, more farming must be done by fewer and fewer people and the rural population is displaced into the cities to look for work there, adding to the enormous problems of social disintegration and grinding poverty that appear in urban settings.

The subtitle of the book is "Economics as if People Mattered." Schumacher was Catholic, and regarded St. Thomas Aquinas as the underpinning of his understanding of science. He knew that much of his audience would be unwilling to hear him if he made much of this at the time, so he devised a clever and famous chapter, "Buddhist Economics." A discussion framed in Buddhist terms served his immediate aims just as well as one framed in Christian terms, for his point was that economics ought to serve humanity and not the other way round; and economics cannot serve humanity on its terms, for that which makes us human is unquantifiable in dollar amounts.

What is desirable to the materialist economist is undesirable to the Buddhist economist and vice versa, so that their aims in the short term are diametrically opposed. This is because the Buddhist economist has an interest in the long term, which is an interest that is unquantifiable in the industrial economist's system.

Buddhism is concerned with the alleviation of suffering so that one can focus on understanding one's self and the universe better, with the aim of right living, of choosing a path that promotes one's own well-being and that of all others: what are called "sentient beings" in Buddhist lingo. So the way of Buddhism trends toward peace and the way of a materialist system trends toward the opposite:

As the world's resources of non-renewable fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas -- are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must inevitably lead to violence between men .... Before [materialists in Buddhist countries] dismiss Buddhist economics as nothing better than a nostalgic dream, they might wish to consider whether the path of economic development outlined by modern economics is likely to lead them to places where they really want to be. (61)

All well and good; but as with almost all liberals, one might expect that at this point Schumacher will rest on his laurels, having simply noted that what we are all doing is a Bad Show. But, unlike others, he has a specific set of proposals toward what might be a Better Show.

Schumacher notes that when local people produce local goods for other local people, the relationship, the bond, between them, that sense of well-being for which industrial economy can find no place in its equations, is strengthened.

Hence what are called "economies of scale" -- nation-states, multinational corporations, mass production, and export -- are false economies because they encourage bankruptcy in those three things, the state of the planet, of its non-renewables, and of the well-being of its beings.

Whereas local economies, inefficient as they are in those equations, tend to conserve the Three Things.

It's true, notes Schumacher, that in what are called Third World countries, there are what might be called one-pound (or we Americans could say one-dollar) workplaces, and life is marginal and sometimes prey to drought, disease, etc. But the cure proposed by the industrial economy is to bring in one-thousand-dollar workplaces, which cannot be justified economically except though extractive export strategies that ultimately only benefit the industrial chieftains in the developed countries.

Local people, on seeing the implementation of these impressive workplaces, often give up (and forget how to return to) their own one-dollar strategies, expecting full employment, except that the one-thousand-dollar solution, due to its capital cost, cannot be emplaced quickly enough to provide this. So from marginal existence a great many of them go straight to a starvation existence.

Schumacher proposes an intermediate solution.

Devise the one-hundred-dollar workplace, using technologies that can be built and managed locally, to produce a higher standard of living by marketing the product locally.

To the objection that local people from a one-dollar background have no buying power, he answers that with the ten-times-cheaper-than-industrial-scale one-hundred-dollar workplace, you can do ten startups simultaneously, with the goods from one workplace affordable to the workers in one of the other nine.

There is thus no need to export, eliminating the need to carry on in the extractive and eventually bankrupting manner to which the West is addicted. Also, rural populations, by recovering a measure of independence and self-worth locally, are then not so easily driven to the urban ghettos, which reduces the strain on the megalopolitan cities which our industrial economy has created.

This sounds Utopian, but in fact his approach has been extensively tested. To show what would be examples of intermediate technology, applied to local economies by the local people themselves and not by well-intentioned but locally ignorant strangers, he formed, with other scientists and interested parties, a barely capitalized organization called the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG).

They still exist, as the nonprofit Practical Action, thirty years later!

ITDG, with little real cooperation and much disdain from the developed nation-states and megacorporations, has for three decades doggedly kept up its mission of demonstrating the economic and scientific principles of E. F. Schumacher, and carried out numerous local initiatives, always sharing the lessons learned with anyone who seeks them out.

In the field of local energy development, they began with the obvious: people in developing countries depend on biomass for energy, and open fires waste energy. ITDG designed low cost cooking stoves to reduce impact on the forests and other vegetative cover, as well as the tremendous labor expended, usually by women and children, in going farther and farther to strip the landscape of available fuel.

When a locality is ready for more, Practical Action is ready with more: micro-hydro plants, small scale wind generators, solar lanterns, biogas.

A serious bottleneck for local production, which cannot easily reach even local markets in rural areas of undeveloped countries, is transportation. Practical Action offers expertise in locally controlled construction of cycle trailers, improved ox and donkey carts, and efficient low-technology road building.

I refer those interested to Practical Action's website to grasp the scope of their activities. None of the ideas described are vaporware; they have applied them all in the real world and have the stories of local communities where the projects are being carried out.

See their links on agroprocessing, food production, information and communications technologies, small-scale mining, water and sanitation, disaster amelioration, advocacy, and education.

One might think that Practical Action would have an extensive Peace-Corps-style volunteer program. That's not the case. They seem to be a low-overhead operation, focused on getting information into the hands of the rural populations that need it, rather than bringing in mysterious expertise as if from some "higher" realm, deus ex machina, to carry out projects little understood by those they "help."

This is not your patronizing World Bank here.

What Practical Action brings is accessible knowledge, created not for but in cooperation with rural populations in Third World, countries, the kind of knowlsedge that takes root in the heart of the woman or man who says, "yes, I can do this."

When I hear of current events in the Near East and elsewhere, and the continued world-bankrupting goings-on that he so articulately warned us against, I think of Schumacher.

We all owe him another read.

And we should support the activities of Practical Action, one of the few Good Shows still happening.

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