Practical Action’s founder was radical economist and philosopher E.F. ‘Fritz’ Schumacher. He argued that we should reduce our reliance on non-renewable forms of energy such as fossil fuels. He called for small-scale, community-based, sustainable solutions to the problems faced by people in the Global South. And he championed the role of ordinary people in making the world work better for everyone.
In today’s world, facing the catastrophic effects of climate change, the ideas of Fritz Schumacher chime as loud as ever. 50 years after he founded Practical Action, what would Fritz make of the position the world finds itself in? What would be his message to world leaders at COP26 and people around the world coping with the impact of climate change?
We caught up with Nicola Schumacher, Fritz’s daughter, for a unique insight into the philosophy of our visionary founder.
“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.”
Would Fritz have felt positively that his ideas around sustainability and living within the planet’s means, which at the time were considered a little maverick, are now mainstream?
Many of the issues he spoke out about went unrecognised in the 1970’s, but they’ve since been recognised. That would have given him a lot of satisfaction and hope. The extent to which renewable energy sources are coming to the fore and are being recognised as the future of energy, with fossil fuels increasingly being avoided, is an example of that.
How would he feel about the rate of climate change and the impact it’s having on the planet?
He would have been horrified that the exponential rate of destruction of natural resources that he saw in his lifetime hasn’t adequately been addressed and is still exponential. He would have been saddened by the state of the natural world. Appalled by the way that species reduction, deforestation and the rise of pollutants from burning fossil fuels is culminating in this natural crisis.
Do you think Fritz would have been optimistic that world leaders are taking these issues seriously?
He would have been immensely encouraged by the things some governments are doing to tackle climate change and protect natural resources. For example, Wales and New Zealand are two countries that have put Future Generations Acts in place. This is legislation aimed at encouraging consideration of the long-term impact of their decisions on people and the planet. It’s making an official promise to work better with communities to tackle persistent problems such health inequalities and the effects of climate change.
However, he would have noted that the focus in most countries is still very much on economic growth. Most governments still use GDP or similar measures of growth as guidance for their actions, ignoring the fact that long-term growth on a finite planet is not possible and ignoring the fact that growth is not necessarily a good thing. For example, growth in the number of prisoners increases the market for prisons, which reflects in higher GDP, but is not a good thing for society.
“The generosity of the Earth allows us to feed all mankind; we know enough about ecology to keep the Earth a healthy place; there is enough room on the Earth, and there are enough materials, so that everybody can have adequate shelter; we are quite competent enough to produce sufficient supplies of necessities so that no one need live in misery.”
If Fritz was at COP26, what would his message to world leaders be?
Based on his work, and the changes that have happened since, there’s a three-point manifesto that I think may have formed the basis of his call to action to world leaders at COP26:
1) Hasten fossil fuel reduction
Not just through burning less fossil fuels but through reducing their use in the agricultural sector. He used to say “economically speaking, we eat mainly oil” – because so much oil is used in the production and transport of food. He was president of the Soil Association during the 1970s, so this was a cause close to his heart.
He also wanted to democratise organic food production because he thought that everyone should have access to organic, sustainably produced food, not just a privileged few. He would be impressed by the work Practical Action is doing in this area, particularly the use of agroforestry techniques.
2) Support less developed countries to make a just transition
We have an obligation to support the Global South to tackle climate change because we’ve built our own economic success by depleting natural resources that aren’t renewable, polluting the world terribly in the process. Now we need to help those who don’t now have that opportunity to find a better way – for all of us.
The people currently dealing with the worst effects of climate change are the pioneers – we need to support them because they hold the key to creating the solutions that we’ll all soon be using.
Watch this video to see Fritz talking about participatory democracy and the importance of ordinary people having the tools they need to take control of their lives:
3) Enable ordinary people to do the right thing
He thought that people needed to feel able and in control of their own lives in order to support others adequately and create meaningful change in the world. He would see the challenge we’re faced with as also being an opportunity to change where power and influence lie in this respect.
Practical Action’s work in the sustainable energy sector is a good example of this at work – electricity generation from renewable sources on a human scale. Another huge benefit of this is that people are more aware of the cost of their energy use. We need to understand how much energy we use and take ownership of that and reduce it – because it isn’t sustainable.
“Anything that we can destroy but are unable to make is, in a sense sacred.”
What might Fritz call on people in the UK to do to support those hardest hit by climate change?
Fritz was often asked what people should do as individuals to support positive change. He recognised that people can feel helpless in the face of such huge challenges and can feel that their own small actions aren’t worthwhile.
His advice was always that we should support the organisations that are taking the right actions. That we should educate ourselves about the issues and share our knowledge with others. And that we should make small, positive changes in our own lives, which right now might mean reducing our carbon footprint or using less water.
Looking to take some practical steps yourself to support positive COP26 outcomes? Check out our recent blog post for ideas and inspiration…
“I certainly never feel discouraged. I can’t myself raise the winds that might blow us or this ship into a better world. But I can at least put up the sail so that when the winds comes, I can catch it.”
Fritz had a strong belief in people’s resilience and innate ability to find solutions to their problems – would he be optimistic that by working together we can find a way out of this?
He was an optimist and he was extremely hopeful that ordinary people would take things into their own hands and encourage the changes needed to move things forward.
He was spiritual as well as practical. He liked to talk about the power of ‘ordinary people’. People like you and me and people in communities around the world, living our lives in an ordinary way. He had a lot of respect for the power of ordinary people and faith in them that they could make the right decisions if they had the means to do so.
Fritz’s most influential work was Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. In it, he talks about small-scale technologies and policies as a superior alternative to the mainstream ethos of “bigger is better”. If he were around today, do you think he’d feel that progress had been made?
He may well say that we’re still in the grip of a crisis of economics. That fundamentally, large corporations and governments still think of economics only in terms of financial price. He would say we have so much more to do to tackle the underlying problems of the current economic system to make it fairer.
He would have been shocked by modern working conditions, including the concept of zero hours contracts. The fact that you have a relatively small number of people working for extremely high pay – often in extremely stressful situations. Then a huge majority of undervalued workforce working in terrible conditions.
“The real problems of our planet are not economic or technical, they are philosophical. The philosophy of unbridled materialism is being challenged by events.”
How relevant is Fritz’s philosophy today?
Yesterday evening, I looked across my bookshelf at my father’s books and I picked up “Good Work”. I was astounded at how spot on it was. The message of living within the planet’s means and working together to create sustainable, manageable solutions is entirely relevant to the position the world finds itself in today.
How is Practical Action keeping Fritz’s legacy alive and relevant?
Practical Action embodies my father’s philosophy. You start off where the people are and build solutions alongside them based on their existing skills and resources.
It was so important to him that solutions were built on a human scale so that people were able to understand them and maintain them and improve on them. He thought we should be able to comprehend and understand the solutions that support us in our everyday lives. It’s something that’s very relevant to us when we find ourselves surrounded by complex technologies and infrastructures that are anything but human in scale. He spoke a lot about the nervous strain of modern man living in an industrial society. It’s something I think we can all relate to today.
“It always warms my heart when I think about what you’re doing at Practical Action. There’s widespread recognition of the problems the world faces now – but little in the way of solutions. Practical Action is so important because you’re one of the only organisations pioneering the solutions that are needed to achieve positive change.”