For the Small is Beautiful 50th anniversary, we spoke to Practical Action employees to get their view on the book.
Colin McQuistan, Head of Climate and Resilience shares his views.
Tell us a little about your role and how long you’ve been at Practical Action for?
I’ve been in my role for just over a decade and I work with our country teams to understand the climate and resilience challenges faced by poor and hazard vulnerable communities. I also work at local, national and global scale to explore solutions and systems changes that will deliver these solutions to improve the lives of these people. And as a development charity, we want to empower these people and create an enabling environment that will allow them to thrive in spite of natural hazards and make them more resilient to the current and future threats posed by the climate emergency.
Have you read the Small is Beautiful book?
Yes, I’ve read it twice. I read it back in the 1980s when I was studying at university, and then I reread it in 2011. Not long after, I started working for Practical Action.
So, what are your thoughts on the book? And since you’ve read it twice, have you found a difference in your thoughts about it between those two timescales?
I don’t think I’ve changed my perceptions about the book in those two timescales, but the first time I read it was in the 1980s and I felt it was ahead of its time. I was studying environmental science at Sheffield University and what I felt was that there was a lack of materials on sustainability. There were lots of books on technological solutions fixes. But I didn’t really find anything that was better at understanding the essence of sustainability. And in Small is beautiful, I was introduced to the problems of production, the ideas of working within boundaries defined by finite resources and repression of economic systems – free and fair – industrial processes based around resources and responding to human needs. I recall at the time. I saw Small is Beautiful as a great counterpart to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was a decade earlier. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson highlighted the threats of synthetic pesticides and their damage to biodiversity and ecosystems, and I think Fritz Schumacher took that and put it in the context of industrial systems, providing clear examples from the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, their rampant growth, and the impact it would have on the planet.
How has Practical Action practiced the philosophies of the book?
I think the essence is it’s not easy to change existing systems and shift that underlying narrative from an economic focus to one that’s delivering for people and planet.
But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that we aren’t up to that challenge. And I think in many of the countries where we work, sustainability and living within environmental boundaries is already practised. This is seen in the traditional systems that we see in communities, remote communities in particular and they do not view natural resources as expendable, they view the natural world as a valuable asset that needs to be cared for and used with respect. And I think we see this in our projects promoting natural resource management, where carrying capacities are respected, not seen as barriers to unlimited growth. For example, in Nepal, we’re working with communities that live in high risk of flooding and they’re protecting natural wetlands because they see them as a solution to drainage. It allows the excess flood water to drain into the wetlands. So it helps them cope with excess water during the monsoon.
But then the great thing is then when the summer season comes and the drought starts and water resources become difficult to secure, these wetlands can then be used as water resources during that period of time. So, it’s looking at that sort of holistic solution that really meets the needs of the communities.
There was a quote in the book which said, “Practice is generally worth more than a tonne of theory.” How do you think Practical Action has applied this in their work? Have you seen it happen personally?
By basically not attempting to implement out-of-the-box solutions or the silver bullet type of approach to development. I think Practical Action recognises that locally appropriate solutions are key and that locally appropriate solutions need to be developed by the people who face those challenges. And it’s in this way that we then work in a way that is coherent with those local systems. Local people need to be supported by policies with local government, they need to build local skills, and they need to be appropriate for those local communities to apply them.
But it’s not just about local communities, it’s about people. It’s about the businesses that we work with. In Peru, where we’re working to adapt local irrigation canals that have been constructed by a big project funded by an international donor that has brought modern machinery into remote Andean communities and built canals. The idea behind these canals is to move water from the higher ground to the lower ground, where the commuters have got their fields. But they’ve built them at a scale that’s bigger than the scale at which the communities can maintain the canals.
They’re just too big and they do have an existing traditional practise from the Inca times of building smaller canals to move water up from high altitude down to their fields. So, what we’ve done to help is we’ve worked with those communities to revise and adapt the canals that were dugged by excavator to make them appropriate to those local communities.
I think this is a good example of where you get theory – this is the solution and you apply it and then suddenly you realise actually it’s more about practise and trial and error and really identifying a solution that works in the local context.
There’s another quote that says “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” Have you seen this?
The easiest example is the relentless pursuit of growth -that things need to be bigger. They need to do more. They need to be more efficient. But rather than the adoption of technology based on these principles leading to a freeing up of people’s time, what we end up doing is utilising more of the resource. So I think the idea really is we need to use technology as a way to improve the quality of life. Think about how technology can improve wellbeing, not just how technology can improve livelihoods by the extraction and utilisation of more resources. And the key is to look at a system that focuses on people and their needs and not on a system that’s focuses on extraction, production of goods and generation of economic returns. We just need to produce enough to meet our needs and not excessive utilisation of resources that leads to waste and other problems.
What Practical Action projects inspire you so far?
The project that I find the most inspiring is the Global Flood Resilience Programme that’s currently working in Nepal, Bangladesh, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Peru and Bolivia This programme is funded by Zurich Insurance and the company offers the chance to explore a critical global challenge, increasing floods in communities in several countries at the same time, so it’s great to be part of a global programme that is exploring the ways to build resilience in flood prone communities.
This is done by looking into locally appropriate solutions that were championed by Fritz Schumacher and his book, while also looking at the structural changes that we need to bring about to deliver flood resilience at the scale beyond the countries in which we work. So, we’re looking at how can the lessons from our country projects be applied at scale. So it’s not just about developing solutions and then rolling them out across other communities and the other countries, it’s about learning why these problems exist. It’s about learning what we can do about them, the options available, and then empowering local people around the world working with local and national government and local partners to develop those locally appropriate solutions to their own context.
Do you have any further comments on the book you would like to make that you haven’t covered?
50 years is a long time and although the text was clearly written in the 1970s, I think it’s still relevant today. The examples of its age is for example, it’s gender unaware. It totally ignores 50% of the global population and the important contribution that they can and should make. So it fails. I think the other thing it fails to foresee is the challenge of fossil fuel pollution.
It’s focused more on the limits to supply of fossil fuels and their consequences, which I can understand because in the early 1970s was when we had the global oil crisis. But given those shortcomings, I think it’s amazing in many ways. The books retained its relevance. It’s a great advocate for sustainability. It’s central to many of the modern ideas, such as degrowth, circular economics and doughnut economics. And I think it remains a text that an economic student should study as part of their studies. And for myself, the most poignant aspect of the book is its relevance to the climate emergency. How we continue collectively to pursue a global economy powered by fossil fuels when we already have the solutions in the form of renewable energy, to start limiting our greenhouse gas emissions. And I think, as Fritz Schumacher said, modern man talks of a battle with nature for getting that if he won. The battle he would find himself on the losing side.
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