The second session at the E.F. Schumacher seminar was given by Simon Trace, CEO of Practical Action.  First, Mr Trace outlined the ideas that guided Schumacher to found the Intermediate Technology Development Group (as Practical Action was originally named).  Schumacher’s experience studying economics and working as an economic advisor in a number of countries including the United Kingdom, West Germany, Burma, and India led him to discover several unrecognised but related truths.

First, the sort of perpetual growth that many economists throughout the latter half of the twentieth century believed would result from classical liberal market models was impossible.  You simply cannot have infinite growth in a finite system.

This is in large part due to the second truth: that many natural resources are fixed (in practical terms), and our attitude toward them should reflect this.  This is the idea of ‘natural capital.’  Natural resources like fossil fuels must be consumed at rates that are higher than the rate at which they can be replaced.  Therefore we must treat them not as ends to be consumed themselves, but as the source for consumable goods and services.  Natural resources must therefore be cultivated, rather than depleted, in order to continue to supply the economy.

The third truth follows of the preceding two.  The consumption patterns currently exhibited by the United States and Europe may be viable in the short-term, regardless of their long-term inability to be sustainable. However, even in the immediate future, they are completely unsustainable on a global scale.  If our goal is truly to bring the same standard of living that we enjoy in the West to the rest of the world, we will quickly find that the world’s resources cannot carry the weight.  Thus our remaining options are to consign the rest of the world to massive inequality and an even greater burden of poverty as we live luxuriously off of the resources we draw from their societies (the rising tide does not apparently lift all boats; it swamps quite a few) or to bring our own consumption to a sustainable level so we can maintain an acceptable standard of living (a receding tide of material prosperity in the most affluent parts of the world may bring us all to sea level while keeping us off the bottom).  This last point is even more pressing now than it was in Schumacher’s day as we prepare to deal with the rising economic power (and therefore desire for luxuries dependent on scarce natural resources) of societies with massive populations like China and India.

These realisations led Schumacher to a conclusion that remains revolutionary: simple growth as the aim of economic activity is fundamentally wrong.  Instead, our economic, political, and social structures must tackle the person as a whole, including, first and foremost, his spirituality.  This does not mean his creed, but rather the purpose of his life, particularly in this case as it regards labour.

The consequences of this approach to Western aid for the developing world are immense.  In addition to the practical concerns about compatibility with existing infrastructure and sensitivity to alien cultural priorities, this focus on the process in addition to the ends of economic activity challenges the very desirability of introducing highly sophisticated Western labour-saving technologies in order to alleviate global poverty and suffering.  Schumacher instead proposes what he calls ‘intermediate technology,’ though the term ‘appropriate technology’ better reflects his meaning and is now more widely used.  The term is highly adaptable, which is part of the purpose of the idea.  It encompasses three principles: it should be low in cost so as to be affordable to virtually everyone in the societies which it serves; it should be human in scale, rather than requiring enormous amounts of automated labour; and it must accommodate man’s inherent need for creativity.  This is the antidote to the soul-numbing mass-production line.

Mr Trace then proceeded to outline the practical reasons for why the need for such technology was so urgent in the developing world, where Practical Action focuses its energies.  Many areas have little or no access to the most basic services, such as clean water or electricity.  There is little opportunity for the establishment of sustainable livelihoods in much of the developing world, where supposed economic opportunities in the cities depopulate the countryside, only to fill the cities with a surplus of unskilled labourers who suffer from unemployment on a massive scale.  Finally, the frequent scarce availability of food, brought on by droughts, floods, wars, or poor ecological and agricultural practice (often encouraged by Western interests) creates famines that further retard the ability to create sustainable livelihoods.

The solution of appropriate technology is designed to counter these problems by meeting the needs of areas in crisis where they are.  It does not require massive outlays of capital, it does not overrun traditional practices thereby alienating those who do and should remain attached to their native culture, and it orients labour toward human ends rather than humans toward the ends of labour.

Mr Trace concluded with a discussion of what Practical Action calls ‘technology justice.’  The principle behind the introduction of technology should not be the growth of consumption but rather the growth in human well-being.  Furthermore, the choices we make regarding technology shape the societies in which we live (we need only look at our own obsession with social networking sites and ‘smart’ mobile devices for evidence of this).  Recognising these two truths, ‘justice’ concerning technology is found, according to Mr Trace, in the right to the use of technology that allows societies to live the life they value, so long as it does not compromise other contemporary or future societies’ ability to do the same.

For the most part, I find this a compelling principle.  However, I do have reservations about definitions of justice that make cavalier rights claims.  Do any of us have a ‘right to technology’ (of any sort) in the same way that we have a right to the freedom of conscience?  Perhaps the bigger issue is how one determines what sort of technology it is that allows a society to live the life that it values.  Thankfully, traditional elements are sometimes strong enough in foreign cultures to attempt to resist the influence of Western priorities.  But the deluge of Western advertising as Western companies try to make inroads into foreign markets undermines this conservatism, and the lure of iPhones and plasma televisions can blot out ancestral heritage and wisdom, as it has largely done in the West.  I’m not sure that I trust purely democratic processes to protect the interests of their societies when sexy advertising backed by American dollars is thrown into the equation.

This flows into my second concern about Mr Trace’s talk.  As Mr Trace acknowledged, Schumacher intended appropriate technology to be a principle applied not only in the developing world, but also in Europe and the United States.  Mr Trace made a very compelling case for the urgency with which the solutions offered by appropriate technology are needed in the developing world.  People are suffering and dying without them.  But so long as all of our energy and resources are being dedicated to implementing appropriate technology in the developing world, it seems to me that we are trying to build the sand castle on the same spot in between each wave of the incoming tide.  Surely so long as the West continues to live in the material luxury that we now enjoy and broadcast it to the rest of the world through television sitcoms and Coca-Cola advertisements, the rest of the world will continue to think of appropriate technologies as stopgap measures that are either a rung on the ladder to the American lifestyle or an appeasement measure intended to keep them from climbing that ladder.  We are basking in comfort and convenience, occasionally thinking it’s a pity that others can’t live like this, while selling the appeal of our material prosperity to who cannot afford it.  But even if (or even when) they could (or can), such a strain on the limited resources that make such prosperity possible (if only for a small percentage of the world for a short period of time) will bring the entire house of cards crashing down.  Therefore, doesn’t there need to be at least equal energy devoted toward implementing appropriate technological solution in the West?  Certainly, it is a more challenging and thankless task; who wants to give up on cheap Wal-Mart or Primark goods that wear out within the year for more expensive, but higher quality and more durable goods made by artisans?  However, I do believe that encouraging and implementing appropriate technology here in Europe and the United States (particularly in the realm of agriculture and encouraging small-holding farms, the need for which is especially dire in the U.S.) is the only way to make appropriate technology sustainable as a philosophy.

When I asked Mr Trace about this concern, he directed me toward several organisations at work in the United Kingdom: the Soil Association, the Centre for Alternative Technology, and the New Economics Foundation.  There is also the E.F. Schumacher Society, and for those interested in work in the developing world, Practical Action. These are all also in the links to the left.

Tomorrow will be a summary of the talk by Ann Pettifor on the imminent relevance of the work and ideas of E.F. Schumacher in light of the current economic crisis.