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Woody Tasch on E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful

The following article appeared on Slow Food’s website on October 24th. 

Revisiting Small is Beautiful
Italy -24 Oct 10

The publication by Slow Food Editore of a new translation of Ernst F. Schumacher’s 1973 classic text, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, was celebrated today, at a conference at the Salone del Gusto. Loretta Napoleoni, author of the preface to the new Italian version of the book (Piccolo è bello) and Maonomics, and Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money movement and author of Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, were on hand to discuss Schumacher’s theories and their powerful relevance to the current global financial crisis.

During the workshop, Tasch offered a personal response to the book, describing how it inspired his creation of Slow Money. “We are on a collision course with a finite biosphere,” he said. “The impact humans are having on the world continues to go up exponentially. Our impact has raced ahead of our ability to understand it. I believe that we are heading towards a collision and that climate change is the first sign of the feedback loop starting.”

“Unlimited growth in a finite biosphere is impossible,” said Tasch. He talked about the huge impression the first images of earth from space made in the 1960s, and how environmentalists tried to explain that “there is no such place as away. When you throw anything away, it stays here.”

“To the modern investor,” he continued, “there is no such place as here. When you invest, you think about markets, risk return ratios and other abstract concepts. You don’t think about where you live.” Slow Money is a non-profit network in the United States, inspired by Slow Food and Schumacher, he explained, bringing together investors and donors who want to put money into a sustainable food system. “What would the world be like if everyone invested 50% of their financial assets within 50 miles of where they live? Instead you give your money to people you don’t know, who do things you don’t understand with it, just so you have money when you retire. Is it better to work at something you don’t like just to have money when you retire, or to do things that make sense and put money into things that make you happy?”

“What we’re doing with local investment is putting our hands in the soil of the local economy, and getting our hands dirty. It’s more work, but it’s way more satisfying.”

Napoleoni agreed in the importance of local investment. “We need to slow down the speed of money through a new philosophy of supporting local economies and maintaining contact with the environment. The most sustainable type of investment is the most localized. ‘Casino capitalism’ is not sustainable, you might lose everything in a day. Instead we need local banks and agencies.” She called for a shortening of the chain between our money and our investments.

A series of questions from the audience provoked further debate among the panelists about the relevance of Schumacher’s theories today. A question about efficiency prompted Tasch to quote Schumacher: “The most striking about modern industry is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little.” He continued: “We are clever but not very smart. We can develop miraculously effective technology, but it creates more systemic risk. We have to put our money to work in ways that do less harm. I think organic agriculture is the best way to do less harm.”

Napoleoni called for a reduction of consumption, citing innovations being used by young people, like carpooling and couch-surfing, facilitated by online communities. “If every Chinese person consumed like the Americans do, the world production of oil would last for one month,” she said. She was hopeful for the future: “This new generation will grow up and teach their children to consume less, and there will be a contraction of the economy.”

Tasch reconfirmed the importance of consuming less, and said that people often associated it with sacrifice. “There is a tendency to think that increased consumption will increase well-being, whereas actually living with less leads to a higher quality of life. We shouldn’t be afraid that it will make us less happy.”

This article appeared originally on the website of Slow Food.

Woody Tasch is author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered.

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