The case for a smaller future

How do we recalibrate our economies towards restorative ecologies?

For many people in the 1970s, the concept of Small is Beautiful was a welcome, timely antidote to the prevailing philosophy of ‘big is best’ – big states, big companies, big profits.

The cost of living crisis is pushing millions of people, including children, into poverty. The continued use of fossil fuels is making billions of dollars for huge multinational companies as we teeter on the brink of climate catastrophe. It was all so predictable. And all so preventable.

The Ecologist and the Schumacher Institute are bringing together leading economists, writers, land workers and activists to discuss solutions to the most urgent economic and ecological challenges of our times.

SMALL IS THE FUTURE will revisit the important ideas presented in EF Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful. Published in 1973, the book was described as ‘among the 100 most influential books published since World War II by The Times Literary Supplement.

The SMALL IS THE FUTURE event is taking place on Saturday, 17 June 2023 at the Paintworks, Bristol. Speakers include Professor Ann Pettifor, Charlie Hertzog Young, Satish Kumar, Professor Herbert Girardet and Dr Gareth Dale. Buy tickets here.

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Now, exactly 50 years later, we are exploring its relevance in a world where globalisation may have peaked, and – post Brexit – where we should be discussing options for a ‘local’, rather than a ‘global’ Britain. 

How best can we develop alternatives to the power of big companies and self-interested shareholders and company managers? What can we do to bring democracy closer to local communities, like it is done in countries like Switzerland and its self-governing Cantons? 

For many people in the 1970s, the concept of Small is Beautiful was a welcome, timely antidote to the prevailing philosophy of ‘big is best’ – big states, big companies, big profits.

Schumacher, by contrast, boldly advocated the relevance of small-scale technologies. He proposed that work could be enjoyed if public ownership - of some of the means of production - were more democratic, dignified and intelligent utilisation of human creativity.   

It was Schumacher’s close friend, economist Leopold Kohr, who had proposed that ‘small is better than big’, he said: ‘There seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness…Whenever something is wrong, something is too big.’

 Schumacher adapted this argument, arguing that ‘for his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones… Today we suffer from a universal idolatry of gigantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness, where this applies.’  

For many people in the 1970s, the concept of Small is Beautiful was a welcome, timely antidote to the prevailing philosophy of ‘big is best’ – big states, big companies, big profits.


Schumacher also denounced the complete absence of any sense of wisdom in economic affairs. His analysis resonated with millions of readers across the world, as his book was published in dozens of foreign language editions.

People everywhere found themselves serving big organisations of all kinds, and many felt that they were losing a sense of community belonging.  

But ‘small is beautiful’ is more than just unrealistic, romantic nostalgia. Schumacher was the first economist who challenged the assumption that we could build a lasting future using non-renewable resources such as coal, oil, and gas as our primary energy sources.

"If we squander our fossil fuels, we threaten civilization, but if squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself. The modern industrial system…consumes the very basis on which it is erected…It lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income."

This profound critique of industrial capitalism, echoing the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth’ study – a report that warned earth’s resources would not be able to support the exponential rates of economic growth - became the basis of the new discipline of ecological economics which is still in the ascendency.  


For Schumacher it is of critical importance to learn from nature’s regenerative ways, which he called an ‘economy of permanence’.

Until quite recently, an illusion of unlimited powers of humanity, even victory over the rest of creation, prevailed, but now we are no longer so sure. More than ever before, we need to concern ourselves with the sheer destructive power we have – not only through armed conflicts between nations, but also through ecocide.

Schumacher talks about our battle against nature and says that ‘if we won that battle, we would find ourself on the losing side.’  

The bold ideas contained in ‘Small is Beautiful’ have influenced politics to a limited degree. In Britain we have seen the devolution of some powers from Westminster to parliaments in Edinburgh and in Cardiff. In Wales this has also given rise to legislation for the ‘wellbeing of future generations’.


Uniquely, the commissioner, Sophie Howe, is tasked with scrutinising decisions by politicians and by companies against the need to safeguard the interests of future generations.

Today, under the auspices of Brexit, we are supposed to be pursuing the idea of global Britain, but we don’t seem to be very good at this.

Much more appealing would be the idea of a local Britain, truly empowering local communities, helping them to become self-reliant in food and other aspects of a new, green economy.

Schumacher anticipated the global climate emergency and was one of the first advocates for the development of wind and solar power.

He could not have foreseen how much of our energy supply is now coming from such renewable sources, even if too much may be under the control of big companies for his liking.


Schumacher inspired many groups across the world to create community supported agriculture projects, small-scale technology and recycling workshops, and renewable energy initiatives.

He was not just an economist and philosopher, but also very much a man of action, as co-founder of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, now called Practical Action.

He was also president of the Soil Association, a Bristol based pioneer of organic, regenerative farming. Schumacher regarded assuring healthy, living soils as one of the preconditions for a sustainable civilisation.

When Schumacher unexpectedly died in 1976, the Schumacher Society was created in his name, and held annual lectures in Bristol and elsewhere in the UK for many years.

Subsequently, it gave rise to Schumacher College in Dartington, which this year is celebrating its 25thanniversary. It also spawned the Schumacher Institute in Bristol which is a partner in this event.

Today Schumacher’s ideas are more relevant than ever. In this event, we look towards a future of practical action, grassroots organisation, and locally driven solutions.

This Author

Professor Herbert Girardet is a co-founder of the World Future Council, and a member of The Club of Rome. His most recent book is Creating Regenerative Cities (Routledge). Professor Girardet is also a trustee at the Resurgence Trust, which owns and publishes The EcologistBuy tickets here.

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