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Cold Spring, N.Y. In order to get people thinking rightly about economists, Fritz Schumacher used to tell the story of an architect, a priest, and an economist talking about which one had the oldest profession. The architect argued that his was the oldest because God was acting as an architect when he fashioned the Garden of Eden. No, said the priest, his was the oldest because before that God created heaven and earth, and the contemplation of that was the business of priests. Yes, said the economist, God created heaven and earth, but out of chaos—and who do you think created that?

Schumacher was one to know the terrible mess that economists created when they fashioned modern industrial capitalism and gave themselves full employment, for he was for twenty years the chief economist of the British National Coal Board. He would not be surprised at the chaos of the current global meltdown and the inability of anyone to understand it enough to ameliorate its disaster, though he might be a little taken aback by the complexity and extent of it all. And he would probably be somewhat bemused by the inability of anyone in the seats of power to think beyond the limits of conventional growth-is-the-answer economics.

Schumacher also knew what the alternative to chaos economics was, and he formulated it, after a trip to Burma in the 1960’s, as “Buddhist Economics,” based on the Buddha’s “noble eight-fold path”—including right livelihood, right understanding, right action, right effort, and right purpose. He felt deeply that there could be no proper, just, and meaningful economic life without the spiritual and ecological values of a religion like Buddhism; “economics without Buddhism,” he once said, “is like sex without love.”

He presented his thoughts in the beautiful essay “Buddhist Economics” in his 1973 best-seller, Small Is Beautiful. But he never did work it out as an eight-fold path as the Buddha had done, so I have undertaken to draw one out from the whole of Schumacher’s work (Guide for the Perplexed, 1977, GoodWork, 1979, and material at the Schumacher Library in Great Barrington, MA), adding in some insights from the Buddhist corpus and a few perspectives from the bioregional canon. It may not do full justice to Schumacher’s grand vision (or to Buddha’s, for that matter), but at a time when it is more vital than ever to put forth and try to establish a “third-way” economics, this suggests the direction.

All production of goods and services would be based on a reverence for life, a biocentric world view that takes in animals, birds, fishes, insects, plants, trees (especially important to Buddha), all the living ecosystems and the air and water they depend on—in short the living earth, Gaea herself.

All systems have limits and they must be learned and adhered to in every economic act. Overuse of a resource or species would be seen as a criminal act of violence, overproduction of a resource or a species (i.e., humans) would be seen as an immoral act of avarice, not to mention stupidity.

The primary unit of economic life would be the community, within a self-regarding bioregion striving to fulfill all its needs; political and economic decisions would be taken at these levels.

Consumption would be limited, not an end in itself but merely a means to human well-being, asking only that which is enough to satisfy vital human needs; the goal of economic life is not the multiplication of wants but the satisfaction of needs.

Everything produced and the means of its production would embody the four cardinal (and, not incidentally, alternative technology) principles of smaller, simpler, cheaper, safer—that is to say, technology on a human scale.

The only jobs would be those that enhance the worker, contribute to the immediate community, and produce nothing but needed goods—without unneeded bads.

All people who wish to do so would work, for it is the function of work to nourish and develop the individual soul, aiming at fulfilling the highest nature of the human character; but those who wish only to contemplate and compose would be given equal merit.

All economic decisions would be made in accordance with the Buddhist principle, “Cease to do evil, try to do good,” and the definition of “good” would be that which preserves and enhances the integrity, stability, diversity, continuity, and beauty of living species and systems; that which does the contrary is evil.

There it is, the eight-fold path.

Will it possibly come about, on this earth, in this age? I would not bet on it. But it is necessary to contemplate the ingredients of such a change, and understand their true meaning, because as the present system collapses and the chaos unfolds around more and more of us, it will be necessary for people everywhere to shelter themselves as best they can and contrive such systems as they can to create an economy that will permit the continuation of the human species rather than its elimination. The eight-fold path could be their guide.

40 COMMENTS

  1. “All production of goods and services would be based on a reverence for life, a biocentric world view that takes in animals, birds, fishes, insects, plants, trees (especially important to Buddha), all the living ecosystems and the air and water they depend on—in short the living earth, Gaea herself.”

    What does this mean? Jainism?

    “All systems have limits and they must be learned and adhered to in every economic act. Overuse of a resource or species would be seen as a criminal act of violence, overproduction of a resource or a species (i.e., humans) would be seen as an immoral act of avarice, not to mention stupidity.”

    What constitutes overuse? What would the penalty be for such criminal acts of violence?

    “The primary unit of economic life would be the community, within a self-regarding bioregion striving to fulfill all its needs; political and economic decisions would be taken at these levels.”

    Does this mean that if I need a new blanket that I would submit my request to community or bioregion boards which would then approve or disapprove of my request and if approved direct blanket production?

    “Consumption would be limited, not an end in itself but merely a means to human well-being, asking only that which is enough to satisfy vital human needs; the goal of economic life is not the multiplication of wants but the satisfaction of needs.”

    What are vital human needs? Is a piano a vital human need? Is meat?

    “Everything produced and the means of its production would embody the four cardinal (and, not incidentally, alternative technology) principles of smaller, simpler, cheaper, safer—that is to say, technology on a human scale.”

    Would bicycles be permitted under this criteria? Shoes are smaller, simpler, cheaper, and safer than bicycles.

    “The only jobs would be those that enhance the worker, contribute to the immediate community, and produce nothing but needed goods—without unneeded bads.”

    What does enhance mean? What constitutes a contribution to the immediate community? (Was the Marx Brother’s ‘Duck Soup’ such a contribution?) What are ‘needed goods’? Are they the same as ‘vital human needs’? What are ‘unneeded bads’? Violations of Jainist practice?

    “All people who wish to do so would work, for it is the function of work to nourish and develop the individual soul, aiming at fulfilling the highest nature of the human character; but those who wish only to contemplate and compose would be given equal merit.”

    What about persons who wish to do neither? Those who wish to adventure? Those who wish for idleness? Those who wish for licentiousness?

    “All economic decisions would be made in accordance with the Buddhist principle, “Cease to do evil, try to do good,” and the definition of “good” would be that which preserves and enhances the integrity, stability, diversity, continuity, and beauty of living species and systems; that which does the contrary is evil.”

    Would the willful destruction of any living thing, for any purpose, be permitted?

  2. What do you mean by ” . . .overproduction of a resource or a species (i.e., humans) would be seen as an immoral act of avarice, not to mention stupidity”? Are you saying that having too many kids is immoral, avaricious and stupid? Or am I completely missing your point?

  3. Mr. Sale, from some of the filpant remarks above it is easy to see why Schumacher never developed Buddhist economics beyond his orignal essay. It is just too easy to take drive by pot shots at something that you refuse to even ponder.

    For those of you that don’t know Schumacher never became a Buddhist, in fact after returning from Burma he renounced atheism and returned to the Catholic faith of his youth. (His biography written his daughter is availble on the E.F. Schumacher Society website.)

    Peronally I appreciate your effort to try to expand Schumacher’s work. At the risk of plugging the same author twice in one week I would offer John Micheal Greer’s development of primary and secondary goods into the conept of tertiary goods where money is confused with wealth and traded as if that transaction benefitted the common good.

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2009/07/nature-wealth-and-money.html

  4. In defense of myself and the other previous commenters a koan:

    What’s the sound of Kirkpatrick Sale making a cogent argument…

  5. Ave Maria University Writer-in-Residence Joseph Pearce has a fine essay in “Literary Converts” about E. F. Schumacher that emphasizes the impact that distributism and Catholicism had on his thought. Pearce also wrote “Small is Still Beautiful” an echo of Schumacher’s book which is about human scale economies in Britain. It was recently re-issued by ISI Books, the imprint of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute–which incidentally also published Allan Carlson’s “Third Ways”.

  6. rex et al,
    Guilty and insolent as charged but a little humor….as Aristotle averred in his statement “Wit is cultured insolence”….is intended not as a dismissal of the good Mr. Sale and his crunchy secesh philosophy but as a response to Dan’s comment about Jainism . Going FROM a system almost exclusively weighted to consumption TO one of strictly “limited” consumption…whatever that might mean….would seem to require a little humor to survive the penetration of such a thicket.

    I am all for a more ethical, bottoms-up, humane system and welcome its discussion and anyone who might have endured my mad ravings to date will recall that most of it regards the current farrago of a gluttonous and murderous paradigm aided and abetted by a government whose venality is oddly freighted with an almost childlike gullibility.

  7. D.W. current economic theory would call good humor an externality that is not relevant to the “science” of economics. I value humor greatly. I believe that humor would fall under “right thought” or perhaps “right intention” on the eight fold noble path.

    I don’t think that a bug zapper is inconsistent with what Mr. Sale is saying, it would depend on how you use it. Does it allow to enjoy July evenings on the front porch with family and passers by, or do you perch by it swilling beers sadistically hoping a big moth meets a spectacular end? Does the lack of a zapper keep you inside an air conditioned house in front of the flat screen whining about the heat and those damn bugs? Did you loan it to your neighbor when he was hosting his niece’s wedding reception, or make him buy his own damn zapper? If a local entrepreneur was making citronella candles would you try one? Even if the candles did not work quite as well, would you use them if your community was suffering brown outs that threatened essential services?

    I don’t think there are absolute truths to the above questions, that is why it is called a path instead of a solution. In some respects asking the questions is as important as the answers.

  8. “I don’t think that a bug zapper is inconsistent with what Mr. Sale is saying”

    I can’t imagined how this could be argued honestly. Sale himself states:

    “Overuse of a resource or species would be seen as a criminal act of violence, overproduction of a resource or a species (i.e., humans) would be seen as an immoral act of avarice, not to mention stupidity.”

    The bug zapper, by its nature, zaps bugs and zaps them indiscriminately. The bug zapper cannot be conscious of the biosphere and its many species. It kills indiscriminately even overused species. Sale views this as a criminal act of violence. It seems bug zappers, sprays, pesticides, etc. would all have to go. They are aids to indiscriminate destruction of nature and its beings.

  9. D.W. dude, you’re playin’ with the big boys here and just doing a wonderful job…”bug zapper” really!
    Did someone say “secesh?”
    Lord, my heart’s a-pumpin!’

  10. Rex and Mr. Sale:

    Call it a drive-by potshot if you will, but I think that Mr. Sale’s proposed principle that the “overproduction . . . of humans” is “an immoral act of avarice, not to mention stupidity” is one deserving of execution by whatever means (including humor).

    There are any number of ways this idea is ill-conceived and pernicious, but there are a couple of reasons why it struck me as particularly jarring to find on the F.P.R. First, there is the question of the language used. To talk about “overproduction” with respect to humans is to use the same dehumanizing language of the modern economist, the corporation, the Taylor “scientifically managed” factory. To call it “immoral” and “avaricious” is to subvert these words’ traditional meanings; “avaricious” in particular has always been associated with greed for material things – to use the term in relation to humans is again, dehumanizing. (It is certainly wrong for a parent to treat their children as mere material possessions; it seems no less wrong for an economic theory to do the same.) To call it “stupid” is . . . well, to take a drive-by potshot at large families.

    The second reason why this principle seems out of place here is the way it subordinates the local for the sake of some vague global concern. It is one thing to say any particular couple should be prudent concerning the care of their own family, but it seems of little practical use to say they should base their prudential decisions based on what some scientist or politician has told them about the state of the world in general (“Honey, I see an earthquake has wiped out a city of millions – looks like the earth is now below its optimal population limit and we can keep little Billy after all . . .”). And, in fact, that type of decision-making seems at odds with what Mr. Sale has written elsewhere on this site regarding questions of scale and economic decision-making. With respect to population, “local” inherently means “family” – any particular child is brought into this world by his or her particular parents. Of course, in the modern world, the more likely solution (if overpopulation is indeed a problem) would be decided not on the local level (that is, not by the would-be parents), but imposed from above, which doesn’t seem to fit with the type of liberty espoused on F.P.R.’s masthead (homepage?).

  11. I ignored the “over-production” of humans remark, but our immediate problem will be exactly the opposite: the Birth Dearth. see http://distributism.blogspot.com/2008/04/birth-dearth.html and “Demographic Winter” at http://www.demographicwinter.com/index.html.

    One reason that the Chinese save too much is because of the one-child policy. This means that four grandparents and two parents must share the income of one child. Better to have some cash in reserve.

  12. Tony that was not a drive-by comment at all, but a well reasoned comment. If Mr. Sale intended some sort of large scale population planning authority, I’ll let him defend it. Given that Schumacher’s mantra was Small is Beautiful, I think Schumacher would need convincing too.

    On the family level, if you cannot afford to feed, clothe, and house, the children you have, then having another child is a tough decision to defend in my opinion. (Given the sensitivity of some of these subjects, I would try to avoid loaded words like avarice and stupidity. In retrospect my “drive-by pot shot” comment would fall in that category. My apologies.)

    The question of scale is where Schumacher diverges from Distributionism, at least as I understand it. The Pope is calling for a world wide organization to regulate multinational corporations. I think Schumacher would call for the limiting of the size of corporations to power levels that local governments can cope with. One control mechanism is regulatory and calls for larger government, the other is organizational where the limits to growth are self-enforcing.

  13. The second reason why this principle seems out of place here is the way it subordinates the local for the sake of some vague global concern. It is one thing to say any particular couple should be prudent concerning the care of their own family, but it seems of little practical use to say they should base their prudential decisions based on what some scientist or politician has told them about the state of the world in general (“Honey, I see an earthquake has wiped out a city of millions – looks like the earth is now below its optimal population limit and we can keep little Billy after all . . .”). And, in fact, that type of decision-making seems at odds with what Mr. Sale has written elsewhere on this site regarding questions of scale and economic decision-making.

    In defense of Mr. Sale — it wouldnt’ be a global concern, but a concern of the local bioregion. Mr. Sale does think that bioregions have carrying capacaties that cannot be exceeded without dire consequences.

  14. There are places where some communities are trying to live out something very like what Schumacher espoused. But it’s very hard.

    I just returned to Los Angeles yesterday from the Hopi reservation in N. Arizona after attending ceremonies on First and Second Mesa. The Hopi were, until the American settling of Arizona in the second half of the 19th century, a stable society and lived by what Schumacher and Sale would have approved of: they had a coherent life in which the economic, spiritual, and mundane were all one.

    Now that they are premodern hybrids (they’ve kept the ceremonial life, at least in some villages, though they’re partially integrated into the cash and job economy and generally no longer subsistence farmers), the situation is very different. Diabetes is rampant (compare photos of the dancers from circa 1900 to seeing (cameras no longer allowed) these same dancers today; the waistline girth of the dancers has increased). The shift to processed foods and disposable western entertainment (satellite dishes dot houses) has been very bad for them, even as modern health care has arrived.

    The overall complexity of trying to live an integrated life within a more generally meaningful economy is very much visible on the Hopi mesas, and modern (or is it “late”?) capitalism has made it much, much harder than it used to be. The general level of artistic competence compared to Euro-Ams is still very high, it seems to me; but satellite TV might kill this off as well.

    But in any case, looking at the Hopi before 1870, say, would give someone a good idea of what living a local, meaningful within a high desert, Native American context. And the traces are still very much there. It’s a harsh life, but (as many Hopi say) a good life as well.

    BTW, I also wonder at the Sales’ idea of, and use of the word, “overproduction” of human beings, even though it’s very clear that the Hopi life was ever lived in a most delicate, and even precarious, balance between the limits of the physical environment and human life. Famine was, before the US Gov’t came along, a real and regular danger, killing off an immense percentage of people periodically.

  15. Regardless of whether you’re talking bioregions or globes, I still think the family – meaning the parents – is the proper level – or locality, or locus, if you will – for making decisions regarding how many children to have. A mayor of a small farming community, for example, having the power to say “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, our bioregion can support 300 people, not 301 – I’m sorry, but little Billy has to go” is just as wrong in principle as some global authority making the same judgment on a vast scale. Moreover, I distrust at least the science, and quite possibly the motives, of any scientist or politician who claims to be able to make such determinations as to how many people any particular bioregion can support. A judgment as to “how many” necessarily leads to the question of “who”?

    As Mr. Medaille points out, depopulation – not overpopulation – is the crisis facing us, which not only brings with it a host of other serious problems, but also doesn’t solve some of the issues with which Mr. Sale is concerned. Depopulation will not prevent a corporation from destroying the environment for the sake of short term gain, nor will it make work any more meaningful.

    As for the Pope’s call for a world wide organization to regulate multinational corporations – is this something he proposes in his latest encyclical? (I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the list.) With apologies to Mr. Chuck D., the Pope ain’t no dope, but if scale and lack of local roots / limits are problems inherent in a multinational corporation, I don’t see why those same problems wouldn’t be inherent in a multinational regulatory authority, as well.

  16. Tony,

    To clarify the previous citation:

    “You better hope to the Pope and pray it ain’t dope.” – Chuck D.

    The “it” is standing in for Sale’s argument for population control.

    Chuck is using dope in one of its common variants as meaning, “A word that describes something that is extremely cool, such as music, clothes, people, etc.”

  17. Dan,

    Yeah, I got it the first time around – my apology was for the lame use of his rhyme, not because I thought he was calling the Pope an idiot.

    I’m sorry for straying off topic, but just out of curiosity, what was the “it” standing in for in his original turn of the phrase?

  18. Yes-was the start of my last jam
    So here it is again, another def jam
    But since I gave you all a little something
    That we knew you lacked
    They still consider me a new jack
    All the critics you can hang’em
    I’ll hold the rope
    But they hope to the pope
    And pray it ain’t dope
    The follower of Farrakhan
    Don’t tell me that you understand
    Until you hear the man

  19. Mr Sale: I’m curious as to how these eightfold steps came out of Schumacher. My reading of the “Guide for the Perplexed” was of a four level reality generating a four-level model, the four levels being matter (merely reactive), vegetation (changing with time), animal (reponding to time and place) and human (reponding to time, place and symbols). From the ability to use symbols develops the ability to distinguish the differing variabilities of matter, vegetation, animals and man.

    For information, equivalent 8-folds can be found as primary and secondary circuits in Lonergan’s economics and as specialisations in two levels of his theological method; as phases of pure and applied science in Bhaskar’s scientific method; as four parts of the human brain and four types of word in grammar; as four types of job in navigation and – significant for what follows – four types of information in control theory: the aim, and corrective feedbacks taking account of the present, past and future.

    The discussion having drifted onto population control, the relevant point is that, given the relevant four types of information via four ways of collecting it, we can control ourselves. The fact is that no attempt is being made to provide the relevant information, presumably because politicians and bureaucrats brainwashed in profit maximation, penny counting and the laws of large numbers have never been trained in the rudiments of PID control theory and Schumacher’s principle of “adequatio”.

    The aim here needs to be more than families controlling themselves, for local communities and in more general ways national economies and the world need to be able to provide adequate facilities for them. Communities need to be able to decide the best size for their town given its situation: a long-term goal not dependent on maximising monetary profits, though temporarily adjustable in light of wider social issues. Because babies take time to be born, people need to know in advance not just (say) last year’s deaths plus or minus an agreed growth increment, but how many other families already expect to have babies that year. At the moment they know none of this; at best they have access to old national statistics.

    With the aim, past and present thus accounted for, families which are still growing could make decisions about whether to start their new baby now or to book in their intentions for next year. What with still-births, twins, infertility and the unexpected the control is never going to be exact, but it will be adequate if variations in school class sizes (say) become minor, as against too many for the facilities in good years and not enough in a slump.

  20. My feeling is, after seeing a week of comments on my post, that I am astonished in this day and age that someone does not understand the critical and life-threatening effect of excessive human numbers and impact. Humans, now at six billion plus and predicted to go to ten billion if catastrophes do not intervene, have left not one ecosystem on earth free of pervasive human influence, transforming more than half the land of the planet for their own use, consuming more than 40 per cent of the total photosynthetic productivity of the sun, using 55 per cent of the world’s freshwater, and producing about 3000 times more heat energy than the world’s volcanoes.

    Human dominance and population excess have set humanity on an undeniable path toward ecocide. The assault was recognized by the landmark Ecosystem Millennium Assessment issued by 1360 scientists in 2005, which found that two thirds of the natural world that supports life on earth is being degraded by human pressure, and “human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” Biologist Edward O. Wilson goes further, asserting that “the appropriation of productive land—the ecological footprint—is already too large for the planet to sustain” and has likely stressed the earth beyond “its ability to regenerate.”

    Give me no blather about birth dearth.

    Yes, families can and should decide about the number of children they should have, but only within the context of the eight-fold path, whose biocentrism would provide natural limits. And having “too many kids,” more than the limits suggest, is obviously immoral and stupid.

    The eight-fold path, incidentally, is obviously based on Buddha, into which I have set many of Schumacher’s ideas from “Buddhist Economics.”

    As for Dan, there’s no hope.

  21. Mr. Sale,

    As Origen so artfully stated, “Even unto the end of the world the day of reconciliation is now.”

  22. The Ecosystem Millennium Assessment? Really?? You mean the one commissioned by that towering giant of integrity and truth, Kofi Annan? Well, gosh, I guess I must be wrong. I mean, there’s no way a United Nations “assessment” could be anything other than objective, could there? Ooh, and experts, too! And . . . and . . . STATISTICS!! And not just any statistics, but United Nations statistics! Yummy!

    This is why the F.P.R. is so invaluable. I mean, who knows what my next error could have been? Why, I could have ended up doubting . . . Al Gore! And he’s got one of them Nobel thingys, so you know he’s gotta be right. Oh, dear. Whatever was I thinking? How backwards. How unprogressive. How. . . how. . . unenlightened!

    And, as Mr. Sale so kindly points out for my edification, my retrograde way of thinking was all so immoral and stupid. And obviously so. In fact, so obvious, that Mr. Sale dispenses with explaining exactly why it’s immoral or stupid to see children as a gift and a blessing, rather than (pace Ms. – excuse me – Senator Pelosi) a burden and a curse.

    Mr. Sale, I have neither the intelligence nor the education to explain to you why children are indeed a gift and a blessing. However, I can tell you that this is something you (and I) should ponder deeply, because if you get that wrong, then none of the rest of your economic theory will make sense. Here’s a hint – worship “Gaea” all you want, but remember that the earth doesn’t give a damn whether you or I or anything lives or dies. Asteroid, nuclear war, global warming – kill absolutely everything, and the earth doesn’t care. Not a whit. But you and I care – or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And, dare I say it, you and I both have hope – if not, “then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.”

    Figure out why it is that nature doesn’t care and doesn’t hope, but you and I do, and you’ll have gone a long way to establishing a solid foundation for your economic theory. And save the environment, to boot.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy a bugzapper. (Mind my soapbox for me, will ya?)

    rex: sorry about the drive by pot shots – but he started it!

  23. Mr Sale:

    Further to what Dan just said, that rather than the much-appreciated and respected Buddhist view is what I saw in Schumacher: he moved on from where we ought to be to how to get there. Not to the Burmese military way of getting rid of “surplus” population, but eventually to the Catholic way of truth and reconciliation.

    I agree we really do need to control world population, but isn’t it true that specialist Catholic spokemen don’t understand the relevance of the mathematics of compound interest and specialist politicians that of the logic of electronic error control? The situation will remain as hopeless as you make it sound while the technically blind continue to lead the emotionally short-sighted. Since the teeming masses won’t get the glasses they need unless the blind elites can be enabled to see the need and why they can already afford the necessary investment, eye-opening theoretical operations on the influential few seem to be the really urgent requirement.

  24. Ouch, Tony!

    Forty years ago, I was already bucking the trend by having six kids (with an unexpected later one equally welcome), so I’m on your side there. I also totally agree with the intelligent Catholic position that it is far better to teach us how to responsibly control our own reproductive processes than to encourage amoral traders to sell condoms.

    However, had my recent response turned in that direction, I would not only have pointed to the necessarily “complex number” mathematics underlying the Law of Diminishing Returns. (“Complex” because every selection creates an unselected context). God said: “multiply and fill the earth”. He didn’t say over-fill it, or forbid us to apply his advice to the bit of the earth we happen to be aware of. Which for most people most of the time is likely to be our household, community or nation rather than Spaceship Earth.

  25. I think Mr. Sale should be applauded for his sketching out of the Eightfold Path of Buddhist Economics.

    It strikes me as fairly lame that on a site devoted to decentralism/localism that people seem more concerned with taking cheap shots at what is obviously a well intentioned brief essay.

    I also think more respect should be shown to Mr. Sale given his history as one of the foremost advocates of the third way in our time.

    For those who seem to be unfamiliar with it I highly recommend his magnum opus ‘Human Scale’ which is one of the greatest and most substantial books on decentralism ever published and that has an honored place in the tragically small canon of works by Chesterton, Belloc, Ropke, Schumacher, Kropotkin, Berry et al.

  26. Mike, if by saying “people” rather than “someone” you intended to include me as “taking cheap pot shots”, you owe me an apology. In my last letter I was defending Mr Sale’s position, if not his somewhat intemperate language (in his response to comment, not in his essay) about having large families being “obviously immoral and stupid”. The problem is in the low average family size, not particular cases. When bucking the trend, my wife and I took the principled position that it is important to have a requisite variety of family sizes: we would now say, in order to maintain the experience of having to give way to others rather than being the centre of attention in family love.

    In my earlier letter, I queried how Mr Sale’s list of eight principles came from Schumacher: he responded that in any case it was Buddhist. Fair enough. The point I perhaps didn’t make as clearly as I might have was why I was querying it. The list happened to have eight items, but there seemed to be no systemic factor in it which would lead to it having eight rather than (say) ten or a dozen. Schumacher’s approach (via the four levels of being) did.

    Surely these are fair comments? They were certainly made respectfully, anyway. On the issue you raise of decentralism/localism, Mike, you might reflect on the principle of subsidiarity, which to me implies
    forms of localism other than geographical, e.g. associations pursuing particular interests or forms of government having limited powers.

  27. Mr. Burch,

    The sarcasm of my last post was a reaction (perhaps overreaction) to what I thought was a very dismissive and condescending reply by Mr. Sale. If my post crossed the line & was uncharitable, then my apologies to both Mr. Sale and to the forum. However, to say that “I am astonished at this day and age that someone does not understand” is not to engage in discussion or debate, but rather demonstrates – at least to my mind – an intellectual snobbery that does little to garner respect. Likewise his dismissal of a contrary point of view as “blather”, with no attempt to explain why that point of view is wrong. And to imply that someone’s stupid (and not just stupid, but obviously stupid – apparently it’s not even a close call) because they don’t agree with Mr. Sale, or with a U.N. assessment? Well . . .

    My intent in my original comments to Mr. Sale’s essay was not to debate overpopulation per se. I still think that birth dearth is a more likely fact than is overpopulation; moreover, given our technological capabilities and our current distorted economic system, I could easily image both falling populations and continued environmental degradation.

    My intent, however, was to point out two ways in which I found his principles in tension with what I generally find here at F.P.R. This certainly is not to suggest that his ideas should be in lockstep with the rest of the writers here (that would be disappointing, to say the least). But if an idea appears jarring to me, a mere interloper, then perhaps that idea merits further consideration. Maybe it’s jarring because there really is conflict of principles, or maybe it’s only jarring because I don’t really understand what’s being said. Again, if I overreact or am uncharitable (or illogical or unintelligible), then tell me to mind my manners and I’ll try to shape up. But, if you mean to say that I shouldn’t question what Mr. Sale wrote because he is “Mr. Sale”, then you are asking me to play the sycophant, which shows no respect – or rather, only false respect – to Mr. Sale and to his ideas.

    Of the two points I attempted to raise originally, Mr. Sale only addressed one – the question of what the right locus should be for determining how many children a family should have. Mr. Sale seems to agree in his reply that this decision should be made by families. Yet, under his eight-fold path, families are inherently incompetent to make that decision. If families are supposed take into account not only whether they can afford to feed, clothe and house their own children, but also whether some larger bioregion can support them, then they will have to rely on a decision made by someone else – a scientist, or more likely, a politician who claims a basis for his decision in data provided by a scientist. Now, that politician or scientist may claim natural limits as the reason for imposing limits on family size, but the issue is not purely objective – it inherently involves a question of judgment. Mr. Sale’s principles take that judgment away from the family, which seems at least in tension, if not conflict, with the principle of subsidiarity.

    The second point, which I don’t think Mr. Sale addressed, is why he uses materialistic language, such as overproduction and avaricious, with reference to humans – and to children in particular. I am hardly being original in saying any economic theory that views children in strictly material terms has a very flawed conception of what it means to be human. Mr. Sale is obviously an accomplished writer, and presumably meant to use the language that he did. I am not familiar with Ropke or Kropotkin, and only vaguely familiar with Berry and Schumacher, but am fairly certain that neither Chesterton nor Belloc would talk about the “overproduction” or even “production” of children, as if they were mere widgets from a factory.

    As for Mr. Sale’s book, Human Scale, thanks very much for the recommendation (and I don’t mean that sarcastically.) I would also appreciate your (or anyone else’s) suggestions as to where to start with Ropke, Kropotkin, Berry and Schumacher.

  28. Dear Kirkpatrick,

    I have been an admirer of your writing for many years and consider you to be one of the seminal voices of the deep ecology movement in the United States. Perhaps, judging from some of the comments on your excellent article, this was not the best site on which to publish it. I am sorry my Dharmagaians website is not up on the net yet, but I will surely link to this article from my site, where your views will be thoroughly supported. Comments will be moderated and arguments from ignorance will be redirected to the pages on the site that refute them.

    In any case, THANK YOU for putting together Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics with the eight-fold path and bioregionalism. I still think you are one of the best theorists of how humanity can survive the consequences of its stupidity.

    Bowing respectfully,

    Dharmagaian

  29. To be honest except for Dan’s comments, which as I have seen in other threads seem to represent a more mainstream American style libertarian position that any Cato or Mises institute follower could support than localist decentralist ideal imho, most of the comments as well as the article seem pretty sensible and useful to discussion of trhe general principles of the site. Dan’s post, aside from the ideology contained within, also seems like one of those annoying arguments that cast a few half-trivial possible problems in a broad projection as if it refutes the whole thing.

  30. Tony:

    “To talk about ‘overproduction’ with respect to humans is to use the same dehumanizing language of the modern economist, the corporation, the Taylor ‘scientifically managed’ factory.”

    It is a crude phrase, but the basic idea is sound: to wit, that there are wholesome, reasonable LIMITS to optimal family size, just as there are wholesome, reasonable limits to everything else. Limits may of course vary a good deal in relation to many particulars of a given situation, but then that is what “limits” are about; i.e. they are not abstract and precise (such as, say, “2 kids” or “4 kids”). Rather, they exist IN RELATION to other things. In any case, a lopsided, unchecked pro-natalism — more is better, always more is better — is as absurd as a lopsided and unchecked anything else.

    I hereby apologize to the Catholics for having to inform them of this glaringly-obvious point.

    Mr Medaille:

    China’s “one child” policy had very little effect on their fertility and population. Chinese fertility was reduced dramatically well before “one child” was instituted. And a good thing, too. If fertility had stayed up in the stratosphere (at circa 5 or 6), then China’s population would by now have been multiple billions, and headed rapidly toward multiple TENS of billions — obviously an unsustainable situation. To say this is not to assert Malthusianism; it is to assert reasonableness. More is better TO A POINT, but there are reasonable limits. And, fortunately, humans in the developing world (except for Africa, so far) have done an outstanding job of limiting their fertility. Fertility has been dropping off a cliff in most of the world, and this is a very good thing. We became fruitful, and we multiplied, and it was good. WAS. Now it is different, and at least on the fertility front we are making the changes that we need to make. On the consumption front, however, things are not looking so good. Our appetites still dominate, and our levels of consumption are out of control. (More was better on that front, too — TO A POINT. But there are reasonable limits. We reached and exceeded them.)

    That http://www.demographicwinter.com link was amusing, thanks. This poor fellow — Longman — seems not to have the slightest conception of wholesome limits, casting the truly wonderful fertility decline of recent decades as “ominous” and “catastrophic”! Has Longman ever heard of the Seven Deadly Sins? Among them are greed (or avarice) and gluttony. That would include the greed to reproduce without limit, and the gluttonous impulses that we’ve so far been unable to control, with the combination of those two (the greed and the gluttony) resulting in serious and potentially disastrous resource and environmental problems. Longman perceives population leveling (that will happen over the next century) as “ominous” because there will not be enough young worker/drones to support his and our gluttonous wants — which he defines, bizarrely, as “prosperity”. Of course, it is really an opportunity for spiritual growth, while at the same time, incidentally, doing what must be done to prevent earthly disaster. But to guys like Longman, steeped in the old (and now beyond-useless) Growth-Without-Limit meme, this is “ominous”! Very amusing. The poor guy. Oh well. He’ll learn.

    Thank Heaven we do not have a sufficiency of resources to endlessly indulge our gluttony (and the other wickedness that is the spawn of gluttony)! Without environmental and resource limits, we might have drowned in our immoral impulses.

  31. Kirk Sale:

    “I am astonished in this day and age that someone does not understand the critical and life-threatening effect of excessive human numbers and impact. Humans, now at six billion plus and predicted to go to ten billion if catastrophes do not intervene, have left not one ecosystem on earth free of pervasive human influence, transforming more than half the land of the planet for their own use, consuming more than 40 per cent of the total photosynthetic productivity of the sun, using 55 per cent of the world’s freshwater, and producing about 3000 times more heat energy than the world’s volcanoes.”

    All those facts may be correct, and are a matter of urgent concern. The problem however is that you’ve mis-placed the blame. You say that this is down to “excessive human numbers”. I disagree. It is down to excessive human consumption, or unchecked appetites. There is no reason that 6 billion or 10 billion cannot live sustainably. The technologies (LOW technologies) are well-known — indeed, well-known to YOU, I am sure. Numbers are not excessive; habitual waste and overconsumption is.

    Now, having said that, it is also true (and obvious) that numbers act as a MULTIPLIER of consumption patterns, and in that respect you are right that there are “too many people”. But only in that respect. The primary problem is clearly elsewhere.

    We DO have to control our population for now in order to get things back into a sustainable balance. We need that time to learn to live modestly and sensibly, and control our gluttony and lusts. We need that time to level-out the multiplier (the population) while bringing down the multiPLIED (the level of consumption and waste). And, fortunately, we ARE in the process of controlling our population, as evidenced by the fertility statistics. It takes many decades to do this, but it is clearly well underway. Now we have to focus our attention on the other and even more-critical part of the equation.

    Catholics might be pleased to consider that within a very short time — oh, a century or two — we might find ourselves somewhat UNDER-populated and in need of another growth phase. Hurry the day! I would be very pleased to see that transpire — being, myself, pro-life and pro-human. But we’ve got a whole lot of work to do between now and then. Nothing less than a re-tooling and re-organization of our entire society and way(s) of life. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it!

    Sale again:

    “Biologist Edward O. Wilson…assert[s] that ‘the appropriation of productive land—the ecological footprint—is already too large for the planet to sustain’ and has likely stressed the earth beyond ‘its ability to regenerate.'”

    Yep! That’s why we’ve got to work diligently to bring down our ecological footprint and get our patterns of consumption and waste under control. And I for one think that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US — all 7 billion, 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion, or wherever it finally levels-out, some time mid-century or so — has a contribution to make to that. And the great thing about it is that we can do it with NO sacrifice of quality of life! Our overconsumption and waste patterns can be reigned-in while at the same time building a world that is actually more pleasant, more fulfilling, more fair and just, more convivial, more healthy, and more beautiful, than (this) old one. It does not have to involve grim and burdensome austerity and denial. This is actually an opportunity for a better life for everyone, on ALL levels. Think about that.

  32. Tony:

    “Figure out why it is that nature doesn’t care and doesn’t hope, but you and I do, and you’ll have gone a long way to establishing a solid foundation for your economic theory. And save the environment, to boot.”

    Tony, you and I are part of nature. If we care, then by definition nature cares — at least one aspect of nature, the one described by our beings. I would say that our caring is an expression of nature’s becoming self-aware and self-directed. We are (slowly) leaving behind the era of blind instinct and (still more-blind) deterministic physical processes, and entering an era of consciously directed evolutionary unfoldment.

    Tony:

    “To call [human reproduction beyond some appropriate level] ‘immoral’ and ‘avaricious’ is to subvert these words’ traditional meanings; ‘avaricious’ in particular has always been associated with greed for material things – to use the term in relation to humans is again, dehumanizing.”

    I respectfully disagree with this. You are right about the words’ “traditional” meanings, by which you mean meanings in most common use. But I think we can profitably go beyond that, to the “meaning behind the [commonest] meaning”. Greed or avarice is not in essence for material things, but for the way that those material things and the acquisition of them make us feel. They make us feel (or can make us feel) like “winners”, like “successful” people, even SUPERIOR people. They make us feel in control, and in a position to dominate and even coerce others to do our bidding. (Of course, they do not merely make us FEEL that way; they actually DO do that, to some extent.) They give us a drug-like rush (which is probably literally a dopamine rush; another subject). All those things are the Real Deal of greed — the things that we’re really after. It may be a pile of rabbit pelts that gives us those things and feelings, or it may be a net worth of a billion dollars, or it may be a snort of cocaine, or it may be a tiny electrical jolt cleverly delivered to a particular part of the brain (the “reward pathway”) when we press a lever put there by some savvy neuroscientist. Whatever. What we’re going for is the feeling (and to some extent actuality) of power. That’s what “greed” really IS.

    Sex and reproduction can impart the same feelings (and to extent actuality). Men are greedy for sex, and when they get it they feel many of the (power-full) feelings I just mentioned. Women are greedy for children, and likewise feel empowered when they have them. Some men (men in some cultures) also feel empowered by successful impregnation; it imparts to them a feeling of greater “manliness” and virility, or acts as proof of virility (which is felt by some to be a key expression of earthly power). People often feel greedy for these feelings.

    To say this is not to “dehumanize” people; it is just to acknowledge some rather deep inner scripts that some refer to as “human nature”.

    And by the way I am not saying that that is all there is to people, i.e. their greeds and lust to feel powerful. Certainly not! Humans have many dimensions and aspects, and this is just one of them, albeit a quite powerful one.

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