Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

“Even an economist might well ask: what is the point of economic progress, a so-called higher standard of living, when the earth, the only earth we have, is being contaminated by substances which may cause malformations in our children or grandchildren?” — E.F. Schumacher

(This post was inspired by Small is Beautiful — Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher)

Our existence depends on making a shift in our mindset. We are living in an economic system that has taken control of the government, environment, industry, and our lives. This system preaches infinite consumption in a world of finite resources and the system is breaking. We are depleting the world’s resources at an alarming rate and our ecosystems are suffering.

Our government and our companies call for growth at all costs, without pausing to reflect on what growth means (Do we really want the weapons manufacturers to experience the same growth as book publishers?). Success in this model is based on encouraging people to mindlessly consume at all expenses. Businesses do this by devising and spending a ton of money on ingenious marketing techniques to continue this cycle of consumption. However, deep down we all know that no amount of material wealth will truly fulfill us.

“In the end, the group’s conclusions derive from its assumptions, and it does not require more than a simple act of insight to realize that infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.” — E.F. Schumacher

“Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they’ll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.” — Philip Slater

Don’t get me wrong, I think our economy has done a great job in delivering some of the greatest innovations from healthcare to technology, but somewhere along the way we dropped wisdom from the equation. We became slaves to our economy and began to blindly pursue profits and materials without asking the metaphysical questions of life. We started basing all our decisions on price, paying little attention to the havoc a company may wreak on the environment or how a company may treat their employees. We invest in companies based on ROI, without factoring in how a company’s mission aligns with our own values. Our own government’s foreign policy is heavily weighted on economics and less on our belief in democracy and the sanctity of human rights.

Our colleges produce some of the brightest and most intelligent people in the world and many of these bright young adults make their career choices on prestige and maximizing personal wealth, without considering some of the higher questions of life such as purpose and meaning. I understand that each person has a right to make their own decision, but I would argue that these decisions are based on a framework that is an illusion.

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” — Carl Sagan

The illusion is that more money, more goods, and more power will result in a fulfilled life. Our culture and our institutions reinforce the ideal that success is correlated to net worth. It is hard not to fall into this trap. We are born in a society and culture that is focused on the stock market, focused on economic growth, and focused on money. Our educational system is built to train workers to join a system where orders are simply followed and executed. Therefore, a person’s value is often times defined in terms of economic output, without regard to a person’s affection for other beings, care for the environment, capacity for compassion & empathy, in a nutshell without regard to the very characteristics that I believe create a whole fulfilling life and a vibrant society.

It isn’t fun to think about the deep questions of life, because the hardest things about these questions is that there are no conclusive answers. Often times, asking these questions leads to more confusion. So it becomes easier to define life and create an identity based on the facts — bank account balance, investments, job title, car, house, number of friends, body type, instead of grappling with the questions that probably give the most meaning to life. In a world of inflated ego’s the economic system we have created is the most addicting game in the world.

A lot of people may disagree with my viewpoint, but what is true is that we can’t continue on this path anymore. Our current economic policies are ruining the nature that we are reliant on for our existence. If we continue on this course as climate change becomes more extreme, water becomes scarcer, energy sources dry up we’ll be forced to reflect on the question of was it worth it? Was it worth artificially creating this standard of living by sacrificing the health of our environment? However, we do have the opportunity to pivot and reflect with wisdom on the deeper questions of life and how that may fit into our economic thinking and decision making.

The onus is on you to reflect and ask the tough questions of life: How do you want to contribute to the world? What are your values? What is the point of existence? and then having the self discipline to make decisions in line with the beliefs that you profess. Unlike with some other problems in the world, this is one where there are no experts to come in and save the day. Our government, our companies, and the people that wield the power to make the change are the ones most entrenched in this economic game. These institutions have little incentive to change the system, unless it starts from the people.

We have to start factoring wisdom into our everyday decisions. When we decide how to spend our money we should opt for purchasing products produced sustainably and ethically. When we decide where to invest our savings we should make sure it is in companies that propel our values. When deciding what we want our work to be, we should see it as an opportunity to contribute something to the world that is in line with our values and beliefs.

Why are we here? Were we born on this planet to act like drones maximizing a number? Or are we here to awaken to the truth of life and start living in alignment with this truth?

“In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, no matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place. The highest goals require no justification; all secondary goals have finally to justify themselves in terms of the service their attainment renders to the attainment of the highest.” — E.F. Schumacher

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