Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was an internationally influential economic thinker, statistician, and economist in Britain. His ideas became popularized in much of the English-speaking world during the 1970s. He is best known for his critique of Western economies and his proposals for human-scale, decentralized, and appropriate technologies.
E. F. Schumacher was born in Germany in 1911. After having attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar from 1930 to 1932, he left Germany before the Second World War to avoid living under Nazism. Returning to England as an enemy alien, he spent time in an internment camp until influential friends arranged for him to be transferred to a farm, where he enjoyed his work as a farm laborer. After the War he became an economic advisor to the British Control Commission in Germany, which was charged with rebuilding the German economy. Disappointed that he was not allowed to implement his ideas, he returned to England, where he served from 1950 to 1970 as Chief Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board, which was charged with the task of supplying enough coal to meet the growing needs for post-war reconstruction. He predicted the rise of OPEC and the problems associated with nuclear power. As early as 1956 he was voicing concern that non-renewable resources were rapidly being used up.
In 1950 he put down roots when he bought a home with 4½ acres of land, where he started to garden. He subsequently became a member of the Soil Association and in 1970 its president.
In 1955 Schumacher traveled to Burma as an economic consultant. While there, he developed the principles of what he called “Buddhist economics,” based on the belief that good work was essential for proper human development and that “production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life.”
His stay in Burma was a turning point in his life that inspired him to write the essay “Buddhist Economics,” which first appeared in 1966 in Asia: A Handbook. In 1973 it was published together with other essays under the title Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. According to The Times Literary Supplement in 1995, this was among the 100 most influential books published since World War II. Soon translated into many languages, it brought him international fame. His two other books are A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) and Good Work (1979, published posthumously).
When he was in India in 1963, Schumacher was struck by the destructive effect of modern technology on the traditional way of Indian life. He recognized the need for an intermediate level of technology based on the needs and skills of the people in developing countries. Together with long-time friends and associates such as George McRobie and Professor Mansur Hoda, in 1965 Schumacher founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group—now Practical Action, which continues to promote the use of “appropriate” technology, enabling communities to build on their own skills and knowledge to produce sustainable and practical solutions to unemployment and poverty.
He gave lectures all over the world, sowing seeds for a new way of life as he spoke to capacity audiences. In 1974 Robert Swann (founder of the Schumacher Center), Hazel Henderson (author, futurist), and Ian Baldwin (who later founded Chelsea Green Publishing) arranged for Schumacher’s first lecture tour in the USA to promote the sale of Small Is Beautiful.
Overtaxing himself to the end, Schumacher died of a heart attack on September 4, 1977, during a lecture tour in Switzerland.
Barbara Wood, Schumacher’s eldest daughter, concluded her excellent biography of her father with the words, “Fritz had become a man of the people, his work was for the people and it was the people as individuals and small groups who, he knew, would ultimately turn the tide to sanity” (American edition, E. F. Schumacher: His Life and Thought ; British edition, Alias Papa: A Life of Fritz Schumacher ).
The Schumacher Center Library is home to Schumacher’s personal library and archives. The collection, consisting of 2,500 books, has been computer indexed, and its catalog can be searched online.