The end of an era

EF Schumacher

01 November 2011

I was fortunate to hear E F Schumacher give the following talk at St Columba’s church, Pont Street in the autumn of 1975, and still recall the combination of wit, intellect and personal warmth which made him such an impressive speaker. The Iona Community was established in 1938 by the pugnacious Christian pacifist George MacLeod (later a Green Party peer), and the organic movement’s links with it extend back to the immediate post-war period. In 1948, MacLeod sent Douglas Trotter, a Community member and young Church of Scotland minister, to investigate a social experiment in South London: this was the Pioneer Health Centre (PHC), founded by George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse (who were also founder members of the Soil Association). Trotter was so impressed that he became a life-long advocate of its ideas. He was Scott Williamson’s chief executor and, after Pearse’s death, edited the PHC’s archives before passing them to the Wellcome Trust. Douglas’s widow Henrietta continues actively to promote the PHC’s vision. That Schumacher should have addressed the Iona Community is entirely understandable, given its non-violent approach to social problems and its affinity with the nature mysticism of Celtic Christianity. This talk provides a condensed but comprehensive exposition of the organic movement’s philosophy in both its religious and social aspects. Philip Conford

What then?

An era has come to an end. The primary producers of raw materials have woken up. The oil producers, the metal producers, the phosphate producers have woken up. Most of our phosphates come from Morocco and the Moroccans have woken up and said, ‘Good gracious me? There is only a certain amount of phosphates and at the rate at which Western Europeans are taking them, they will only last another twenty-five years, and what then?’

The same thing in Glasgow

Within our own countries, a lot of groups have woken up. They claim that they are far more essential than the people who make a lot of money. They have discovered their bargaining power. I was recently in the United States – I could have experienced the same thing in Glasgow – when the garbage collectors of San Francisco were in the process of discovering their bargaining power. They discovered, of course, that they were more powerful than the Municipal Government of San Francisco, or the State Government in Sacramento, or the Federal Government in Washington and finally they had to settle with them. The settlement was for an annual wage of 17,000 dollars, which greatly annoyed the very numerous lecturers in the University of California, who only get 16,000 dollars! The garbage collectors said, ‘Well, why don’t you come and join us?’ but nobody came; and so they discovered not only their power but also that other’s people work has other compensations. All this shows that this is a turning point and the end of an era

Preferring Science to Wisdom

Behind this, in a much more profound way, there is also the end of a certain phase in the thinking of Western humanity. We have discovered ourselves now to be in a very, very deep spiritual crisis. An era which has been dominated by Cartesian thinking and which has lasted for some 250 or 300 years, has seen unbelievable developments in science and technology. This era is now drawing to a close. Having worked out the consequences of this type of thinking, we find it makes us spiritually bankrupt. This thinking can be called ‘preferring science to wisdom’. To illustrate it, here are two quotations. One comes from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas. The other is from Huygens, following Descartes. The first one, which is the traditional knowledge of mankind, says ‘The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable that the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things’. The second quotation, this time from the 17th Century, says, ‘What gravity is; what heat, cold, the attraction of the magnet, light, colours are; what elements go to make up air, water, fire other bodies; what the purpose of respiration in animals is; how metal, stones and plants develop; of all these things little or nothing is yet known. There is, however, nothing in the world, the knowledge of which would be more desirable and more useful.’ The total contrast is clear. Until the 17th Century they said that even the slightest, vaguest knowledge of the highest things was infinitely more desirable that the most precise knowledge of material things. Suddenly, there is a change in men’s thinking and it is stated that there is nothing more desirable or useful in the world than the knowledge of material things. There is no longer a distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ things but only the thought of usefulness, desirability derived from usefulness. And so there has followed an era of violent dogmatism, a dogmatism which excludes from what may be considered real or scientifically acceptable everything except that which can be weighed and dealt with by that very small, useful instrument we call reason.

The change in the way of thinking has to be laid at the door of so-called ‘scientific development’. The senses for enjoyment count no longer as an instrument for gaining knowledge. The feelings, affection, love don’t count anymore. Character and will – these are both out. Men don’t waste their time bothering about these things. And so everything in reality, every subject, whether it is politics, economics, or any particular sciences becomes an isolated and separate system, because the only thing that hence forth is acceptable is what Descartes called ‘clear, certain and distinct ideas’ and there is nothing really clear, certain and distinct unless you can put it in mathematical terms. Theology is out; meta-physics is out; art is sometimes alright; and ethics is just anybody’s opinion; because what cannot be measured, what cannot be turned into mathematical terms, can certainly not be described as ‘clear, certain and distinct ideas’. This is the Cartesian Universe which we have inherited, inside which we were brought up, this is still what fills most of our being, because that is the way we have been educated, a dumb Universe, or, to quote Shakespeare, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. Bertrand Russell, with his great brain, came to the conclusion that this was a dumb universe and that only an attitude of unyielding despair was intellectually honest. And books are still being published which tell us that this is so, and that anybody who denies it, anyone who sees any meaning in anything is just not abreast of modern knowledge.

Mystery, of course, is out altogether. It is almost a term of abuse and so we have lost this remarkable ability, this paradoxical ability, namely, the science of mystery, the knowledge of things that we cannot understand. Those who are theologians know the negative theology, which is a very high science and which is built upon knowing that we don’t know; it is asserted that once we know we don’t know, then we really can learn something about the highest things. Jacques Maritain said that previously a sort of natural relationship existed between intelligence and mystery; science itself had to recognise a mystery because of the relative obscurity of things. Human knowledge also had to recognise at the summit of things a mystery, which was intelligible above and beyond the intellect, that of spiritual realities and, above all, of God, of God revealed to us in the obscurity of things.

A great Christian saint said, ‘My night allows the light to enter’. This is not just a matter of religion – it’s a matter that permeates our whole life – namely, the extent to which we can acquire the knowledge of non-knowledge, the tolerance of non-knowledge, the certainty of certain things that cannot be known; and so we develop certain ways of dealing with the unknown. This is a thought which is intolerable today. And so we pretend to ourselves that we know most things about the future, and that is a certain way of maximising our mistakes!

The reign of quantity

This is the era that is now coming to an end. It has also been described as the ‘reign of quantity’. I learned a lesson during the war when I was a farm labourer up in Northamptonshire and one of my jobs every morning, before breakfast, was to go up a hill to a field nearby and count the cattle. So I trotted there, half asleep, and counted 32 and then I went down to the farm, touched my cap to the bailiff and said, ‘Yes sir, 32’, and he said, ‘Go and have your breakfast’. One day, when I arrived there, there was an old farmer standing at the gate and he said, ‘Young man, what do you do here every morning?’ I said, ‘Nothing much, I just count the cattle.’ He shook his old head and said, ‘If you count them every day, they won’t flourish.’ So I went back, murmuring to myself, ‘Those country yokels! How stupid can you get?’ I mean, I am a professional statistician – he didn’t know that. One day I came up there and I counted; I counted again and again, and there were only 31. I wanted my breakfast so I went down and said to the bailiff, ‘There are only 31’. He was very angry and said, ‘Have your breakfast – we’ll go up there after breakfast’. We did and searched the place and, under one of the bushes, was a dead beast. I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute – why have I been here every morning counting them? That hasn’t stopped the beast dying, has it? Maybe that old farmer had a point here which I missed.’ Perhaps he didn’t put it very cleverly, ‘If you count them every day, they won’t flourish’. What he may have meant was that if you train your mind on the quantity of them, you won’t stop them dying. What does the quantity matter? What could have happened if I hadn’t counted? A beast might have strayed away, but somebody would have brought it back. No I ought to have looked for the qualitative factor, looked at every beast to see whether she was alright, whether she had a sheen on her coat, and so on. I ought to have been able to go back to the bailiff and say, ‘Oh, they seem alright except that one looks a bit mangy.’ Then we would have gone up and done something sensible. Quantity had got the better of me and filled my mind instead of what really mattered, which is the quality of things.

The sin of statistics

My attention was later drawn to a piece of writing by Sir James Frazer, the author of the Golden Bough, who, with his fantastic diligence had also dug up all sorts of traditional stories which he compiled in a little volume called The Sin of Statistics. He reports surprisingly from a variety of old traditions from right around the globe this every present attitude against counting, against the quantitative approach. Those who know their Bible will know that it was King David who first introduced a census and you will recollect that Jehovah was utterly furious and gave him the choice between three ghastly punishments. The old Jews were quite capable of arguing back, ‘I have done no wrong; what’s the matter?’ David, however, didn’t argue. He just chose one of the three punishments because it would be over the quickest. He took the point; it was wrong to do this counting. If this were only in the Old Testament, you might say it is one of the peculiarities of the old Jews, but it comes from the Red Indians, the Eskimos, from everywhere – the sin of statistics. Sir James Frazer wrote about it with the arrogance of the 19th Century, just as if he were saying, ‘Isn’t that funny?’ and the same kind of attitude prevails still. But after my little experience with the dead beast, I didn’t think it was funny any more. I thought that I must take this very, very seriously. The purely quantitative approach misses out on everything that really matters and the age that is now drawing to a close has embraced this because, of course, in the material world this has a certain power. There is nothing wrong with it, provided it is counterbalanced by an understanding of what really matters, and that is something quite different.

In short, all this traditional wisdom was rejected in order to have what promised to be an easy and comfortable time. And, of course, we got the exact opposite, a totally meaningless time. And how opposite it is one can learn most easily if one moves over into the most advanced society that we have today, which is the United States, where the standard of living is still very much higher than that of Britain and the people are also very much more unhappy.

‘Civilisation –That would be a good idea’

So this is the end of an era. This era is, I am glad to say, drawing to a close. What will follow? It could be terrible; it could be chaos, murder and total dissolution – it has happened before in history, quite frequently. Or it could be a fulfilment; it could be glorious. It brings to mind what I saw the other day in a film about Ghandi. It showed how Ghandi arrived in Britain in, I think, 1930 and, as he was coming off the boat, he was surrounded by journalists who pushed microphones under his nose and asked him all sorts of inane question, and one could be heard clearly, asking, ‘What do you think of modern civilisation?’ And Ghandi said, ‘That would be a very good idea’. This Western deviation of putting science above wisdom was in a sense necessary and, of course, it has brought us certain gains in useful knowledge of the lesser things, so there is no merit in rejecting this knowledge or pretending that we don’t have it, or returning to a period when we didn’t have the knowledge, but neither is there any merit in going on leaving it to be used virtually only by megalomaniacs, atheists, agnostics, scoffers, cynics, profiteers, etc, by the fragmentary people that this development has generated.

‘What does it still all mean?’

If it is true this era is now coming to an end, we might ask, ‘Who has been instrumental in bringing this era to an end?’ and the answer is disconcerting. It is not the theologians, not the Churches, not the thinkers, not the philosophers, not the academics, by and large. No, at this level, the only people that I can identify who have really struggled, are the ones who have gone to the extreme end of the Cartesian development – the physicists. The physicists have been asking the right question, ‘What does it all mean?’ and they have been writing for the past thirty years now really the most challenging philosophical books that have appeared in the West. This is one group. Perhaps this is the way human development takes place. We have to go to an extreme before understanding that we are on the wrong path. As someone said, ‘Men turn to wisdom after all other possibilities have been exhausted.’

The other group by whom the end of this era is being prepared are, in fact, the ‘hippies’, the sort of counter-culture, very often long-haired, unwashed, confused people – they are the people who are insisting on simple truths – such a simple truth as ‘Make love, not war’. There is an interesting book which I do not agree with in its entirety, called The Greening of America by Charles Reich, which tells how suddenly, through the concrete, new green little plants area appearing, most of them weeds, but at least they have got through the concrete. These are the signs of a new era.

The real immorality – harmless dissipation

Also, of course, from quite another angle, there are people to whom we have every reason to be extremely grateful, like the OPEC countries, who have called the bluff of an economic system that assumes that the non-renewable materials like fossil fuels can be used at a rate that doubles every ten years.

So from all these different sides comes the regeneration, the reorientation, except that behind it all there still isn’t any coherent, what you call it, metaphysics, theology or philosophy. It is still a sort of blind hitting out in all directions. I am grateful that the Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a new, or rather an old, morality; this is quite right and necessary, but the end of an era makes bigger demands. What, in fact, is moral? Is it moral or is it perhaps the height of immorality to spend four or five hours a day looking at a television? That puts us into a position of passivity, where we do nothing. Perhaps that is the real immorality and not all sorts of peccadillos which have always existed and have done much less harm than television. Perhaps the real immorality from now on is every kind dissipation, maybe harmless dissipation, maybe a dissipation that keeps the economic system going because of having a healthy turnover, but dissipation all the same.

‘A consumer crowned by science’

So we cannot assume that at an end of an era it is easy to know what really is moral and immoral today. We have been brought up under pressure to believe that there is a kind of co-operative morality which is all that is asked of us; if we co-operate nicely, then the cake will become bigger and bigger and each person’s share will also become bigger and then we will be able to satisfy our desires with the least possible inconvenience and without any interior reform of ourselves. Here again Jacques Maritain asks, ‘What then remains of man? – A consumer crowned by science.’ This is the final gift of the Cartesian philosophy.

Into action?

This kind of thinking will not work any longer and the question is, what is going to happen – is it just despair or is it some genuine rejuvenation? The young are trying to find some coherent philosophy to give them some sort of basic lines for orientation and they look for it in all sorts of corners. Suddenly there is a great boom for Rudolf Steiner, even for theosophy and for any number of oriental teachings, because they are coherent philosophies and, as far as I’m concerned, any one of those is better than nothing. It may be said that the chances of dissolving into chaos are greater that those of creating a new era after the present one. But if this is so, it is not because of any law of the universe, but solely because of the lack of courage and faith on our part. Never in the whole course of human history has it been so easy to contact the Truth. We are surrounded by it. Never has it been easier to study all the Truths of all mankind. We only have to stretch out our hand and we can get it.

There remains, of course, always the question of what we can do about it, when we have got this sort of general diagnosis. A lot of people want to rush into action, but it is still necessary to insist that the first act of doing is a real effort to understand, to sort these things out in one’s own little mind. I know a lot of people who want to do something, but at the same time they get thrilled to bits in connection with the moon landing or with a heart transplant; the greatest and most absurd stunts of modern development still thrill them and they think, ‘This is it.’ They don’t go quite so far as ex-President Nixon who declared that the week when some unfortunates were landed on the moon was the greatest week since Genesis. But before we get into action, we really have to understand what it is all about. I find this very disconcerting. I encountered quite recently a first class fellow in the United States, or so it seemed to me, who had done good work bringing things back to the human scale and then he published a journal and half of one number was full of some absolutely fantastic ideas of establishing living quarters out in space, each satellite for 10,000 people, with a technology that just takes your breath away, and some fragmentary men, so-called scientists, say all this is possible, if only we want to do it. Again this is a total aberration, a total cessation of the understanding which is gradually increasing of what the things are that really matter. So in the first place, we have to understand what is really important in terms of knowledge and what is not important. Second, we need to give our support to a lot of good things already happening, and they need support! Only if one cannot find anything worth supporting, then, of course, one has to initiate, and everybody has some possibility of initiating, no matter how small the scale on which he or she may be able to do it. One of the most pertinent sentences in the Gospels is at the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, where it says, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, but the one must say, ‘Read on, read on’. It didn’t stop there. The Word had to become incarnate, come down, become flesh and dwell among us. And that has a lot to do with the doing that is now necessary. Too often we communicate at the level of the word, and we don’t change the world if we leave it there; unless the word, our message, our understanding, becomes incarnate, becomes flesh and dwells among us, nothing happens. This is a very deep insight of Christianity – that unless the word comes into the material world and becomes flesh, nothing happens. Thus the flesh, the material world is sanctified in Christianity, which it isn’t in some other traditions. How then can we incarnate our good intentions, our insights, our new philosophy which is gradually growing in ourselves? The moment it becomes incarnate, no matter how modestly, it will become a much healthier plant inside us. And here I think everybody will make their own selection – I know many young people who make very heroic selections by saying, ‘Well, I know at least one thing I can do and that I shall do. Never mind about the rest. I will look after handicapped children.’ Social service, this is splendid. Again there are others who have some instinctive urge to get closer to nature. This is fine! But in all these things, how can we really grasp what is called for now? I will give three examples and I give them only because I happen to have chosen them for myself, as I encountered them on my own road – I am not suggesting that these are the only things that matter.

What is called for now?

First, we all need to realise that we need a different attitude to nature and we must practise a different attitude to nature in our gardening, our horticultural and agricultural activities. This is a very deep matter, not just a utilitarian matter. What has grown up, particularly over the past 30 years, is no longer a friendly co‑operation with nature, but a battle against nature, a battle which in which, if by chance we win it, we will find ourselves on the losing side. The much praised modern agriculture has no long term future, and there are material facts to support such a view. It has been worked out repeatedly now in the United States but also in Britain by Gerald Leach. This modern system of food production is so dependent on fossil fuels, primarily natural gas and oil, that if we thought we could fee the whole of mankind, some of 4,000 million people, with this system of green revolution agriculture, we would find that all known resources would be absorbed by agriculture alone within less than 30 years. Now this knowledge is gradually dribbling into the heads of our masters. I was interested to see that, at an International Agricultural Conference, the head of the Royal Agricultural College, Sir Emrys Jones, told the young men there, aged about 20 or 22, ‘Now, you watch it. By the time of your 50th birthday, you may have to farm without the help of oil and this means without the help of artificial fertilizer. And it’s no good,’ he said, ‘sitting back and saying it is a wonderful system. The process of improving things by intensification, which has worked hitherto will not work in the future. By the time you are 50, you will need a different farming system altogether.’ I am not aware that he told them what this different system would be, so he may have left them a little disconcerted.

‘Muck and mystery’

But the different system exists; it has, however, been dismissed as the ‘muck and mystery’ approach to agriculture, which I never took as an insult, because after all, muck and mystery is a pretty good definition of life in general. But here is an alternative system of agriculture which can be permanent and yet we have not yet succeeded in persuading our masters to give any research support to that system. This is one area where we have to clarify our thinking and then give support, because these things are now becoming extremely urgent. If possible, we should also make some personal private experiments. I know that not everybody has land; I have a sister, older than myself, a white-haired lady, and she is famous throughout the town where she lives because she is the lady with a compost heap on her balcony! At least she is doing something. And she grows some wonderful plants.

TLC – the best fertilizer

Second, we have systematically to get rid of the idea, ‘the bigger, the better’, and to understand that there is a certain measure in things that is right; beyond that or below that it is wrong. An assessment of the proper measure makes higher demands on our power of imagination and experience. There is a correct size for things, although it is very difficult to know what it is. We can at least search for it instead of belting along and for ever saying, ‘The bigger, the better’. That’s why I called my little book Small is Beautiful, not because infinitely small is beautiful, but because everything has become too big. The beauty of smallness may be defined as that of the human scale. The beauty of it is (and each one of us ought to experiment with his hands) that at the right scale, you can introduce the TLC factor. Now TLC is the best fertilizer ever discovered and you can’t buy it. It means Tender Loving Care. It is quite amazing what that can do and it is equally amazing what a mess you get into when it is organized out of the system. Take the National Health Service. When it began, there was great idealism that we, as a community, would look after one another and leave money out of it, and the new National Health Service inherited, as it were, from previous time, a great deal of TLC. But now, after 30 years, the thing has become more and more organised, more and more systematic, more and more quantified, measured and mechanised, and TLC has gone out of it. It’s gone! There are certainly still human beings who want to practise TLC, but they must practise it against the system and so the system becomes quite unbelievably expensive. And also, it misses the point – it is a not a National Health Service; it’s a sort of anti-disease Fire Fighting Service. It has nothing at all to do with health any more. And this permeates the whole welfare system of the western world now. We are faced with the phenomenon that the richest city in the world, New York, is on the point of bankruptcy, and it is because the modern welfare system has become so inordinately expensive. Huge modern bureaucracies never achieve anything. They just amble along; the problems don’t become smaller, they become bigger and bigger. If we think we can solve things by monster size, we are just mistaken. Our problems today will be solved when we realise that we have to structure our organisations so that TLC, this most wonderful thing, which is also as satisfying to the giver as it is to the recipient, can again come into action. It is absolutely necessary and indeed inevitable, if we want to survive, to bring many more activities back into the home, where homes still exist, and it is encouraging to see that there are now in various countries all sorts of movements to produce the technology which makes it possible to bring these things back into the home.

A reorientation of technology

Ten years ago, when I was still with the National Coal Board, I set up a little organisation which was aiming particularly at the Third World; I called it the Intermediate Technology Development Group. There we develop technologies of the poor in the poor world, but which are far more direct and simple, and on a smaller scale, than the unbelievably sophisticated technology which we now use for the simplest things.

And so we work systematically towards a reorientation of technology – and in this we, in fact, receive good help from big companies. We say that in four respects modern technology and development have overshot their mark.

First of all, things have become too big.

Second, they have become too complex. I heard the Prime Minister say, at the Guild Hall the other day, that in a person’s lifetime he might need to be retrained three times because of this progress – progress towards ever greater complexity – so that we have nothing, no time, no spirit left over to attend to the things that really matter.

Third, technology has become too capital-costly. These three together mean that more and more people are excluded. They haven’t got the education; they haven’t got the wealth; they haven’t got the power to cope and hence we get ever greater tensions and problems in society. I often hear that more scientists are alive today than existed in all previous human history put together. This is probably statistically correct, but I ask the question, ‘What are they all doing?’ And the answers come back, ‘They are solving problems’. And it’s beginning to worry me, whether we are running out of problems. No, we needn’t worry about that. We now have more problems than ever before, for example there is the problem of survival – so evidently they or others are creating problems faster than they are solving them.

Fourth, modern technological development has taken a wrong turn – a turn into violence, not violence in the ordinary sense of warfare, but a violent attitude, for instance, to agriculture. We are prepared to chuck unbelievable amounts of poisonous substances on to this thin film, on which all life depends. Again there is the crowning readiness for violence in connection with the development of ‘peaceful’ nuclear energy.

The crowning readiness for violence

We have given millions to the development of nuclear energy, but hardly anything to the development of non-violent energies, of which there are plenty, but they come in rather small parcels. And we are prepared to move on to even more violent methods, not the earlier nuclear stations, which were a monstrous transgression of all the laws of the Universe, but still relatively harmless compared with what they want to present us now as a solution to our problems, namely, the breeder reactor which depends on large scale manufacture of plutonium. Now really! The good Lord has created ninety odd different elements, almost the nastiest of which is uranium, but in His infinite mercy, he has tucked that away in remote mountains in various places. Somebody, bless his soul, by the name of Geiger, has invented the Geiger counter, and with the Geiger counter we can now find this uranium, even when the good Lord has hidden it, to bring it all into the most densely populated centres of population, there to make it highly radio-active and even turn it into plutonium, a substance of such ghastliness that the good Lord never made it. He knew where to stop. It is a most poisonous substance, an enemy of all life, for all time. Let others contradict me when I say ‘for all time’. The half life is only 24,400 years. It is, one can assume, harmless after three million years. From the human point of view, that is ‘all time’. I once listened to a lecturer who talked of the second law of thermodynamics, and said that after seventy million years there would be no life left on earth. When he had finished, a little fellow at the back got up and said, ‘Did you really say that in seven million years it would all be finished?’ ‘No, no, no. . . seventy million.’ The little fellow sat down and said, ‘Thank God!’ Seven million years is all time. Even 24,000 years – that’s only the half life, is all time. So, to be prepared to litter this world with plutonium, this world, not the world of angels, the world of hi-jackers and disturbances and bomb throwers, and to say that there is nothing to worry about is what I mean by an attitude of violence. It recognises no limits anywhere. This is where our technological development has taken the wrong turn and we must make it our constant business to promote anything which can be called a nonviolent technology – most urgently, alternatives to nuclear energy, which really means the development of a different life style – alternatives to the present system of agriculture which is so violent that it can’t last anyhow – alternatives to the present system of medicine, which has also shown a quite astonishing readiness for violence, contrary to the traditional wisdom which said, ‘Whatever you do, dear doctor, don’t do any damage.’ That was the traditional wisdom of medicine. That has gone, and must come back.

All these are features of the era that is now finishing. These are points where we have to recapture a spiritual attitude to life in the flesh. When I say, ‘The Word must become flesh’, I refer to this kind of endeavour to bring our technology back on to a path that has the three-fold virtue of health, beauty and permanence instead of the violence and giantism in which we now indulge. This would then have very far reaching consequences also for social organisation. Smaller units and a more decentralized way of living would become possible and the greatest of all needs would be met, the need to humanise the work processes. It is incredible that modern society tolerates the immensity of suffering and degradation that we impose on the working class, and yet we are utterly astonished when they become truculent and unco-operative. We say, ‘You get good money, don’t you?’ We impose frustration on them through our work processes in industry, particularly, of course, on the assembly line, but also in offices, where this has been greatly increased by the invention of the computer. The ease with which we accept the suffering of others is really most remarkable. It’s a similar situation to that which obtained when we still had slavery. When those who opposed slavery said, ‘You can’t do that to human nature’, it was immediately argued, ‘It’s the only way to do it – the whole of society would collapse if you were to abolish it.’ So we are in that phase with regard to the work processes. This era is also coming to an end and it is very good to know that Britain is in the vanguard of the countries where the old system doesn’t work anymore. The country where I was born, Germany, is still very backward because there the situation is cushioned by several million foreign workers who still do that kind of work because they can’t help it, for on many of the assembly lines, as you can observe, there isn’t a single indigenous Germany any more – only foreign workers. So that’s the way the system survives.

Here the more recent immigrants have been so totally taken under the wing of the trade unions that they cannot be exploited any more successfully than the English or British worker can be exploited. So the situation is more advanced here, and I thank God for that.

All these things come together, moving me to say that this is the end of an era. Whether the economists are right or wrong in saying that by early or late 1976 we should be moving out of the present crisis, no doubt under the leadership of the United States, Japan and Germany, whether this happens or not has no real relevance. It is still assumed that the only possible way of moving out of the present crisis or doing away with inflation would be to return to the situation of 1970, which was, in itself, an unsupportable situation. Much more will be needed, a very deep change in attitudes and life-styles, because an era has irrevocably ended.

Credit text

The text of this article first appeared in March 1976, in issue 68 of The Coracle, the journal of the Iona community. The text is reproduced with kind permission both of Verena Schumacher and the Iona Community. For information about the present day Iona Community and The Coracle please see

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

Join to help us stop the use of neonicotinoids and save our living landscapes

Donate to help us create healthy farmland and countryside without pesticides