Perhaps one of the fondest memories I have of being trained for the ordained ministry at the College of the Resurrection were the silent breakfasts! After early morning worship, one collected any personal mail from one’s pigeonhole and then proceeded to enter the refectory with a couple of hand-addressed envelopes (if lucky) and a book of choice (anything from Spike Milligan to Dostoevsky). In my first term at college, I decided to work my way slowly through the Tao Te Ching(Daode Jing) and the poetry of Li T’ai-Po (Li-Bai) over porridge, eggs, toast and very occasionally kippers. Slow food, slow learning. In short, it was a remarkably different world from 2019 where breakfast for many simply consists of surfing the latest news or speed reading emails over a jam croissant and a quick cup of coffee.
In the second term, my breakfast reading moved on from philosophy and poetry to economics when I began to work my way through E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful which had been published in 1973, just over a year before. The book’s subtitle was ‘A Study of Economics As If People Mattered’. Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was a German statistician and economist, best known for his advocacy of technologies which were appropriate, decentralised and always on a human-scale. Schumacher’s encounter with so-called Third World countries from 1955 onwards, as a consultant, allowed him to develop a set of principles which he called “Buddhist economics”. Central to these principles was his conviction that “individuals need good work for proper human development” and that “production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life”. Although Schumacher described his principles as “Buddhist economics”, they also fit well with Taoism (Daoism) where both the Tao and Wu-wei place considerable emphasis on harmony, spontaneity and non-contrivance.
In 1995, the Times Literary Supplement ranked Small is Beautiful amongst the hundred most influential books published since the end of WWII. This is a book so ahead of its time that most of us are still playing ‘catch up’. In the meanwhile, others, with serious, vested interests, are more than happy for it to be forgotten. Indeed, one of the sad things about the past forty-six years is the way in which politicians and the public alike have so easily bought into the lie that ‘Big is Best’, putting their trust in behemoths such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon (and there are countless others outside the IT sector) whose approach can only be described as rapacious and exploitative, whether in terms of the well-being of the body politic or the future of the planet.
Slowly but surely, we need to be weened off our irrational dependence on economic growth and start to put in place thoughtful and crafted practices (yes practices, not policies) which reflect in a more sympathetic way the infinite complexity of the human condition, our many weaknesses as well as our many strengths. As Greta Thunberg, 15, told the UN summit on climate change in Katowice last December: “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago...We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.”