Fifty years ago, E.F. Schumacher wrote a book called Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered. It combined thoughts about environmentalism and economics in a way that challenged what Schumacher called “gigantism” and the philosophy of “bigger is better.” In it, Schumacher proposed that the economic system was dehumanizing and that big organizations destroyed the satisfaction people could enjoy from good work. A number of Schumacher’s lectures were later summarized in Good Work, which was published after his death.
During the 70’s, both books were hailed as influential and they prompted discussion about globalization and sustainability. At the same time, slogans such as “Zero Population growth,” and “Think Global, Act Local,” were popular. References to Schumacher’s writing declined in subsequent decades, but recently there has been a new interest in his ideas:
Although he would likely have been discouraged to see that the model of production has not changed and the profit motive has not lessened, Schumacher would certainly be pleased about the increased focus on the environment and he’d probably be delighted to see the interest in community gardening and home gardens. A recent study shows that the pandemic has caused many Canadians to create or expand home gardens: https://www.dal.ca/sites/agri-food/research/home-food-gardening-during-covid-19.html.
This year, several people I know developed a new interest in gardening. Some who lack outdoor space have started growing plants on their balconies or patios. Others have expanded their gardens and also built greenhouses. Many say that gardening is what’s keeping them sane during increased Covid numbers, uncertainty, restrictions, and lockdowns. These gardeners seem to me to be the happiest people I know. And they don’t mind getting their hands dirty!
Which reminds me of a recent poem that inspires me:
Ode to Dirt
by Sharon Olds
Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you,
I thought that you were only the background
for the leading characters—the plants
and animals and human animals.
It’s as if I had loved only the stars
and not the sky which gave them space
in which to shine. Subtle, various,
sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain,
you’re our democracy. When I understood
I had never honored you as a living
equal, I was ashamed of myself,
as if I had not recognized
a character who looked so different from me,
but now I can see us all, made of the
same basic materials—
cousins of that first exploding from nothing—
in our intricate equation together. O dirt,
help us find ways to serve your life,
you who have brought us forth, and fed us,
and who at the end will take us in
and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.
Sharon Olds is an American poet who is worth reading Check out her website: https://www.sharonolds.net/biography
Many poets have written about the importance of gardening. Margaret Atwood is frequently quoted as saying, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” May Sarton said, “Gardening is an instrument of grace.” Then there is 18th century poet and artist Minnie Aumonier’s memorable line, “When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.” That seems particularly appropriate just now.
But, thinking of Schumacher’s writings and the need to recognize the beauty of a smaller world, I’m reminded of Voltaire’s Candide. Searching for the “best of all possible worlds,” Candide travels from country to country witnessing and experiencing horrendous hardship, misfortune, cruelty and painful disillusion. Finally, he settles on a small farm and sets to work. The final words of the novel are “il faut cultiver notre jardin” — we must cultivate our garden.
It looks like a lot of people are doing just that. It’s hopeful!