The Wider World of E.F. Schumacher’s Legacy

By TODD OPPENHEIMER

In July, 2019, Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, was invited to testify before Congress to argue for a limit to Amazon’s control of the consumer economy. photo courtesy of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Here’s a fun thought exercise: Peruse the work of almost any of leaders who, during the last few decades, have been pushing for an economic system that would serve a broader array of our citizens, preserve community vitality, and slow our environmental problems. Chances are that at some stage of their history, most will point to E.F. Schumacher as a crucial influence as they developed their ideas.

These leaders include people like David Brower, the founder of environmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute, and the longtime leader of The Sierra Club; Winona LaDuke, a well-known champion of sustainability initiatives, especially on Native American lands; Amory Lovins, the longtime leader of the alternative energy movement; and dozens of other notables such as those mentioned in our main story about E.F. Schumacher. The list of these movers and shakers goes on so long that it’s clear the modern world would be a different place if Schumacher had not been part of it, and given it a moral nudge with his landmark book, “Small Is Beautiful.”

Among all these unusually determined veterans of what some call “the good fight,” there is one whose work has focused particularly closely on local economic issues. David Morris co-founded the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in 1974, the year after Schumacher’s book was published. So, to get a sense of what a still-active activist has learned from Schumacher, and from his own idealistic work over the decades, I recently sat down for a conversation with Morris.

ILSR has long been headquartered in Washington, D.C., but it maintains satellite operations in Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis, Minn. For his side of things, Morris, now the institute’s “distinguished fellow,” works out of a small, one-room, garden studio on the outskirts of Point Reyes, a bucolic community just north of San Francisco, Calif.

DAVID AND GOLIATH

Just in the institute’s mission statement, you can see E.F. Schumacher’s influence. ILSR says it pushes for approaches to development “in which ownership is broadly distributed, institutions are humanly scaled, and decision-making is accountable to communities.” With that focus, the institute has helped small cities, and large ones, set up their own, independent systems for electric power, waste management, and broadband internet service. In the process, ILSR has long been a leader in the recycling movement, and a key supporter to various Amazon resistance efforts.

As you might imagine, this kind of work has required a series of David-and-Goliath battles, many of which stretched on for years. But over time, the institute learned to be nimble, carefully choosing shots that would hit small openings in the legal system.

An example of this shrewd approach to community activism was in waste management. When the institute first dove into the world of garbage, many cities were getting rid of their waste by burning it in incinerators, with all the pollution and protest that caused. When the institute was called in to help, they struck a bargain with its clients: it would help local groups stop the construction of more incinerators, as long as they would later work to manage their garbage within their own borders.

“We realized early on,” Morris told me, “that the legal structure was one that enabled bigness.” So the institute put together a legal brief for city officials that highlighted an unused weapon. “If they own their own landfills,” Morris says, “they could reject outside garbage. But if [the landfills] were privately owned, they couldn’t.”

In Los Angeles alone, ILSR used tools like this to help community groups (generally those representing poor neighborhoods, he noted, because that’s where incinerators get built) stop five large incinerator projects. In the following years, L.A. and some of the institute’s other client cities started developing their waste streams to be more efficient, more profitable for the community itself, and more environmentally friendly.

THE POWER OF SELF-INTEREST

ILSR learned another big lesson when it started promoting solar energy. While working with Joseph Linn, a Hungarian physicist who was an expert on solar energy, Morris’ team noticed Linn make a surprising statement while testifying before Congress. This was 1979, a period when oil prices were doubling and even quadrupling, turning more and more people into environmentalists.

During Linn’s testimony, Morris recalls, “He said he gets hundreds of letters from people, and very few of them are in favor of solar for environmental reasons. They’re in favor of solar because they hate their utility.” The lesson, in Morris’ view: “You need to talk to people from their self-interest.”

ILSR has used that same principle, along with on-the-ground research, to help local businesses fight off incursions from national chains. In the late 1990s, the institute organized thousands of local businesses, then used county and city ordinances to block Walmart’s ability to open outlets in their communities. Now, for fights against Amazon, the institute’s co-director, Stacy Mitchell, has developed those small business contacts even further. “If you’re a journalist, and you call Stacy,” Morris said, “she’ll say, ‘What kind of business do you want? OK, this is what they’ll tell you about what Amazon did to them.’ ”

SCHUMACHER’S OTHER DESCENDANTS

Morris is the first to admit that ILSR is by no means the only organization trying to develop local economies to be more fair, more diverse, and more sustainable. Other organizations have plowed this ground for decades, and many more are now joining in with new ideas and new tools.

To name just a few, the Democracy Collaborative, based in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, Ohio, supports a wide array of initiatives, aided by research papers, to promote sustainable growth  and to make sure the benefits of local development are shared by the entire community.

The Sustainable Economies Law Center, based in Oakland, California, pursues a similar mission. Although founded in 2009, more than 30 years after “Small Is Beautiful” was published, the law center describes its work with language that almost sounds as though it was written by E.F. Schumacher himself.

And across the country, a range of Community Development Corporations are now working hard, in various ways, to make sure that today’s approaches to local economic growth guarantee everyone a healthy tomorrow. And, of course, there is the organization formed in Schumacher’s name: The E.F. Schumacher Center for a New Economics. Schumacher’s death, so soon after his book was published, may have been gravely premature. But his ideas seem to be enjoying a very long life indeed.

© 2020 Todd Oppenheimer, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: January 14, 2020