Column Frontiers 2023

Is small still beautiful?

Written by Elizabeth Woodcock

Crisis is not a helpful word. Crisis denotes a beginning and end of a period of challenge. It is short, sharp, and a shock. So to use the word crisis when describing the climate changes we are experiencing is not correct, because the changes we are experiencing are not short and sharp but rather here for the long term. This instability is here to stay: so how do we respond?

This was the theme and subject of a panel debate at the recent conference organized by The Ecologist magazine in partnership with the Schumacher Institute, named after Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered, published 50 years ago in 1973.

The urgency of change

The underlying problems with our living systems in place today are founded on our relationship with nature, our discordant relationship. For example, the drought in Spain and Portugal means the olive harvest has been reduced, and the price of olive oil rockets. 2022 saw their worst drought ever recorded, and Spain’s yield of “green gold” is down by around a third, forcing the price up 60% (May 2023). The warming of the rivers in France means the nuclear reactors that have been built by them to use their cold water are running below full capacity, so there isn’t as much energy production.  A global news headline last July ran: “Warming rivers threaten France’s already tight power supply”. Climate instability is disrupting trade; climate and economics are tied inextricably.

We have to change our living practices, bring in systemic change and ask questions like, what is my relationship to money and how do I project that onto the world, because the current capitalistic model is based on exploitation and accumulation, and delivering money in profits to shareholders. It is not a system based on ethics but one that sees more trade more growth and profit. It is a system that has lost the point of trading, as in the simple exchange of goods.

Into the doughnut

The conference included a workshop on Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics which offered a different approach of meeting the needs of all people within the means of this extraordinary, unique, and living planet, so that we and the rest of nature can thrive and this isn’t measured by money. It is measured by a dashboard of indicators, which turned out to look like a donut.

Yes, imagine a doughnut. The hole on the inside represents all those falling short on life essentials, like lack of food, health, housing, healthcare, political voice, lack of education, in war zones, and social inequality. For a life of dignity and opportunity, everyone needs to get out of the hole and into the ‘doughnut’. But, we cannot let our collective resource use overshoot that outer edge of the doughnut. This is an ecological ceiling. If we put so much pressure on this planet’s resources, we push it out of kilter into climate breakdown. Outside is air pollution, biodiversity loss, and land degradation. The aim of an economic system then is to meet the needs of all within the limits of the planet, to find a sweet spot for humanity. 

This is aligned with Schumacher’s ‘reinvention’ of economics as if people (and the planet) mattered, because our current system of exponential growth will not clean the air or oceans, prevent drought or flood. As Schumacher wrote,

Anyone who thinks consumption can expand forever on a finite planet is either insane or an economist.”

For people and planet

Therefore we need to create economies and living systems that are of an appropriate scale and, in a way, mimic nature. Processes that are regenerative, and circular, that look after people and the planet.

Orkney has taken the lead in this with many examples of community-centred economics from an early stage. Read more about how the North Ronaldsay Community developed the island economy based on the meat and wool of their native sheep and the island’s wool industry today.

As Orkney Renewable Energy Forum points out, Orkney is also home to “to the highest concentration of small and micro wind turbines in the UK, as well as several larger community owned and commercial turbines, one locally owned wind farm, and one commercial wind farm. Wind power is the main energy source that allowed Orkney to become a net energy exporter in 2013 & 2014.”

Our first day at this year’s Orkney International Science Festival will bring speakers with varied backgrounds into creative dialogue on a rich range of ideas for industries and communities for the future of energy, food, and housing. This highlights Schumacher’s thoughts that “wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.” We hope you’ll join us at this year’s festival, and we echo the ideas of Small is Beautiful, but see that science and technology, when applied with ethics and wisdom, married with art and the humanities, can bring about great change which will benefit local communities and this beautiful planet we all live on.

About the author

Elizabeth Woodcock

Elizabeth Woodcock is an RHS horticulturalist with training in regenerative agriculture and permaculture, a garden organic master composter, Lake District National Park walk leader, and is training as a mountain leader. She has been a journalist, science communicator, writer, and adventurer of many high, and low, places. She lives in Cumbria with her daughter, dog and chickens.