The writer Henry Miller and the economist E.F. Schumacher might seem an unlikely couple, but they both called for a more humane and sustainable way of life as early as the 1950s and 1970s respectively. Before the background of climate change, urbanisation, rising poverty and financial crises their thoughts on how to live a good and happy life are as relevant nowadays as they used to be at the time of their writing.
Henry Miller’s “The Colossus of Maroussi” and Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful – A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” are both extremely critical of the consumerist doctrine and the pursue of profit at all cost. I read the two books at the same time and they made me feel reconfirmed that happiness cannot be reached solely through the accumulation of material wealth and the consumption of goods. Apart from the few things we really need, such as food, clothes and shelter, it is positive experiences that make us truly content.
Miller’s “The Colossus of Maroussi” is a great account of such an experience. Shortly before the outbreak of the second world war he spent five happy months in Greece and was overwhelmed by the graze, honesty and beauty of the country and its people. Henry Miller despises his own fellow countrymen, the Americans, and all the other predominantly Western cultures that follow suit in worshiping consumerism and capitalism, and the Greek seem like the perfect spiritual antidote for him.
The Greeks gave body to everything, thereby incarnating the spirit and eternalising it. In Greece one is ever filled with the sense of eternality which is expressed in the here and now; the moment one returns to the Western world, whether in Europe or America, this feeling of body, of eternality, of incarnated spirit is shattered. We move in clocktime amidst the debris of vanished worlds, inventing the instruments of our own destruction, oblivious of fate or destiny, knowing never a moment of peace, possessing not an ounce of faith, a prey to the blackest superstitions, functioning neither in the body nor in the spirit, active not as individuals but as microbes in the organism of the diseased.
Henry Miller’s journey to Greece was a life changing experience. He returns to America and, after having lived most of his life in cities, finds shelter in an abandoned convict’s cabin, without heating system, without running water, without close neighbours, in wild isolation.
To live creatively, I have discovered, means to live more and more unselfishly, to live more and more into the world, identifying oneself with it and thus influencing it at the core, so to speak.
The intellectual, scientifically grounded counterpart to this is E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful – A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”. Born in Germany, Shumacher studied economics at Oxford University. He went into business, farming and journalism, was Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board and served as President of the Soil Association, Britain’s largest organic farming organisation. His reappraisal of Western economic attitudes was published in 1973 and has lost none of its social, ecological and economic relevance.
Schumacher’s argument is that a system based on the unlimited exploitation of its natural capital (i.e. fossil fuels and other natural resources, including human workforce) for the single purpose of creating profit is not only doomed because of the ignorance of its material limitations, but also the neglect of human nature and values. This refers to degrading and exploitative working conditions, mass production that is harmful to the environment, unethical marketing methods as well as the systematical cultivation of greed and envy.
I suggest that the foundations of peace cannot be laid by universal prosperity, in the modern sense, because such prosperity, if attainable at all, is attainable only by cultivating such drives of human nature as greed and envy, which destroy intelligence, happiness, serenity, and thereby the peacefulness of man. [...] The hope that the pursue of goodness and virtue can be postponed until we have attained universal prosperity and that by the single-minded pursuit of wealth, without bothering our heads about spiritual and moral questions, we could establish peace on earth, is an unrealistic, unscientific and irrational hope.
I particularly liked his demonstration in Chapter 4, “Buddhist Economics”, how the Western economical model becomes extremely absurd when viewed from another perspective, insofar as it entails enormously inefficient efforts being made and resources being used up for the purpose of unnecessary consumption. In the end Schumacher presents his vision of a sustainable and healthy economy based on communal ownership of small production units (not to be mixed up with actual “communes”), and claims that, in order to change the current situation, everybody should “work to put our own inner house in order”, to rethink our values and find a more peaceful and sustainable way of life.