Thursday, November 04, 2010
Good Work - E F Schumacher
Having read ‘Small Is Beautiful’, it was impossible for me not to read all of this author’s works. This is the second work of his that I read. There is one more of his works “A Guide for the Perplexed’ that I will read in the next few months.
I am putting this up on my blog long after I have read the book. So I had forgotten most of what I had read and only a vague idea remained. The good part however is that I had to go through the whole book once again, and it refreshed my memory.
This is not a book to be reviewed but to be read and reread, digested and imbibed and absorbed. All I have to say is that it served to verify several of my preconceptions and made me feel proud of the fact that my fundamentals are perfect. And I am delighted to know that my thoughts are similar to those of great visionaries such as Schumacher : - )
Good Work is all about the distinction between and good and bad work and the necessity for people, society, nations and the world to make that distinction.
It was written in 1979 and as one reads it becomes obvious that it was written long ago. But the points are as relevant today as they were before. In fact with most of the people today having no education, no clarity about fundamentals at all, this book is most relevant.
Following is notes taken from the book. It is not very well structured as it requires too much effort. These points are in the same order in which they appear in the book.
Read if you have patience and courage. And read if you want a whole new perspective.
Blurb - "In good work, the author addresses a question which is central to most of us and one which is all too often ignored by the economic structure of the western world. He maintains that the purpose of man's work is threefold: to produce necessary, useful goods and services; to enable us to use and perfect our gifts and kills and finally, to collaborate with other people in order to liberate ourselves from inbuilt egocentricity. A job in which one finds no personal satisfaction destroys the soul. With sanity and sensitivity, the author offers important and thought provoking alternatives which point the way to mankind's physical and mental liberation.”
Introduction & Preface - The critical role of technology in economic development was first brought into perspective by Schumacher in a report prepared in 1962 for the government of India.
Tools and equipment deliberately designed to be relatively small, simple, capital saving and environmentally non-violent - That was Schumacher's idea known by the term 'Intermediate Technology'. This book is complied mainly from a series of lectures he gave in the United States during mid-1970's, a tour during which some 60000 people heard him speak, and which culminated in a meeting at the white house with President Carter. 3 chapters are based on earlier written essays: they have been included for their relevance to the subject of good work.
As part of establishing the premises for his argument he says that the way humans view work - the less work you can get away with, the better, that money is the sole reason for working - is a fundamentally morbid view.
This book is an exploration of the political, managerial, social, and economic consequences of conventional technology (and values) and of alternatives.
A person's work is undoubtedly one of the most decisive formative influences on his character and personality. It is work which occupies most of the energies of the human race and what people actually do is more important than what they say, what they own, or how they vote.
We need to adapt the work to the needs of the worker rather than demand that the worker adapt himself to the needs of the work-which means of course primarily to the needs of the machine.
The book is organized into six chapters as follows.
The End of an Era:
In this chapter, the author relates the story of oil.
Although the US was richly endowed with oil, due to continuous exploitation, it was necessary to dig deeper and deeper, whereas Middle East oil wells were new and one had only to dig a hole to find oil. So Middle Eastern oil was flowing to the US. But when US put a control on this in order to avoid dependence on the Middle East that was close to Russia, the oil companies had to sell in the European market. There they had to compete with coal and had to lower their prices in order to capture the market.
Previously oil exporting countries had nothing to do with this business that was run by oil companies. In 1960, they set up OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries). By 1965 the exporting countries realized that oil is a diminishing asset. Going by the projection of requirements made by oil consuming countries they would have sold all oil in the next 20-30 years. And after that, they would have nothing to sell!
The Shah of Iran was most greedy to increase oil output.
In Libya, Colonel Qaddafi chucked out the old king and became head of state at 28 and enquired how long the bonanza would last.
He asked the companies to throttle output, marginally. He nationalized these companies so he would have control. The effect of marginally reducing crude oil output in 1970 was a 50% increase in world's level of crude oil prices. The less you produce the richer you become! Because the demand is inelastic; it remains the same!
Colonel Qaddafi became the most hated man in the world and other Arabs and oil producers were reluctant to be in his position as they feared the powerful oil importing countries that were capable of violence.
So they sent the general secretary of OPEC around who went to all oil importing countries making speeches asking them to mitigate their requirements, saying 'What will become of us after we have sold all oil? The fact that you are paying for it does not make a difference and in 25 years we cannot build an alternate livelihood’.
6th October 1973 - 4th Arab Israeli war started.
To the consternation of Washington, the friend of the US, King Faisal (Arab) said 'We will use oil as a political weapon against Israel.
As long as the war goes on we reduce oil output. When the prices went really high, the exporting countries saw what their product was worth and made the hiked price the official price.
US proposed to buy huge quantities of oil to meet its requirements (based on projections). When Yamani, the oil minister of King Faisal, the friend agreeing to expand oil output asked the US how they would pay; the US offered shares or ownership of the American industry. But King Faisal understood how easy it was to expropriate the foreign capitalist (one stroke of pen by Congress) and decided the best course was to leave oil in the ground.
So the 6th October triggered this irreversible lowering of oil output and an increase in price.
From now on, oil will be dearer and scarce. The question to ask is this: during that short and unique period in world history, of cheap and plentiful oil, what happened as a result of cheapness and plenty of oil?
How did it crystallize out in our economic life? all those thing that have happened as a direct result of cheap and plentiful oil now will be in great danger - of collapse or disappearance when that economic base is gradually withdrawn.
The modern system of agriculture, for instance, that consumes a lot of oil; we must find an organic system.
The monster cities of today – that have huge energy requirements and exploit oil.
A big city doesn’t live on itself, it lives on the land, it lives off the land. An inland city lives off the circle of land around it to be provisioned. Cities on seashore could be provisioned by ships…in olden days. Transportation was a concern hence land growing food and city couldn’t be far apart. There was a limit to the size of a city. There had to be small cities surrounded by lands to feed them.
Today with exploitation of fossil fuels, transportation is no longer a concern. And therefore there is no limit to the growth of cities.
This situation in big cities of majority of people living in the cities and a minority on the land made it necessary to have immense increase in productivity.
With the new development of oil (major source of energy) becoming scarce, what is to happen to these cities?
Competition between peoples has resulted in unnecessary transportation and a criminal waste of oil. There are a lot of Japanese cars flitting about in Detroit. These cars have to be transported from Japan to Detroit. England also has Japanese cars.
A huge fleet of Lorries carry biscuits from London to Glasgow. And across the other motorway, an equally huge fleet of Lorries carry biscuits from Glasgow to London. Any impartial observer from another planet looking on would come to the conclusion that biscuits have to be transported at least six hundred miles before they reach their proper quality.
Large scale production, arising from one unit, is the reason behind businessmen wanting to invade faraway markets.
Instead of large scale highly complex and highly capital intensive production, we should have small units that ipso facto wouldn’t be so complex.
Toward a Human scale Technology:
The end products should be persons and not puppets.
Modern industrial society is immensely complicated, immensely involved, making immense claims on man’s time and attention. This is its greatest evil.
The amount of genuine leisure available in a society is generally In inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.
Adopt only those things from western industrialism that really facilitate and enrich life while rejecting frills and harmful elaborations.
What is the great bulk of advertising other than stimulation of greed, envy and avarice?
Industrialism in its capitalist form openly employs human feelings of greed, envy and avarice as its very motive force.
Whether these evils are the result of industrialism as such or of the particular capitalist form in which it has made its appearance in the west is debatable.
Basic aim of modern industrialism is not to make work satisfying but to raise productivity and labour saving whereby labour is stamped with the mark of undesirability.
Autocratic management treats men as factors of production instead of responsible human persons in a grave evil leading to innumerable stunted or wasted lives.
Infinite decentralization of authority and responsibility would be good - this requires small structures and not superstructures.
The exhibition of reading matter on most of the bookstalls is the worst indictment of present day society. To claim this is what people want is merely adding insult to injury. It is not what they want but what they are being tempted to demand by their fellow men who will commit any crime of degradation to make a dishonest penny.
To insist that reckless waste of natural resources is crime does not sound cooperative to those who think that the highest possible rate of consumption is the only worthwhile pursuit of mortal man.
Once a process of technological development has been set in motion it proceeds largely by its own momentum, irrespective of the intentions of its originators. Whoever created modern technology, for whatever purpose, these modes of production demand a system that suits it.
Prime minister of Iran – ‘there are many aspects of the west that we particularly wish to avoid in the industrialization of Iran. We seek the west's technology only, not its ideology. What we wish to avoid is the ideological transplant.’
The implicit assumption that you can have a technological transplant without getting at the same time an ideological transplant; that technology is ideologically neutral; that you can acquire the hardware without the software behind; is a bit like saying - I want to import eggs for hatching but I don’t want chicks from them but mice or kangaroos.
Important questions to ask about workers;
How they produce, what they produce?
Where they work? Where they live? Whom they meet?
How they relax or recreate themselves? What they eat, breathe, see?
What they think?
The subdivision of labour is the assassination of a people.
The system we have is the inevitable product of technology.
When you compare different societies with different systems, where they employ the same technology, they act very much the same and become more alike every day. So technology dictates.
Those who want to promote a better society, achieve a better system, must not confine their activities to attempts to change the superstructure - laws, rules, agreements, taxes, welfare, education, health services etc., if there is no change in the base, which is technology, there is unlikely to be any real change in the superstructure.
Initially technology was the outgrowth of science. Today’s its primary derivation is from science. In fact, science is today mainly valued for its technological fruits. What determines the course of science? There is always more that could be studied than can be studied. So how is the choice made?
Interests of scientists? Yes. Interests of big business and governments? Yes. Interests of people? No. Perhaps an entirely different kind of science would really benefit people.
New technologies are developed only when people of power and wealth back the development. New technologies will be in the image of the system that brings them forth and they will reinforce the system.
US: 5-6% of world population uses something like 35% of world’s output of raw materials! As of 1979.
Three important questions need to be asked about technological development.
What does it do in terms of resource usage? What does it do to the environment? What is its socio-political relevance?
Effect of modern technology on the pattern of human settlement - a monstrous and a highly pathological polarization of the pattern of settlements. In the US they have coined the term megalopolis - Bowash - Boston to Washington, Chicpitts - Chicago to Pittsburgh, Sansan – San Francisco to San Diego
More than half the area (central US) is grossly under populated and large parts of the other half are madly congested.
It’s not enough to know about making shoes. You also have to know about feet. The shoe made for the big fellow does not fit the foot of the little fellow. Small foot needs a different shoe; not an inferior one, but one of the right size. Modern technology makes good shoes only for big fellows.
If you want to create technologies that fit the given conditions of development areas, people accuse you of wanting to take them back into middle ages. The problem with these ideas is they sound revivalist (going back to ancient times) and anachronistic and not progressive. the challenge is to make it sound progressive.
Technology has taken a wrong turn in 4 directions.
1. It is becoming bigger and bigger.
2. It is becoming more and more complex. The ingenuity invested in quite bumble things is fantastic
A tube of toothpaste - you squeeze it and toothpaste comes out in three different luscious colours. So clever, they don’t even get mixed up; it’s like a flag coming out.
Another example; so that you may not be subjected to the indignity of having to turn a handle to wind the car window up or down they have invented a button which you simply press.
When they find something that can actually be done, no matter how futile or dangerous it may be, such as Concorde, they just do it.
3. It is capital-intensive. More and more people are excluded.
4. It is becoming violent. (You have to widen the concept of violence beyond human warfare) They are dumping poisons in ever increasing quantities.
Take medicine. The whole direction is wrong - curative medicine is more and more researched, complex, and expensive. Preventive medicine is virtually neglected. Instead of producing more skilled dentists, can we ask, why are our teeth so rotten?
Not all things can be done on a smaller scale (Boeing, for example) but all those regarding basic human requirements can be.
Any 3rd rate engineer can make a complicated apparatus but it takes a touch of genius to find one’s way back to basic principles. Which are normally fairly simple.
We need to distinguish what is essential and what are almost cancerous growths.
We must learn to distinguish between tool and machine tool. A tool is operated by a man, a machine is operated by a mindless mechanism.
Smallness, simplicity, capital cheapness, non-violence are key.
Author illustrates with an example of the problem in Zambia, how ludicrous big businesses and technologies can get and how he worked around the problem to find a solution in intermediate technology.
To solve the problem of malnutrition of protein gap, Zambian government came up with a program with a slogan “one egg a day for every Zambian’. While egg production was successful, the supply of egg trays coming from South Africa, Britain and America had stopped for some reason. Without packaging material in which to take these to the market, the eggs were rotting.
Schumacher said “why don’t you make egg trays in Zambia?
Nobody there knew how to do it. They investigated and found out that virtually all egg trays in the world were made by one multinational company.
When the company was contacted, they first agreed to build a factory in Lusaka, but refused later because the quantity required there (a million a year) was much less than the capacity of the smallest machine (a million a month). The MNC demanded that they organize an all African common market for egg trays, build roads for lorries all coming out of Lusaka to distribute egg trays to rural areas…., but this was the opposite of development - to refer them to foreign trade, to import…’Our engineers say, small units are uneconomic’, came the response.
So the author and team got a fellow to redesign the egg tray which was badly designed by the MNC. This job was taken to Royal College of Art in London and within six weeks, they had the perfect design.
The second thing to do was to create a mini plant - done with the engineering department of the University of Reading. They found a small manufacturer.
The plant has 2% of capacity of hitherto smallest plant and 2% of capital cost.
As I have already discerned from Small Is Beautiful, Schumacher is a Gandhi fan.
He mentions in this book too - ‘Gandhi came to England in 1930. He disembarked in Southampton and on the gangway he was already overwhelmed by journalists asking questions. One of them asked ‘What do you think of modern civilization?’ and he replied ‘That would be a good idea’. Schumacher says, the time has come to implement the good idea.
With modern agriculture, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides (to kill weeds) man has lost knowledge of traditional farming. How to cooperate with soil - is largely lost.
A Viable Future Visible in the Present:
Where you have lots of small businesses fitting all sorts of demands, the best organization for them is private enterprise. Where the person (the employer) who is responsible for the assets is identified, there is a real existential relationship between man and matter, material.
Socializing or nationalizing such small businesses doesn’t work.
In case of huge companies/factories, private ownership is a pretense. The owner has no relationship with the assets. State ownership too isn’t an alternative because government and businesses do not mix. But that doesn’t mean one can’t bring a social interest in. Schumacher further explains how this can be done using an example where he describes concepts such as a board, trustees, etc. which are all well known by now.
The best administration adheres to what I call negative theory of administration; strive to find structures which need minimum administration. Very Small structures administer themselves.
Schumacher gives the example of a man holding a hundred strings with a balloon at the end of each string. Each balloon has its own buoyancy and is limited. That’s the ideal structure in a large organization. The one holding it all together is not a star at the top but a man underneath.
Simply to break up and decentralize is not an option, you should find out what activities can be separated out without paralyzing things.
Schumacher was involved with the soil association - organize training for organic farmers, set up a marketing company to market organic produce, organize organic farmers’ cooperative.
There is the example of a certain body (Scott Bader) that imposed self denying ordinances on itself - we will not knowingly sell any of our products if we have reason to believe it will be used for armaments. A sort of parliament of workers is the sovereign body and not the board of directors. We have settled the maximum spread between the highest paid and the lowest paid. We are determined not to grow beyond the size of four hundred. The primary concern is to keep the human touch.
In 1965, Schumacher started the Intermediate Technology Development Group. Wholly owned by the Charitable organization works with commercial discipline.
If one wants to maintain a sort of non-commercial virginity, one cannot become really fertile.
One of the machines developed under guidance was the walking mini-tractor. It was meaningless to send a two ton expensive tractor back and forth on a field, compacting soil and making life troublesome for the soil bacteria. They can’t breathe properly. All this for pulling a curved knife called the plough. The machine designed as a result was called the Snail - to suit the problem in developing countries of 3, 5, 7 acre farms for which the tractor is a nuisance. Tractor may suit fast ploughing on a 2000 acre farm in the US. Snail had a fuel cost and capital cost that was 1/100 that of tractor.
Before we publish an invention, we must study its social acceptability. Here, he tells the story of the horse coach introduced to carry mail in Burma. The British authorities agreed to pay the coachman partial costs asking him to recover the remaining by escorting passengers who were on foot or slow oxcarts along that route in plenty. It didn’t work. Why? Coach is convenient, plenty of people, price is reasonable… when they asked the consumer, he said “horses shouldn’t be pulling a coach, they should be grazing. We should not demean ourselves to travel behind horses that are so ill kept. We’d rather walk.”
The appropriate technology development association in India is in Lucknow.
On appropriate forms of ownership and action:
An illusion against all laws of nature is that infinite growth in a finite environment is possible.
By a strange law of nature, there is an unlimited supply of people who are prepared to do mindless repetitive work for modest remuneration.
The third illusion is that, science can solve all problems.
But as it solves one problem, it creates a whole host of new problems.
One type of economics says, “You must not produce anything unless you are quite sure you couldn’t buy it cheaper from outside.”
In Puerto Rico, a luscious island, carrots were imported from Texas.
The Chinese, who went through miraculous transformation, turned this around “You mustn’t buy anything from outside unless you are quite sure you can’t make it yourself”
In the former case, you impede development. In the latter case, economically speaking, everybody is challenged, everybody is busy.
Chinese have worked out that it takes thirty peasant work-years to keep a young person at university for one year. Instead of going to a fashionable district in Shanghai, he should go to a remote village and give something back to the peasants out of what he has learned. But what the guy had learnt at the university was totally irrelevant to the peasant so the young guy had nothing to give. This had effect on the curriculum.
The next step was to work and study together - in accordance with Mao’s teaching that the manager or the intellectual has to go and learn from the workers. And from that learning, he should make a theory and that should be taught.
To all people who dismiss alternate systems/technologies calling them uneconomic, Schumacher says “We need to make up our minds whether we want to die economically or survive uneconomically“.
Education for Good Work:
In this chapter Schumacher discusses questions like what is man, what is his purpose, what is good work, and therefore, what is good education.
He says - there are 3 things healthy people most need to do and education ought to prepare them for these things.
1. To act as spiritual beings, in accordance with their moral impulses - man as a divine being.
2. To act as neighbours, to render service to his fellows - man as a social being
3. To act as persons, as autonomous centres of power and responsibility, that is, to be creatively engaged, using and developing the gifts that we have been blessed with - man himself and herself.
In the fulfillment of these 3 basic needs lies his happiness.
Schumacher comes back to what he said in his introduction “The purpose of man's work is threefold: to produce necessary, useful goods and services; to enable us to use and perfect our gifts and kills and, finally, to collaborate with other people in order to liberate ourselves from inbuilt egocentricity.” and education must teach him to do this.
Current education system is not education for work but education for leisure.
There can be no joy of life without the joy of work. A thinker said, if you get too many useful machines you will get too many useful people.
How do we prepare young people for the future world of work?
We should prepare them to be able to distinguish between good work and bad work and encourage them not to accept the latter. They should be encouraged to reject meaningless, boring, stultifying, nerve racking work in which man or woman is made servant of a machine or a system.
Industry without art is brutality, said Ananda Coomaraswammry, because it damages the soul and spirit of the worker. It is not as if the artist were a special kind of man. Every man is a special kind of artist. That’s the metaphysics of good work. Materialistic metaphysics or the metaphysics of the doctrine of mindless evolution does not attribute reality to anything but the physical body. It recognizes that work is an unpleasant fact and automation will soon abolish it.
To have education for good work, we should have to alter the metaphysical basis from which we proceed. (Figs cannot grow on thistles. Good work cannot grow out of bad metaphysics) If we teach that human being is nothing but the outcome of a mindless, meaningless, purposeless process of evolution, a process of selection for survival, that is to say, the outcome of nothing but utilitarianism, we only come to a utilitarian idea of work; that work is nothing but an unpleasant necessity, the less the better.
We only create an apparent conflict between science and religion causing untold confusion.
Education for good work should begin with a systematic study of traditional wisdom - where answers are to be found for questions like - what is man, where does he come from, his purpose in life, goal to be reached and path to that goal.
The only skills worth acquiring in modern days are those which the system demands, and they are worthless outside the system. They have no survival value outside the system and therefore do not even confer the spirit of self reliance. What does a machine winder do when energy shortage stops his machine or a computer programmer without a computer?
The most urgent need of our time is and remains the need for metaphysical reconstruction.
The Party’s Over:
The concept of GNP - gross national product means nothing at all. As a measurement of any kind of achievement it is meaningless, because it’s a purely quantitative concept. Statistics don’t have to be accurate, they have to be significant. Figures don’t mean anything if you can’t make them sing. How can anyone assert that growth is a good thing? ‘If my children grow, it is good. If I suddenly start growing, it would be a disaster’ he says. Therefore qualitative discrimination is the main thing.
Is there another pattern that would make life really worth living? A distinction between two categories of goods is - ephemeral goods and eternal goods. In all real cultures, eternal goods were outside economic cultures.
The moment we allow economic calculus to invade everything, then nothing becomes worthwhile anymore.
There are 3 ways to develop a new intermediate technology.
1. Take the existing very low level technology and upgrade it with no capital investment. Upward.
2. Downgrade to fit it into the condition of the developing country.
3. Conceive it anew, lay on design studies after conceiving the right question
Survey the world and see what already exists, evaluate it, test it - Filipinos have some absolutely excellent very simple equipment for rice culture and so have the Japanese. If it is suitable for other conditions, make it available.
The word, the concept which is merely a label attached to some intuition, some knowledge, then becomes the thing itself. The Buddhists have a nice expression, that Buddhism is the finger pointing at the moon. The moon is the thing, Buddhism simply directs your attention to it. So a phrase like ‘appropriate technology’ or ‘intermediate technology’ is simply a finger pointing at the moon. The moon can’t be fully described. It can be pointed out in terms of specific situations.
Don’t be misled by the marvellous things we do; do the necessary things.
Build underground rainwater tanks all over instead of one desalination plant in one place.
Efficient oxcarts ought to have wheels with steel rims. For that we go to big machines in Pittsburgh and Sheffield. We have forgotten how to do this in rural community. They found an ingenious tool in a French village, more than 200 years old, brilliantly conceived, clumsily made. They took it to the national college of agricultural engineering in England to upgrade it. The smallest instrument to do this bending job in the modern world would cost 700 pounds, outside power and electricity. This tool can now be made by the village blacksmith at 7 pounds and doesn’t require electricity.
Thomas Aquinas said “Justice, untempered by mercy is brutality. Mercy, uncontrolled by justice is the mother of dissolution.
Everything is just a matter of the carrying capacity of this earth.
Fanaticism has been defined as redoubling one’s efforts when one knows one is on the wrong track.
For all his prophecies about oil lasting the next 30 years, hazards of nuclear energy, technological advancement coming to an end and all, I think we are doing quite OK today. I mean, the doom hasn’t come yet, as it did seem certain to Schumacher then. I really hope we figure out a way out of this mess we have gotten into.