Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Book That Made a Difference

I read Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher about ten years ago; much of the book was written thirty years earlier. I remember Schumacher's words resonating strongly at that point in my life; now that I've found that I'm meant to be in the manure-to-energy business, the resonance starts to make more sense.

I've run across several references to Small Is Beautiful recently, including this one several days ago on a peak oil website. The author of the piece picked out several propositions from Schumacher's economic ideas, two of which are below:
  • First, primary goods (those produced by or extracted from nature--vegetables, coal, lumber, etc) "must come first in any economic analysis because they supply the preconditions for production of secondary goods" (everything else, made from those goods). There are many ways to build a house, for example, but only a tree can produce wood.
  • Second, energy "is the gateway resource that allows all other resources to be extracted". Cheap energy allows us to many other things cheaply; the harder it is to obtain energy (think deepwater oil wells), the less resources we have for everything else. This is why we like the 20-to-1 return on energy used to run an anaerobic digester, and we like being in the energy business.
Schumacher also thought a lot about "appropriate technology"; he only saw the first rounds of globalization, so he really wouldn't be impressed by advanced factories in China producing DVD players for export while nearby peasants farm with hand tools. We won't be producing many jobs, but we are glad that manure digesters are relatively low-tech--most repair can be accomplished locally, and we aren't destroying anyone's livelihood by undercutting a more labor-intensive process. So read Small Is Beautiful if you get a chance--if it doesn't appeal to you now, you never know what you might think of it ten years down the road.

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