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Trevor Hancock: Small is beautiful — and essential

Some readers will doubtless recognize the reference to E.F. Schumacher’s classic 1973 book Small is Beautiful, in which he introduced the world to the concept of “Buddhist economics.

Some readers will doubtless recognize the reference to E.F. Schumacher’s classic 1973 book Small is Beautiful, in which he introduced the world to the concept of “Buddhist economics.” The book’s sub-title was “Economics as if people mattered,” which today we might amend to read “Economics as if people and the planet mattered.”

But my purpose is not to review Buddhist economics, tempting though that is, but to pick up on the theme of “small is beautiful.” That idea is also reflected in the slogan “Think globally, act locally,” and both — as well as the notion of Buddhist economics – are central to the work I am doing with friends and colleagues in the Conversations for a One Planet Region.

We believe that the best way to address the global challenges of massive and rapid ecological changes — and the necessary economic, social, cultural and ultimately ethical transformation that is required — is through local action, which requires that we have a community-wide conversation about the challenges we face and the solutions we need.

Small actions make a difference, and small groups of people make a difference, as the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead observed many years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that sense, small is not only beautiful, it is necessary if we want to change things. So I was pleased to see a recent article in the journal Sustainability Science that supported this contention. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, a researcher at the McGill School of Environment, and her international colleagues — many of them associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre — set out to establish a set of “good Anthropocene” scenarios for Northern Europe. There are some terms and concepts here that need some explanation.

First of all, what on Earth is a “good Anthropocene”? The Anthropocene is convenient shorthand for the set of massive and rapid global ecological changes that we have initiated. By “we,” I mean primarily the people living in high-income countries and their corporations and governments —hence their interest in Northern Europe.

A “good” Anthropocene is one in which we manage to address the challenge of the Anthropocene successfully and create “a more just, prosperous and ecologically diverse world,” as a related article from much the same team puts it. I would add that such a world, or such a community, would also be a more healthy place to live.

This group of researchers recognize that such a future “will, by necessity, build on the present, and is likely to be composed of many elements already in existence, albeit reconfigured and combined with new participants, ideas, infrastructure and technologies.”

So part of their work has been to identify and document these elements of such a desirable future that already exist, which they call the “seeds of a good Anthropocene” — check out their website, or read next week’s column for more on these seeds.

Another part of their work has been to create scenarios — coherent depictions of, in this case, a positive future, based on the growth of those seeds. They then examine how such a positive future comes about. It is this work that brings me back to the importance of “small.”

Because what they found was that “decentralization of power” featured in all four of the “good Anthropocene” futures for Northern Europe they explored: “All scenarios imagined a decline in the power of the nation-state and multi-national companies, in which capitalism and national state power were no longer dominant, but power rested in decentralized communities, networks and co-operatives.”

Of course, the transition they describe was not easy, requiring as it did the downgrading of “corporate greed, malignant governance, and the treadmill of competition and ever-increasing work.” and needed to include “a shift in mainstream values away from consumption, individualism [and] ownership” as well as “some sort of crisis.”

But “the empowerment of local communities was a crucial leverage point in all scenarios” in bringing about the transition. In other words, it seems that any route to a “good Anthropocene” —healthier, more just and sustainable — requires local action and a decentralization of power. Small, it seems, is not only beautiful, but essential.

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