Four great thinkers whose ideas could save the world

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Colin Tudge nominates four 20th century prophets who between them said most of what we need to know to put the world to rights. But the powers-that-be have their own agendas 

The world is in an awful state and – worse – the world’s most powerful governments and the powers-that-be in general are not on the case. Indeed, the economic and political ideas of all kinds that now dominate the world are leading us deeper and deeper into the mire. 

Yet there is hope. First, among humanity as a whole there is no shortage of good will. Most of us want the world to be kinder than it is, and what most of us want ought to make a difference. (Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about?) Secondly, there is no shortage of good thinkers whose ideas, if applied, surely could put the world to rights, or at least set us in the right direction. 

I would like to nominate four in particular who between them have told us most of what we need to know. Their thoughts should be compulsory reading for all who aspire to be our leaders. 

Four great thinkers who have told us most of what we need to know 

Top of my very short shortlist of political gurus are Keir Hardie; E F (Fritz) Schumacher; the present (14th) Dalai Lama; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (The last three of the above were all inspired in large part by Mahatma Gandhi. Hardie died before Gandhi really got into his stride.) 

Keir Hardie (1856-1915) was a Lanarkshire coalminer who is generally seen as the principal founder of the Labour Party, which officially came into being in 1900. To my mind Hardie embodied what socialism ought to mean. In his best-known book, From Serfdom to Socialism (1907) he said:

“To the Socialist the community represents a huge family organisation in which the strong should employ their gifts in promoting the weal of all, instead of using their strength for their own personal aggrandisement”

He also said (as quoted by Prof Dinah Birch in the London Review of Books, February 19 2015 p 32): 

“I claim for socialism that it is the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system”

If Hardie had been writing nowadays in multi-cultural Britain he probably would not have singled out Christianity. After all, the same “bedrock” moral principles lie at the heart of all the world’s great religions. But in Hardie’s day Christianity was the only religion that most westerners were aware of. The general point, though, is that socialism properly construed should not be rooted as has so often been the case in economic dogma (as in Marx’s “the workers must own the means of production”). Rather, socialism properly construed must be seen as an exercise in applied morality. Keir Starmer was named after Hardie and I am sure he believes in this basic tenet. But Hardie surely would not recognise the Labour Party in its present form. Somehow the word “socialist” seems to have gone missing – or been transformed into something very far from Hardie’s vision. 

E F Schumacher (1911-1977), added the essential dimension that was largely absent from mainstream thinking at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries when Hardie was writing – and indeed still is: an awareness of the natural world and our need to adjust our lives to ecological reality. In particular he stressed the distinction between renewable resources – “income” – and non-renewable – “capital”. Thus in chapter 3 of his most famous book, Small is Beautiful, (1973) he wrote: 

 “All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of private profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world (Schumacher’s italics)

Indeed, he said, 

“We are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves. Even the great Dr Marx fell into this devastating error when he formulated the so-called ‘labour theory of value’” 

And yet, he said, everything we make — 

“is but a small part of the total capital we are using. Far larger is the capital provided by nature and not by man”

More broadly, he said: 

“We must thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new life-style, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption; a life-style designed for permanence”

Since Schumacher was an economist by trade, he knew of what he spoke. Indeed, from 1950 to 1970 he was Chief Economic Adviser to Britain’s National Coal Board. A real hard-head, you might suppose – as, nowadays, a person in a comparable position would most assuredly be, with eyes firm-fixed on “the bottom line”. But Schumacher was made of sterner or perhaps of softer stuff. He was indeed a deeply spiritual man: 

“We still have to learn how to live peacefully, not only with our fellow men but also with nature and above all with those “Higher Powers” which have made nature and have made us; for, assuredly, we have not come about by accident and certainly have not made ourselves” 

Most famously, in Small is Beautiful, he advocates “Buddhist Economics”. Thus the immediate goal of the western-style economy that now shapes the whole world is to satisfy humanity’s material desires. Its more general goal is to increase the total amount of measurable wealth in the society – which in practice it achieves by increasing, and then seeking to satisfy, the material desires. The more that people want, the more the producers can produce, and the richer the society can become; and the richer it is, the more successful it is deemed to be. Obviously – it hardly needs stating – it’s assumed that economics is and should be an entirely materialistic pursuit. By contrast, said Schumacher: 

 “ … the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of the human character” and 

“While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation [from life’s stresses]”

Such liberation is achieved not by satisfying or pretending to satisfy ever-increasing human wants but by reducing wants, and hence reducing or eliminating the envy and covetousness that the desire for material gain gives rise to. Indeed, says Schumacher: 

“The aim should be to obtain the maximum of wellbeing with the minimum of consumption” and 

“The keynote of Buddhist economics is simplicity and non-violence” 

He stresses that as far as possible we must take from nature only what is renewable and not dig further and further into the fabric of the Earth. This is the distinction between living on income, which should be infinitely renewable, and living on capital, which decidedly is not. He says: 

“ … the Buddhist economist would insist that a population basing it seconomic life on non-renewable fuels is living parasitically, on capital instead of income. Such a way of life could have no permanence and could therefore be justified only as a purely temporary expedient” 

However, although he takes Buddhism as his paradigm he says: 

 “The choice of Buddhism for this purpose is purely incidental; the teachings of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism could have been used just as well as those of any other of the great Eastern traditions” 

Indeed, particularly towards the end of his life, Schumacher was particularly drawn to Roman Catholicism. After all, he took it to be obvious, as many people do, that the core morality of all the great religions is the same, and all have a sense of transcendence and a sense of the sacred (including those which, like most forms of Buddhism, reject the idea of a personified God or gods). 

In the world at large, and certainly in the western world, the most famous living Buddhist is of course the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b 1935). For him the most fundamental of all moral principles is the virtue of compassion. Thus in a speech to students at the University of California at San Diego in June 2017 he said: 

 “Many remarkable individuals have called for different kinds of revolution: technological, educational, ethical, spiritual. All are motivated by the urgent need to create a better world. But for me, the Revolution of Compassion is in the heart, the bedrock, the original source of inspiration for all the others .. Young people of the 21st century, bring on the revolution of compassion!”

Most people – all except those we generally agree are psychopaths – are eminently capable of compassion. So too, as the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal insists (as in The Age of Empathy, 2009), are intelligent animals, like dogs and apes. Clearly, our sense of compassion is deep-rooted. It seems to me that if humanity as a whole allowed ourselves to be guided by our instinct for compassion, the world’s greatest problems would hardly even arise. The Israel-Gaza war would not be happening if the leaders of both sides had felt the need to be compassionate. Putin could not have attacked Ukraine if he felt compassion. And our own government would not allow itself to preside over the huge economic and social injustices in our present society if it seriously felt even a fraction of the compassion that it pretends to hold dear. 

The Dalai Lama clearly agrees with Schumacher, too, that all the world’s great religions share a common morality, rooted in compassion. Indeed the Dalai Lama’s bestest friend in the whole world was Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021). Tutu (as is clearly true of the Dalai Lama too) was not content simply to treat compassion as an abstraction, a subject for sermons. He wrote: 

“Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently, people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!” 

Like Keir Hardie, too, Tutu’s moral convictions drove him towards socialism. As he wrote in 1986:

“All my experiences with capitalism, I’m afraid, have indicated that it encourages some of the worst features in people. Eat or be eaten. It is underlined by the survival of the fittest. I can’t buy that. I mean, maybe it’s the awful face of capitalism, but I haven’t seen the other face” 

And while Hardie envisaged community as “a huge family organisation” Tutu invoked the African concept of Ubuntu – which, he said — 

“… refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available to others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life” 

For Tutu indeed the spirit of ubuntu was best encapsulated in the Xhosa saying:  

“A person is a person through other persons”

Today, the Indian thinker and writer and former Jain Satish Kumar makes the same point as in You are, therefore I am (2002); and so too did the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray as in Persons in Relation (1961). 

So these are the kinds of ideas that I suggest could, if applied, take humanity and the world as a whole into a quite new era. We need politics and an economy rooted in moral principle, particularly the principle of compassion, reinforced by the sense of ubuntu; and true concern for and appreciation of the natural world. 

But all this seems a million miles from what any major political party anywhere is offering, or indeed is the precise opposite. In Britain, both the major parties who currently are scrabbling for the right to form the next government emphasise above all else the need for economic growth (or “growth, growth, growth” as the ephemeral Liz Truss put the matter). For both, growth is the sine qua non and indeed the panacea. 

Coda: the crucial concept of “natural capital” – and how its meaning has been reversed 

Britain’s two major political parties – indeed all the parties, except the Greens – treat the biosphere as an add-on. The Tories during their 14-year incumbency have cut expenditure on conservation to the bone, and then cut some more. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves first told us that Labour had ear-marked £28 billion to develop more environmentally friendly technologies but then rushed to assure us that her priority of course is to increase the country’s measurable wealth and that Labour would not be squandering good specie on the biosphere until we are rich enough to do so without compromising our own standard of living (as the expression has it). Though how we will judge whether and when we are rich enough to splash a few bob on the natural world is unspecified. Or if it is specified it is with fingers crossed since, of course, circumstances change. To misquote Mercutio, “A plague on both their houses!” 

Of course, though, that’s not quite fair. Clearly the major parties are aware of the world’s environmental problems and are seeking to improve matters. Thus in 1997 the incoming Labour government set up the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee specifically “to examine how government departments’ policies and programmes will affect both the environment and sustainable development” – and the committee has remained active. Indeed it met most recently at Westminster on March 20 2024 to “continue[s] its inquiry on the role of natural capital in the green economy, with an evidence session exploring how data, standards and monitoring contribute to effective natural capital markets”.

And here’s the rub. For the committee is able to call upon very expert people who, we might suppose, are as well-equipped as anyone in the world to develop the kind of strategies that would help us, humanity, to live more harmoniously with the natural world. We need to apply sound ecological principles of course. But the idea that we should contrive to live harmoniously with nature also implies that we should think and more importantly feel in our bones that nature itself really matters. This is a matter not only of science but also of thoughts and attitudes that lie in the realm of metaphysics: aesthetic, moral, spiritual. 

In practice, though, modern governments and their appointed committees take no idea seriously, whether scientific or metaphysical, unless it is compatible with the prevailing economy. As Schumacher observed: 

“In the current vocabulary of condemnation there are few words as final and conclusive as the word ‘uneconomic’ … Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world, or to the wellbeing of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper” 

Intriguingly, it was Schumacher himself who first coined the expression “natural capital” – the subject of the Environmental Audit Committee’s latest deliberations.  But – and it’s a huge “but” – by “natural capital” modern politicians and economists generally mean the precise opposite of what Schumacher meant by it. As Schumacher observed, as quoted above, “… it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world”. And the point, for Schumacher, is that the natural world cannot be costed in the same way that we put a price on motor cars or a holiday in Benidorm. Motor cars and the natural world are incommensurable. The natural world must be felt to be sacred. Insofar as we encroach upon it, it must be with extreme abstemiousness. What we call “the economy” is simply the bit that can be costed – which in truth merely skates on the surface of what really allows us to live. You could say it’s the icing on the cake or you could say it’s the scum on the pond but either way it’s the cake or the pond that really matter. 

But mainstream modern politicians, whether Labour or Conservative or followers of Putin or Xi Jinping, take it to be obvious that they must work within the prevailing economic paradigm, and the paradigm that now prevails is that of neoliberalism – an all-out, all-against-all competition within the global market for material wealth (which in turn brings power and dominance). For the neoliberal, everything must be costable, whether it’s a motor car or the natural world or indeed your own grandmother. Oscar Wilde opined that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing and by that criterion, neoliberalism may be seen as applied cynicism. 

If we, humanity, truly aspire to thrive on this Earth, and if we truly care about our fellow creatures, then we should first decide on what we feel is really important – our values – and then devise an economy that would enable us to do what we really want and need to do. But in today’s world it’s the other way round. We begin with the tenets of the neoliberal economy and then seek to adjust our mindset and our lives and the natural world, to the economic dogma. It won’t do. As long as we allow ourselves to be led by the arbitrary dogmas of economics, whether its neoliberalism or Marxism or any other economic or political ism, we and our fellow creatures have had our chips. The proof of this is already plain to see.

 



3 responses to “Four great thinkers whose ideas could save the world”

  1. Tim Gorringe avatar
    Tim Gorringe

    Bertrand Russell once wrote: “It is said that man is a rational animal but over 60 years and in three continents I have never been able to find evidence to support this assertion”. This was a joke, but unfortunately political decisions suggest that it is only too true. We know, for example, why fascism took hold in Germany in the early 1930s but how was it possible for intelligent people to get behind the psychopathic ravings of Mein Kampf? 70 million North Americans voted for Trump in the last presidential election- a narcissist without principle whose only political programme is to appeal to the lowest emotions of the electorate; he is now the Republican candidate and may well be elected president for a second time. How is that possible? And in this country we are preparing to elect Keir Starmer, a man who has gone back on every pledge that he made when elected leader of the Labour Party, who refused to condemn the use of starvation against the Palestinians and under whose leadership more than 60 Jews who support the Palestinians have been driven out of the party, condemned as anti-Semites. How is that possible? He has taken as his mentor Peter Mandelson whose slogan is “Greed is good” and whose boast is that under him Labour is good for business, where ‘business’ means big money.

    Colin invites us to look to Schumacher as a guide for how things should be ordered in the light of the problems which face the whole planet – which are not just climate change, but include loss of biodiversity, resource depletion, ocean acidification, and the loss year on year of fertile land through which the planet’s population is fed (I call this “the global emergency”). To Schumacher we can add the names of Karl Polanyi and the late Herman Daly who, from 1989 onwards, when he published For the Common Good (co-authored by the American theologian John Cobb) spent 40 years arguing for, and setting out practical measures for, a sustainable economy. Daly was never awarded the Nobel Prize for economics – that prize only goes to people who tinker on the edges of conventional economics. Daly was not taken seriously because his proposals involved legal measures which would curb the power of corporations and put an end to the system whereby a few billionaires can earn more money than half of the world’s population. Why do we accept that and why do governments around the world fail to take the global emergency seriously?
    
I don’t have an answer to these questions but I suggest three things which contribute to this political blindness.

    The first is the power of the price mechanism. People will quite understandably look for the cheapest option for the things they need. This privileges the big players who can buy in bulk and thus discount. This accounts for the power of the supermarkets and correspondingly the decline of the small high street shop. As we know the supermarkets have farmers by the throat. Currently dairy farmers have suffered a 78% decrease in earnings and the possibility that we may end up without a dairy industry in this country is real. But that’s fine – as a Labour minister in the Blair government said, we have no need of a dairy industry because we can get milk more cheaply from Poland. Hurrah! Beef up those climate emissions and who cares about welfare standards on the farm.

    A second is, to adopt Freud’s term, the pleasure principle. I have nothing against pleasure, indeed I think it is one of the things humans are designed for. But, as Plato argued, it is not the primary thing we are designed for – there are all kinds of other things which are important. The pleasure principle suggests that when cheap flights are available all over the world we should take them. Why should I care about the damage done to the stratosphere by jet emissions? Why should I care that aviation fuel is not taxed like petrol for cars or diesel trains? Why, when I want to visit my grandchildren in Edinburgh, should I pay £170 for an off-peak ticket when I can fly for £30 or £50? The priority after all, is my convenience, my pocket, and, when we are jetting off to holidays virtually everywhere, my pleasure.

    This is linked to a third feature of the Western world. We rightly honour the people who in the 17th and 18th centuries struggled for individual freedom but what freedom has come to mean in our societies is that I can do what I damn well like, and who are you to tell me what I ought to do? We more or less accept that (in this country) we should drive on the left but very few people follow the speed limits. The present government, in Trumpian fashion, announces that it is the motorists’ friend in opposing Ulez zones and 20 mph speed restrictions in built-up areas. So what if one in 34 deaths around the world are caused by motor cars; so what if children are much less likely to be killed by a vehicle travelling at 20 mph than at 40mph. It’s my right to drive my car as fast as I like. Similarly, if you like to do serious reading on a train journey avoid the quiet coach. The vast majority of people travelling on it ignore the sign which tells you not to use your mobile phone. Why shouldn’t I? If I want to talk to my family/friend/business partner why the hell shouldn’t I? Who are you to tell me to take my phone to the vestibule and talk there? So freedom is without obligations.

    What this adds up to is a profoundly individualised culture where the concept of the common good scarcely exists. Of course there are people – many of those who come to the Real Farming Conference are amongst them – who are concerned for the common good. But there seems to me no evidence that they are in a majority. And the question is how does the minority view, that the common good takes priority over the individual good, become the majority view? Can it be done through education? But what government would ever support that? And does the timescale of the global emergency allow for that slow process? And when you propose, like Herman Daly, legal measures to prioritise the common good you are condemned as an eco-fascist.

    Homo sapiens?

  2. Jenifer Wates avatar
    Jenifer Wates

    Great stuff! I agree with you that these four are top prophets for our age. Schumacher in fact did come to Bore Place when we were just starting out, and was a great inspiration to us.

  3. Satish Kumar avatar
    Satish Kumar

    Your understanding and insight about E.F. Schumacher and Small is Beautiful is very clear and timely. You have correctly identified the difference between renewable and non renewable income. Our highly educated economists from Oxford, Cambridge and other famous universities totally ignore this fundamental difference. The political parties, as you have pointed out, focus on the quantitative growth rather than qualitative growth. As a result amount of possession and consumption might have increased, but the quality of life has declined. Beauty, wellbeing, clean air and water, friendship and family life, art and culture and the rest which make us happy have all declined. 
    Thank you for writing such an excellent article. 

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