Spirit Quest

A nod to the Buddhist essence of civilization

By The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

"Small is beautiful" so asserted E. F. Schumacher, a British economist of the 20th century. His dictum went against the grain of everything and everybody. The trend and the incentives after World War II was to grow, to compete, to elbow to the top, to become BIG.

Especially among the corporations remaining small was a sign of failure. Large was the status symbol. The American car, a behemoth of the road, now facing obsolescence, was the totem of the age. Homes also participated in this trend. Two car garages were in and the houses they were attached to contained multi bedrooms, gamesrooms, home entertainment centres. The stores where all this was obtained cheaply were box-like structures. But not until the turn of the century did bigness reach an open apex in corporate compensations of obscene proportions.

Against all this Schumacher advocated downsizing . "Buddhist economics must be different from the economics of modern materialism. The Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in multiplication of wants but in the purification of the human character." The followers of the Buddha still outnumber all other adherents of religions. We need its influence in our time.

Schumacher’s advice did not fall on deaf ears. He had many followers even in the western world. In our time, however, Schumacher is scarcely heard, however, Jeff Rubin is commanding attention. Rubin who was Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets, in his recently published book: "Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller" makes the argument that bigness is out and the reason is oil.

He argues persuasively that the availability of oil and its affordability from Alberta’s tar sands or reserves deep under the ocean floor is forcing the price of a barrel to triple digits. We saw some of that phenomenon last year before the financial world went bonkers. The sudden recession or by whatever name you wish to call the global financial crisis that still has us in thrall, sent the price plummeting - but in case you haven't noticed the figure on the pump is back in familiar territory. It will continue to rise.

The world economy is based on oil. It is what makes the world go round, and going round costs money. When oil was $20 @ barrel transportation was cheap. We didn’t mind that our Chevvy consumed a gallon every 25 miles or so at 20 cents a gallon. It soon became evident to entrepreneurs that cheap labour trumped shipping costs. Car manufacturers assembled at home the parts which were manufactured abroad, out sourced to distant countries where labour was inexpensive.

Free trade tore down tariff barriers enabling the affluent of the developed world to make goods eminently affordable. But according to Rubin those days are over. Transportation costs have come to trump labour. It will soon be more affordable to make things as close to the store as possible.

Rubin, "Not only must we decouple our economy from oil but we must reengineer our lives to adapt to a world of growing energy scarcity.

In many ways a new smaller world will be more livable and enjoyable" than the one we have been reared in. Small will be seen more beautiful as Schumacher predicted 40 years ago.

Economists, especially the late Million Friedman, spoke about an "Invisible Hand" that manages the world’s economy. His Chicago school’s teaching is espoused by the department of economics of the University of Calgary, our prime minister’s Alma Mater. It resents government interference in business. Harper has had to swallow bitter pills by the shovel full lately as his government did a lot of bailing.

Against the Invisible Hand there is a Spirit working to bring about enormous changes. It is forcing our life styles to adopt smallness, smaller homes, public transportation, even an exodus from suburbia. We will live closer together and develop a new sense of community, locally and globally. Nor will we be able to afford to fight wars as our neighbour has learned most painfully.

Undoubtedly there will be stubborn resistance to this miniaturization. They will be the dinosaurs of the next generation. There is a spirit alive in the world. As Hamlet said: There is a divinity that shapes our end, rough hue it as it may." Go with the Spirit!

Hanns Skoutajan is author of Uprooted and Transplanted, and The Road to Peace, both available at Canada Books on Line. A documentary film: Hitler's German Foes is based on his first book. He is currently Ecumenical Associate at The Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist, Ottawa. — Mike Heenan, Literary Editor

12 June 2009 — Return to cover.