Small Is Still Beautiful

Friday, September 25, 2015 - 6:00am
Photo by Brandon Doran
The New Better Off

Small Is Still Beautiful

What makes an economy stable?

It’s a question that’s preoccupied academics and financial experts since that oft-quoted Scotsman Adam Smith. There are a lot of answers, but none of them are particularly simple. The official one is some variant on this:

“Economic stability refers to an absence of excessive fluctuations in the macroeconomy. An economy with fairly constant output growth and low and stable inflation would be considered economically stable.”

As Americans continue to climb their way back from the nosedive that started in 2008, we’d be wise to think twice before putting our faith in rebuilding the very institutions and cultural mythologies that were, at least in part, responsible for getting us in so much trouble in the first place. For all of globalization’s gifts — an increased sense of empathy for those on the other side of the world, being my personal favorite — one of the burdens has been feeling entangled in an economic web so vast, so intricate, that making smart, moral choices feels next to impossible. You read about the environmental plunder and exploitation happening in Congo, but then struggle to find a conflict-free phone. You don’t want to buy clothes made in sweatshops, but then you hear that you might be empathizing people right out of jobs in the Global South who would rather be vastly underpaid in dangerous factories than have no livelihood at all. It all feels so distant and so complex.

What if one of the virtues for a stable economy wasn’t scale, but its opposite? What if the safest thing we could possibly do is invest in the people and places within walking distance of us?

A family-run bakery sells bread at an open market in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

(Jack Sirichumsaeng / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

That’s the worldview of a whole variety of really interesting people these days, including 35-year-old Janelle Orsi, the co-founder of the Sustainable Economies Law Center and the author of Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy. When Janelle graduated from UC Berkeley Law School in 2008, she started showing up at events around town and introducing herself like this: “I’m a lawyer and my goal is to help people share.”

“People would give me very funny looks,” she admits. “A lot of them actually thought I was joking.”

But then the economic realities started to set in and more and more people started to get hip to what is called the “sharing economy.” Janelle’s version is less Uber and more City CarShare, less Airbnb and more co-housing. In other words, the organizations she’s trying to encourage and support are not designed to serve the masses, but to serve particular communities.

In many ways, Janelle is beating an old drum. In E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, published in 1973, he argued that smaller, localized economies were not only environmentally superior, but socially and morally superior, too. He wrote:

“If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they really are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures. If whole societies become infected by these vices, they may indeed achieve astonishing things but they become increasingly incapable of solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence.”

In other words, as we worship at the altar of scale — big companies, big ideas, big solutions — we conflate size with worthiness. We begin to see every problem, even the most personal, as something that can be solved by a large market, an abstract idea, a person whom we will never meet. In this way, we grow dumb about the power of the people in our own backyard, dumb about how to make basic, meaningful things like food and shelter, dumb about small.

Janelle is wise about small. In fact, she spends her days thinking about all of the ways we can navigate around, subvert, and change the laws that inhibit us from “solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence,” i.e. create worker-owned businesses and other resilient and radical kinds of community organizations. (She also spends her days sketching out her ideas, as she’s literally the “cartoonist-in-chief.”)

A vendor prepares kettle corn at the St. Paul Farmer's Market in Minnesota.

(Sarah McGee / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

Many of the laws that were originally created to protect consumers from big companies actually prevent small-scale entrepreneurs — people who, for example, make granola or bread in their home kitchens and sell at farmer’s markets — from doing the most natural thing in the world: serving hungry folks in their own communities.

In this case, Janelle and her dozen co-workers at The Sustainable Economies Law Center were able to pass The California Homemade Food Act in 2012. The law allows people to create home-based food businesses when they’re creating food that’s not seen as high risk (usually doesn’t require refrigeration) and make less than $55,000 a year. In an otherwise pathetically partisan climate, it’s an idea that people on both sides of the aisle get behind. “It’s the kind of bill that Republicans loved because it’s pro-business and a little bit anti-regulation,” Janelle explains. “But Democrats also are into it because it expands economic opportunities for people who have been marginalized in our current economy.”

E.F. Schumacher died just three years after writing Small Is Beautiful, but I think he would be jumping up and down with delight to know about Janelle and her work in the world. She’s evidence that small is still beautiful.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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I love this. Let's let things be smaller and take longer.

Just to add a local perspective, Minnesota passed a Cottage Food Law just this summer that opens up a lot of the former restrictions around selling things you bake and can at home (thanks in huge part to the tireless efforts of the folks behind ).

Thanks for the heads up. I know that the Sustainable Economies Law Center is in cahoots with folks in Minnesota, so maybe they've collaborated. They want to train local people to do this kind of advocacy all over the country in their own communities, because, well, duh!

Also Charles Eisenstein. A recent article on HuffPo.

Interesting piece. "Small Is Beautiful" is only as good as the morality behind the culture that lies underneath it though. It's sort of like having a "Farm-To-Table" restaurant that grows locally but not organically. What seems to be lacking in Big/Scale is the morality aspect. Not having a moral 'underpinning' is why we create loans that indebt people for life, move jobs offshore and employ children, support all law enforcement actions without looking at all of the facts. It's the culture that is the issue at the end of the day, not the scale. Small does bring about aspects that we all like however as does scale. We should be able to have our cake and eat it too.

Walt Whitman aptly captured the meaning and absurdity of life in Leaves of Grass. Devouring the book at the age of 11, the gift of compassion, consideration, and nature has illuminated my lifetime. Presently, at 68, still attempting the art of instantaneous living, my strength derives from a past filled with paddling against the flow of Madison Avenue illusions; larger, more efficient, stronger.... These are our cultural parasites, the constant disease that tears weft from the warp in the connectivity of our lives.
I do not ever want to be realized as a life possessed with progress. Instead, consider my passion manifest as striving to understand nature albeit an utter failure at living in the moment. Consider how enriching local culture to enjoy the virtues of nature and civility brings the greatest happiness.
Nature provides us with a portion of life to use or abuse. It is our choice whether to flow with advertised life or to learn and practice appreciation of the gifts that nature bestows on our lives. It is only through understanding and caring for our small, surrounding nature that true awe and amazement can bless our lives and we, in turn, can bless our surrounding culture.

Yes, small and ethical is the way to go. Somethings are better done by BIG, but it still comes down to the people who do the work, whether for themselves or a company. It is also time to start a garenteed monthly income [$15. and hour for a 40 hour week] for all adults all the time so that working for others is done for extra money, but not the main source of income. This would stabilize the economy immensly. No one needs to lose everything because a job ends. Distributing the money supply directly to the people is NOT welfare. It is just fair, and makes sense. Add Single Payer health care and we can get on with our lives with out all the conflict.

Thank you Courtney! Great insight, and Small is Beautiful!