Friday, November 18, 2011

Small is Beautiful

We learn a lot about business models these days when informed by IHS Suppli following a component teardown that the Amazon Fire, which sells for $199 costs $201.70 to make. Equally interesting is the Kobo ad supported e-reader that sells for $99. And far from the telcom's radar is the partially-subsidized Indian Aakas tablet that will sell for $50, a response to the challenge of providing services to the "last mile" In India the last mile is represented by the poorest of the poor who live on less that $2 a day.

Recently I was researching the international ramifications of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  A Danish blog, Mythological Quarter, mentions a NYC-based group that has created bicycle generators in an apparent failed attempt to get around Mayor Bloomberg's ban on kerosene heaters. The blog suggests the OWS movements worldwide consult Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation, a book I edited thirty years ago.

I published this title when  E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, was widely read and became something of a bible for the back-to-the land movement. But Schumacher was a respected economist and not a one-issue prophet. He suggested more than a generation ago that the modern economy is unsustainable. He argued that fossil fuels should be treated as capital and not as expendible income. If he had a rallying cry, it was about "appropriate technology."

The Pedal Power book was a product of an insight  by the late Bob Rodale, who while watching bicycle racers on the Lehigh County Veldrome envisioned practical applications for this pedal power. He established an incubator to develop prototypes that would power well pumps, plows, and grain mills. He quickly realized this technology would have applications for developing countries. The responsible UN agency did not think so, though the book has been translated into about eighteen languages and widely pirated.

It is mildly amusing to think of the OWS protestors around the world pedaling their stationary bikes at a brisk 120 RPMs to power their iPhones and iPads. This is one way to stay warm. I'm not sure what Schumacher might have recommended.  He was fond of talking about a "philosophy of enoughness"
and "Buddhist economics." We have heard similar sentiments from OWS. 

Small is Beautiful is worthy of a new generation.

1 comment:

  1. Every time I go for a run I think about the amount of potential energy that, if captured, could be put to future use. Imagine a world where every physical effort generated some future benefit. It could be a secondary currency that is as easy to generate in impoverished nations as it would in the US and Europe.