A Story, as told by E.F. Schumacher
Published in E.F. Schumacher, 1999. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered: 25 Years Later … With Commentaries. Hartley & Marks.
March 1977 E.F. Schumacher visited The Land Institute at Salina, Kansas, a fledgling organization scarcely six months old, an organization with little to show the distinguished visitor whose philosophy most inspired our establishment. “Little to show” is an understatement in that there was less to show that March than the previous September of our establishment. The previous October, a short six weeks after our opening, a fire destroyed our classroom building/workshop. Books, tools, building — everything had been reduced to ashes. The building was not insured because the insurance company was trying to figure out what sort of language would cover such a structure of such an enterprise.
And so when any visitor came to this inauspicious setting, and at that time relative impoverished landscape, condescension or discouragement would have been no surprise. Fritz Schumacher was the opposite.
As we toured the grounds where we discussed various designs for the place he asked, “Have you thought about fruit and nut trees?” We had. Passing various piles of junk accumulated from farm auctions and elsewhere we came upon a pile of 225 patio doors I had bought cheap from a company that had gone out of business. It was a bargain I couldn’t pass up. I expressed my worry about what we would eventually do with them and about the propriety of using materials that were the excess of an extractive society to build a sustainable future. He did not comment immediately but finally he turned to me and said, “Never mind, materials want to be used, they’ll show you how.” The Buddhist in him was talking.
But this is not the story I want to tell. We had arranged for this widely acclaimed author to give a public lecture in the Salina Community Theatre. To a full auditorium, he began by telling a story of a trip he had made during the 30s with some friends, an automobile trip across America which included passage through Kansas. He and his compatriots had stopped at a service station in some small Kansas town at the height of the Great Depression. Fritz engaged a local man at the station by asking, “How are things?” “Fine,” the local replied. “What is it you do?” asked Fritz. “Oh, I work on that farm over there,” he said pointing. “I used to own that farm but I had no money to pay the hired hand, so I paid him in land. Eventually he owned all of my farm and now I work for him.”
“That is a very sad story,” replied Fritz.” “Well, not so sad,” replied the hired hand. “He has no money either and so he is paying me back in land.”
The audience loved the story and if nothing else is remembered from his lecture, that story will go down in this community for a thousand years or more. It satisfied me because of what I call the “Mill Around Theory for Civilization.” Central to the Mill Around Theory is that all we have to do is figure out a way to stay amused while we live til we die. I don’t mean amused in a shallow tee-hee sense, but to live artfully at no cost to future generations.