Small is Beautiful?

Stimulated by various articles in the press in recent times, Seán was prompted to write these few words as we adjust to life with Covid 19. It has also been included in the latest European Health Futures Forum newsletter.

When E.F. Schumacher wrote his influential treatise on economics in the early 70’s of the last century, it is unlikely that he was thinking of how a virus only about 120 nm (nano metres) could have such a profound impact on so many aspects of our lives – from the personal to the macroeconomics – in the space of a few months.

Our world under a different sky:

The early panic buying of toilet paper (!) in western society gave way to more subtle shifts in consciousness in a world of new contexts and behaviours. More time at home has led to the revival of old and the development of new activities – evidenced by shortages of baking materials – flour, yeast – and the rapid growth in online activities commercial, educational and developmental.

The realisation that no work commute and obligatory virtual meetings actually can make for a better lifestyle, has set the foundation for profound workplace changes in the future. For those fortunate enough not to be directly impacted, the slower pace of life, absence of traffic and noise, and the changes in human behaviour have all led to greater awareness – of breathing oxygen, of hearing the birds sing, seeing the stars, of our place in nature and in the cosmos. Ornithologists have noted that birds themselves are more relaxed, while hits on birdwatch sites have more than trebled. Although nature itself has not changed very much, humans are limited in travelling, have more time and therefore are much more aware of what is around them.

Public and social gatherings of all types from sports to the arts have been curtailed, and while many artists and musicians have taken to online platforms, these initiatives have led to questions about how we recognise and reward our artists for their work, who benefits, and indeed the place of the arts in our lives.

Uncovering fault-lines:

However, these forced limitations on our lives are having other perhaps deeper consequences. The full impact of the virus on mental health, loneliness, domestic violence, addiction, or our physical health for example, has yet to be determined. Add to this, dramatic changes imposed on our witness of life’s passing stages such as marriage and death as well as rituals and religious observations. The unfolding consequences of approaches and actions on how to resource the protection of vulnerable sections of the population, such as the elderly and the very young shines a light on fundamental ethical questions for society. Is it an accident that in Ireland, for example, large numbers of Nursing Home staff are ‘agency workers’, typically non-nationals?

The virus has also shone a light on a variety of leadership approaches in different countries. Invariably our politicians all claim to be following ‘scientific advice’ or more bluntly ‘the science’. The gravity of decisions made – including limitations on movement, development of tracking methods, allocation of very significant resources (regionally, by group..) how older people are treated and even sharing of resources with other countries – often evade scrutiny or deny debate by invoking various excuses such as legal advice, constitutional obstacles etc. In so doing the very basis of our democracies is threatened.

Another threat on the horizon:

While the catastrophic economic consequences with collapsing businesses and uncertainty in employment continues to unfold, more subtle but equally serious changes are taking place. The accelerating pressure on traditional media, particularly newsprint, as advertising revenues free-fall seriously threatens the voice of independent journalism. This has brought into sharp focus the global dominance of particularly Google and Facebook. In Ireland, which is typical of other western European countries in this respect, these two companies alone collected an estimated 40% of total advertising spend, and are believed to control more than 80 % of the online advertising market. This dominance makes it unlikely that smaller players can break into and survive in the new online world. As we emerge into the next post-pandemic phase, there is the greatest need for the transparency and scrutiny which a diverse and healthy communications sector facilitates.

Can global disaster lead to lasting changes for the better?

There is also an underlying current of reflection emerging on the opportunities of building totally new economic and social approaches. Articles linking the causes of the pandemic and particularly its rapid spread with our traditional approaches to supply-chains, global commerce, cheap travel etc., are also turning an eye to innovative approaches and reflections on GDP dominance, reliance on economic growth, and how better to monitor health, well-being and quality of life.

Fifty years on, E.F. Schumacher and his thinking are more relevant than ever.
Seán Ó Conláin 04.05.20

Featured image: stars. Source:

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