E.F. Schumacher was born in Bonn, Germany but his childhood and youth was spent in Berlin where his father was Professor of Economics. After experiencing hyper-inflation in 1920s Germany, he left Berlin in 1929 as a Rhodes Scholar to study economics at Oxford University, England and Columbia University, New York. Returning to Germany in 1934, he decided that Hitler’s Germany was not for him. In 1936 he and his new wife left for England where they remained until the end of the war. Wartime was a formative experience. He was interned briefly as an enemy alien and then spent several years as a farm labourer, using the evenings to develop various economic ideas until he found employment at the Oxford Institute of Statistics. He wanted to be involved in Germany’s reconstruction after Hitler’s defeat.
At this stage Schumacher thought on a grand scale. He applied his essentially Keynesian economics to formulating what he called his ‘world improvement plans’. He met Lord Keynes and senior government figures and wrote leaders for British national newspapers. He thought of himself as a scientific rationalist and admired Marx. When he returned to Germany in 1945, however, (joining the British Control Commission as an economist in 1946), the question of why a cultured and civilised country like Germany had succumbed to the evil of Nazism confronted him. It was not a question that scientific rationalism and Marxism could answer. He had to look elsewhere; a search that changed his life and way of thinking.
In 1950 he moved back to England to work for the British National Coal Board as Economic Adviser (and later Director of Statistics), a post he was to hold for the next 20 years. Here he recognised the crucial role of energy in all economic activity. As early as 1955 he began to warn against a world dependence on oil. At the same time he began to explore the possibility that truth went beyond what science could prove. Reading avidly on his daily train journey to and from work, his visits to Burma in 1955 and India in the early 1960s convinced Schumacher that Western technology was not the answer to world poverty. In 1965 he founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action) to identify and provide appropriate levels of technology for developing countries.
In 1970 Schumacher left the Coal Board to devote himself to writing and lecturing. By this time he had become a leading voice in the emerging environmental movement, warning not only about a future energy crisis but also about the consequences of agricultural and industrial pollution. He travelled constantly and was sought out by heads of state and leading industrialists as well as many groups of alternative thinkers.
His key ideas are contained in his books Small is Beautiful and A Guide for the Perplexed, and, published post-humously, Good Work and This I Believe.
He died suddenly in September 1977 shortly after making the film 'On the Edge of the Forest'.