07/25/2012 08:07 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

Buddhist Spain

Exactly thirty-five years ago an economist and journalist named Dr. E. F. Schumacher passed away. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of his revolutionary book entitled Small Is Beautiful.

When I sorted through endless mounds of material goods as I moved flats last week in Spain, that frayed book, long stowed away from student days, found its way magically into my hands. The subtitle, "A study of economics as if people mattered," seemed so fitting (if not ironic) in the current context that I began to reread.

For this particular blog post, I thought the following subtitle might do: "A study of people in Spain when global economics matters more."

A few hours later I had a farewell chat with my lovely old Spanish landlady. The topic swung tragically towards Spain's current economic predicament.

"I don't watch the news anymore," she said, "Things are just too bad to bear. The problem is Spain's system of autonomic governments. I won't be going to Germany for holidays this year; we have opted for the beaches of Valencia."

A few days later, the autonomic government of Valencia became the first to ask for a bailout from the central government. Life goes on as usual in this city; the beach bustles with tourists, the heat of summer has settled in as every year, but little signs like the posters on pharmacies ("we have not been paid, yet again") or the protests against thousands of local job layoffs which cut off one of the city's main avenues for hours on end indicate that social cohesion is being seriously tested.

"If a man has no chance of obtaining work he is in a desperate position," Schumacher wrote, "not simply because he lacks an income but because he lacks this nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work which nothing can replace."

"No," the landlady's son countered, sitting next to her on the little red sofa. "The real problem is this: the other day, when Spain won the European Championships, I went to the biggest national store chain and bought a Spanish flag to celebrate. It said: Made in China."

"The Buddhist economist would hold that to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than from sources nearby signifies failure rather than success," wrote Schumacher.

"The other problem we have," the son added, "is that we've been living above our means. Everybody in Spain wanted to own a BMW."

"It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them," Schumacher pointed out.

What Spain needs, then, is simple. To become Buddhist Spain.

Not in terms of religion, because that would be some undertaking and essentially unrealistic in largely Catholic Spain. But in terms of economic planning and education for coming generations, Schumacher's chapter on Buddhist economics should certainly be read by those who wish to rebuild a fairer society in Spain in the future.

"It is clear, therefore," Schumacher added, "that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character."

As I sorted through mounds and heaps of belongings and stacked Small if Beautiful in the pile of 'things to keep', I came to two essential conclusions. The first was that I essentially had enough clothes to get me through the rest of my life without entering another shop. The second was that although four decades is a long time by any measure, the work of Schumacher is far from outdated in Spain's current economic predicament.