Street Talk: Ivan Illich on Sharing in Transport

“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport*. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role. Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social, and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed. He has become impotent to establish his domain, mark it with his imprint, and assert his sovereignty over it. He has lost confidence in his power to admit  others into his presence and to share space consciously with them. He can no longer face the remote by himself. Left on his own, he feels immobile.”

Ivan Illich in Energy and Equity (Chapter: Speed-stunned imagination)

* Illich uses transport as modes of movement which rely on sources of energy that don’t utilize the human metabolic energy.

Kind thanks to G.L. Howe for reminding us of how very far ahead was the great man in his thinking and the ideas he shared with us so many years ago. Time to reread and rethink Illich!

4 thoughts on “Street Talk: Ivan Illich on Sharing in Transport

  1. Illich has been a personal polestar for me since I first encountered “Energy and Equity” circa 1973. The passage that Eric excerpted here isn’t one of my favorites, but the beauty of Illich or any other profound writer is that each of us finds our own gems.

    I’ll venture that, too often, the rich tapestry of Illich’s thought has been reduced to the useful but somewhat overplayed nugget about auto users moving at only 5 mph when the full range of their costs (let alone “external” costs) is counted … much like the life and work of Martin Luther King — recently and moving memorialized by Charles M. Blow in the NY Times as “He was smart and brave, steadfast and unmovable. He was a man consumed by conviction and possessed by the magnificent radiance of the earnestly humble.” — has been reduced to “I have a dream.” Yes, Illich deserves and needs to be read continually. Thanks, Eric, for reminding us.

  2. Thanks, Eric. Indeed, all relevant analyses and policy proposals to save our civilization are available for many decades. The only speed we still need is the mental speed to start doing, resp. stop doing.
    What Illich means for mobility, perfectly adds to what E.J Mishan wrote in 1967 “The costs of economic growth” and of course Henry George in 1879 in “Progress and Poverty”, to mention just a few great thinkers.
    As we now know from recent disaster, the mainstream economic theory has not learned from them and instead further developed the so-called “neo-liberal” manifestation of naked capitalism. This continues in power almost unchanged despite the unanimous call for Sustainable Development and the broadening to 3P in 1987. And despite recent failure, resulting in the Second Depression, neoliberalism continues to be preached in business schools and universities – that can well be considered the madrassas of our western culture, with its imam Alan Greenspan, that educate/indoctrinate our business and political elites.
    These madrassas – although Greenspan has admitted that he learned something from the financial crisis – continue to resist independent and thus much more effective supervision of financial markets and even minor improvements like the Tobin or Financial Transaction Tax, carbon tax and land value tax.
    It is gives hope, however, that this insight is now attracting more attention, of which your article on Ivan Illich is a very good proof !

  3. I fully concur with C. Komanoff that “Illich deserves and needs to be read continually.” Spot on. The more you read of Illich, the more he seems to say, the sharper his scalpel, the brighter his torch.
    Also, may I bring attention to a later essay by Illich that reveals how his thinking on energy evolved. Early this year, a Harvard journal called New Geographies published, for the first time, a 1983 paper called “The Social Construction of Energy.” (Alas, this paper is, I believe, not available on-line.) As the title suggests, Illich’s aim here was to describe how the word “energy” operates in today’s language and discussions, what meanings it conveys, what myths surround it. He offers a wonderful history of the word’s definition, showing how scientists (e.g. Mach) and social philosophers (namely Marx), alike, relied on each other to invent a new entity called energy. And he identifies several obstacles that prevent most of us from seeing this fact, that energy, operating hand-in-hand with “work,” is a construct. Energy simply did not exist, at least, not as a measure of nature’s ability to do work, until the early 1800s.
    Today, “the word energy functions as a collage of meanings,” Illich concludes. “[It is] charged with hidden implications: it refers to a subtle something that has the ability to make nature do work. … It is a symbol that fits our age, the symbol of that which is both abundant and scarce.” Abundant because it is, we’re told by certain mystical scientists and scientific mystics, what the whole world is made of. Scarce because it is a resource, which by definition is something for which demand exceeds supply. Energy is the subject of much “supersitition religiosity.” And the energy whose consumption we all want to reduce and whose production we want to expand using low-impact, “soft” alternatives is a quite different stuff from the “E” that Einstein and other physicists discuss in their highly technical equations.
    He also expresses embarassment at his misunderstanding of the “energy” discourse when writing “Energy & Equity.” That first essay, a major inspiration to the alternative energy and transportation crowd, argued that over-consumption of scarce energy doomed any prospect of social equity, particularly as relates to transportation. Even if they were powered by water or some other non-polluting fuel that cost nothing, Illich seemed to say, cars’ high rates of acceleration and their unavoidable monopolization of the roads would still wreck communities and rip the social fabric. In short, democracy and social equity cease to be possible when a society’s consumption of energy passes beyond a certain threshold – a relatively low threshold, in fact, that was exceeded long ago by the U.S. and other industrialized nations but one which, in 1974, still seemed to be a goal that “developing” nations could, if they chose, respect.
    A decade later, Illich had come to see that the usual discussion of energy efficiency in transportation – how many calories, or watts, are required to move people by bicycle vs. car, for instance – missed entirely a vital point: Human-powered transport – on foot or by bicycle – does not “conjure up the illusion … of a regime of scarcity,” such illusion being a fundamental assumption that underpins all discussions of traffic. The actual space through which people drive cars, Illich came to see in his on-going work on the “history of scarcity,” is of a radically different kind than that traversed by people on foot or bicycle. Measurable solely in terms of Cartesian coordinates, modern space is homogenized and technologized (not his word). It is not commensurable with traditional space, which is a commons. As Illich sees it, a commons is something that I can use without making it any more difficult for you to use. In short, walkers do not consume passenger-miles.

    The idea that space itself has a history – and that it differs by culture and place and time – is pursued by Illich elsewhere: in an intriguing book published shortly thereafter, called H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, and in an essay, also published in the mid-1980s, about “dwelling.”


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