More on Illich, energy and equity

This commentary, just in from reader John Verity writing from Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, takes Illich beyond his original point of departure in this essay written in 1974, discussing the flow of his thinking on energy and technology that appeared in other pages and books in the decade that followed.

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 ongoing 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.”

# # #

About the author:

John Verity is an journalist-writer (technology, business) and photographer living in Santa Rosa, Calif. “As a longtime reader of Illich, I am proud to say I did without a car till age 46, when the economics of raising a family swept me out of Brooklyn, NY, to the NJ suburbs. I blog, therefore I am:”


* Original World Streets 29 September 2010 posting on Illich is available here.

5 thoughts on “More on Illich, energy and equity

  1. Alexander Berthelsen on Facebook
    we’re doing the first of two group readings on the book in Stockholm tomorrow, it’ll be nice! Thnx for the inspiration to pick it up once again.

    Eric Britton
    You will see more On World Streets today and next week on this great and very good man and his extraordinary lucidity about the simple truths that surround us every minute of every day. Congratulations on you rinititiave twice. First for chosing Illich. And second for reading to each other Now that’s civilization.

    Alexander Berthelsen
    just finished reading Deschooling Society, a bit disappointed by it compared to Energy and equity, even though the first two chapters where extremely thoughtful. We might try to produce some text from our reading group, if so I’ll contact you and see if it could be of interest to world streets.

  2. Regarding transportation in light of education, please consider this bit of text, extracted from a 1983 paper by Ivan Illich that I have just learned of. It’s titled ‘Eco-pedagogics and the commons’ and it’s downloadable from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.
    Typical for this moment in Illich’s intellectual inquiry, this paper seeks to highlight the differences between a world of markets and economics, all rooted in the assumption of scarcity, and the traditional, vernacular world based on the notion of commons. The essay is clearly a product of Illich’s on-going attempt to write a “history of scarcity.” No book ever got published under that specific title, but the project, started in the late 1970s as Illich began winding down his public speaking and political activism and turning to a study of history, yielded many interesting pieces of writing, including this one.

    Illich writes:

    “ … Education I associate with some kind of swimming lesson in which pupils are trained to keep afloat in an ever rising tide of bits, a flood that has long ago lifted them off the ground of personal meanings. As the pupil is taught how to handle, ever more skillfully, the onrush of information, even his desire for grounding in a meaningful system is eroded. In a similar way with development and economic growth, I associate counter-productivity: the frustrating ability of institutions to remove their clients, particularly the majority of the less privileged, precisely from the purpose the institution was set up to deliver.”

    Counter-productivity is, of course, a key concept for Illich, perhaps best explained and investigated in his book Medical Nemesis. The phenomenon is easily identified in car culture: High-speed, high-energy vehicles not only push pedestrians and cyclists off the road, they also stretch the landscape apart so that human-powered transport is no longer effective. Like heated gas molecules, cars exert a pressure on communities from the inside out, a pressure that pushes the nodes of daily life – home, shops, offices, school, etc. – far apart from each other, so that only those who can drive a car – indeed, at some point, only those drivers wealthy enough to avoid rush-hour – are able to traverse the new distances in a reasonable amount of time. The “less privileged” wait for second-class buses.

    Illich: “… Education, as manpower qualification, is an enterprise by which people are disciplined for competent performance of work which remains meaningless to them. More recently, education, as training for clientage in the service industry, for computer use and for consumption, is an enterprise that teaches people to content themselves with meaningless lives off the job. In both ways education is a means to make people adjuncts to economic growth. But this economic growth will not come and if it comes it will be of an entirely symbolic nature. If the word ‘development’ is to survive, it must now acquire a new meaning. So far it has meant more energy intensive goods and more professional service. Both types of growth have reached their asymptote, not so much because their externalities have become intolerable, but because they have become counterproductive. At this point, development can only mean a change-over from growth to a steady state. However, what steady state shall mean depends entirely on the way in which we interpret the present.

    “… Most people now alive have acquired [the assumption of scarcity] during this generation. Take as an example, transportation. A large part of all those still alive were born auto-mobile. They had only their feet for moving about. Culture defined their range, but within this range they had almost unlimited access to each other. Getting from here to there did not depend, most of the time, on a resource which was scarce, which you could not get if I got it. This is totally different for us. We have created a world in which we have to be moved, in which we have to consume “passenger miles”. And these are always scarce – if I get there, I compete with you for a seat. We belong to the human subspecies of homo transportandus. In the same way we belong to the sub-species of homo educandus. Once everywhere almost everything that people needed for everyday life they learned because it was meaningful to them and had proven useful. Now, we are constantly taught what is meaningful, from a perspective which is not yet ours, and we are taught things that, we are told, one day will be useful to us. And we are taught only as much as we are able to pay for, or society is rich enough to give us. Education as a result of teaching, is always a commodity, a service and as such is scarce.”

    As usual, no summary does Illich justice. His aphoristic prose is deceptively simple and a challenge to interpret or paraphrase concisely. Read the paper in full.
    Anyone piqued by this essay might want to look at another essay by Illich, called Shadow Work, published in a book by that name. There, Illich explains how the modern service economy can work as it does only because consumers do a hell of a lot of extra work for free, work that’s vital to adding value back into various commodities and services. This so-called shadow work has to be done for no pay, for otherwise, the economy would grind to a halt. Some of Illich’s examples are housework, generally done by women; the various degrees, credentials, certifications, on-the-job training classes, and other types of education that workers are required to consume; and directly related to our favorite topic in this forum, daily commuting to and from the job.

  3. Well, here we are. Now watching as the Promethean backlash occurs in Fukushima. The need for mass understanding of Illich’s wisdom is greater than ever. Dunno how we promote such revolutionary veil-lifting as his. I guess we just work in the sphere with which we can. Aloha.

  4. Pingback: More on Illich, energy and equity | Annihilation of Space

  5. Pingback: ‘Batti Gaadi’, mobility problem and India’s great expectations | Annihilation of Space

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