Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ivan Illich: Energy and Equity

I just discovered (through Resilience.org) Ivan Illich's masterpiece, 'Energy and Equity', first published in 1973 (84 pages). It should be required reading for anyone interested in sociology of the environment.



It has recently become fashionable to insist on an impending energy crisis. This euphemistic term conceals a contradiction and consecrates an illusion. It masks the contradiction implicit in the joint pursuit of equity and industrial growth. It safeguards the illusion that machine power can indefinitely take the place of manpower. To resolve this contradiction and dispel this illusion, it is urgent to clarify the reality that the language of crisis obscures: high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.

The advocates of an energy crisis believe in and continue to propagate a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command. This belief is common to the conflicting economic ideologies now in vogue. It is threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.
The energy policies adopted during the current decade will determine the range and character of social relationships a society will be able to enjoy by the year 2000. A low-energy policy allows for a wide choice of life-styles and cultures. If, on the other hand, a society opts for high energy consumption, its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labeled capitalist or socialist.

At this moment, most societies---especially the poor ones---are still free to set their energy policies by any of three guidelines. Well-being can be identified with high amounts of per capita energy use, with high efficiency of energy transformation, or with the least possible use of mechanical energy by the most powerful members of society. The first approach would stress tight management of scarce and destructive fuels on behalf of industry, whereas the second would emphasize the retooling of industry in the interest of thermodynamic thrift. These first two attitudes necessarily imply huge public expenditures and increased social control; both rationalize the emergence of a computerized Leviathan, and both are at present widely discussed.

The possibility of a third option is barely noticed. While people have begun to accept ecological limits on maximum per capita energy use as a condition for physical survival, they do not yet think about the use of minimum feasible power as the foundation of any of various social orders that would be both modern and desirable. Yet only a ceiling on energy use can lead to social relations that are characterized by high levels of equity. The one option that is at present neglected is the only choice within the reach of all nations. It is also the only strategy by which a political process can be used to set limits on the power of even the most motorized bureaucrat. Participatory democracy postulates low-energy technology. Only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology.

What is generally overlooked is that equity and energy can grow concurrently only to a point. Below a threshold of per capita wattage, motors improve the conditions for social progress. Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity. Further energy affluence then means decreased distribution of control over that energy.

The widespread belief that clean and abundant energy is the panacea for social ills is due to a political fallacy, according to which equity and energy consumption can be indefinitely correlated, at least under some ideal political conditions. Laboring under this illusion, we tend to discount any social limit on the growth of energy consumption. But if ecologists are right to assert that nonmetabolic power pollutes, it is in fact just as inevitable that, beyond a certain threshold, mechanical power corrupts. The threshold of social disintegration by high energy quanta is independent from the threshold at which energy conversion produces physical destruction. Expressed in horsepower, it is undoubtedly lower. This is the fact which must be theoretically recognized before a political issue can be made of the per capita wattage to which a society will limit its members.

Even if nonpolluting power were feasible and abundant, the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving. A community can choose between Methadone and ``cold turkey''---between maintaining its addiction to alien energy and kicking it in painful cramps---but no society can have a population that is hooked on progressively larger numbers of energy slaves and whose members are also autonomously active.

In previous discussions, I have shown that, beyond a certain level of per capita GNP, the cost of social control must rise faster than total output and become the major institutional activity within an economy. Therapy administered by educators, psychiatrists, and social workers must converge with the designs of planners, managers, and salesmen, and complement the services of security agencies, the military, and the police. I now want to indicate one reason why increased affluence requires increased control over people. I argue that beyond a certain median per capita energy level, the political system and cultural context of any society must decay. Once the critical quantum of per capita energy is surpassed, education for the abstract goals of a bureaucracy must supplant the legal guarantees of personal and concrete initiative. This quantum is the limit of social order. . .

Radical monopoly is first established by a rearrangement of society for the benefit of those who have access to the larger quanta; then it is enforced by compelling all to consume the minimum quantum in which the output is currently produced. Compulsory consumption will take on a different appearance in industrial branches where information dominates, such as education or medicine, than it will in those branches where quanta can be measured in British thermal units, such as housing, clothing, or transport. The industrial packaging of values will reach critical intensity at different points with different products, but for each major class of outputs, the threshold occurs within an order of magnitude that is theoretically identifiable. The fact that it is possible theoretically to determine the range of speed within which transportation develops a radical monopoly over traffic does not mean that it is possible theoretically to determine just how much of such a monopoly any given society will tolerate. The fact that it is possible to identify a level of compulsory instruction at which learning by seeing and doing declines does not enable the theorist to identify the specific pedagogical limits to the division of labor that a culture will tolerate. Only recourse to juridical and, above all, to political process can lead to the specific, though provisional, measures by which speed or compulsory education will actually be limited in a given society. The magnitude of voluntary limits is a matter of politics; the encroachment of radical monopoly can be pinpointed by social analysis.

A branch of industry does not impose a radical monopoly on a whole society by the simple fact that it produces scarce products, or by driving competing industries off the market, but rather by virtue of its acquired ability to create and shape the need which it alone can satisfy.

Shoes are scarce all over Latin America, and many people never wear them. They walk on the bare soles of their feet, or wear the world's widest variety of excellent sandals, supplied by a range of artisans. Their transit is in no way restricted by their lack of shoes. But in some countries of South America people are compelled to be shod ever since access to schools, jobs, and public services was denied to the barefoot. Teachers or party officials define the lack of shoes as a sign of indifference toward ``progress.'' Without any intentional conspiracy between the promoters of national development and the shoe industry, the barefoot in these countries are now barred from any office.

Schools, like shoes, have been scarce at all times. But it was never the small number of privileged pupils that turned the school into an obstacle for learning. Only when laws were enacted to make schools both compulsory and free did the educator assume the power to deny learning opportunities on the job to the underconsumer of educational therapies. Only when school attendance had become obligatory did it become feasible to impose on all a progressively more complex artificial environment into which the unschooled and unprogrammed do not fit.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! This magnificent piece was brought to my attention years ago by my good colleague Dean Bavington.