Friday, October 15, 2010

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.”

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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.

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