Illich's Law

Economies based on the “use of minimum feasible power.”

Ivan Illich

In 1974 Ivan Illich, a maverick philosopher and priest, published Energy and Equity, a series of essays recording his seminar on the “energy crisis.” But Illich, whose groundbreaking work Deschooling Society secured his fame as a brilliant paradigm-shifting outsider, did not use his seminar to preach about the necessity of energy efficiency, security or independence. On the contrary, he challenged the assumption that energy is good for society. In a move that continues to provoke us today, Illich rejected calls for energy efficiency, which he saw as resulting in “huge public expenditures and increased [societal] control” along with “the emergence of a computerized Leviathan.” Instead, he promoted economies based on the “use of minimum feasible power”: an energy policy that he believed would facilitate modern egalitarian societies.

Illich’s argument rested on the connection he observed between the increase of energy available to a country and the decrease of individual freedom in that society. He argued that just as the overconsumption of energy in the form of calories can make a healthy person morbidly obese, gorging on excess wattage can transform a democratic society into an authoritarian one. There is a threshold beyond which an increase of energy necessitates regulatory technocrats and bureaucrats, laws and enforcement agencies, and other forms of social control. He maintained that: “High quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.” I have come to call this idea “Illich’s Law.”

It turns out that the usefulness of Illich’s Law extends beyond the problem of energy policy alone. Take, for example, the question of transportation: energy converted into speed. Illich argued that, beyond a certain threshold, an increase in speed leads to a decrease in liberty. When a society’s transportation systems go faster than 15 miles per hour, an apparatus of social control arises: “From the moment its machines could put more than a certain horsepower behind any one passenger, this industry has reduced equality among men, restricted their mobility to a system of industrially defined routes and created time scarcity of unprecedented severity.” And in a prescient footnote, Illich explains that the same application of his law can be made to interrogate the consequences of energy converted into the speed of information.

In the contemporary debate over energy policy only two options are ever proposed: either we pursue technologies such as nuclear power that we imagine will allow us unlimited energy or we pursue “green” technologies that will give us greater efficiency. But if Illich is right, then both policies will lead us toward the same bureaucratized authoritarian consumer society. If a glut of energy is as dangerous to our societies as a glut of calories is to our bodies, then the only way forward may be to embrace a minimal energy lifestyle. Then the question becomes: how do we wean ourselves from the wattage addiction?

Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He is writing a book on the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org