Blackspot

Illich's Law

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

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

Adbusters 111 Cover

On Newsstands December 3

At last we’re in Winter. It’s the year 2047. A worn scrapbook from the future arrives in your lap. It offers a stunning global vision, a warning to the next generations, a repository of practical wisdom, and an invaluable roadmap which you need to navigate the dark times, and the opportunities, which lie ahead.

Subscribe to Adbusters Magazine

16 comments on the article “Illich's Law”

Displaying 11 - 16 of 16

Page 2 of 2

morlantdk

I remember reading once a book titled OVERPAID, OVERSEXED AND OVER HERE which dealt about the time in which the American troops arrived to the UK during the WWII and one of the first comments was that it was even infamous to see the big waste of food and resources that they made in front of a society which had been rationed for a long time. The problem with energy is that most of the human kind, i.e., the ones living in "developed" societies have never been taught about the rational use of energy and resources. I once visited USA in summer and it was something appalling to walk under the sun and bake yourself and access a mall and then freeze yourself to death. I caught a cold this way.

The aphorism that we should use regarding energy should be LIGHTING A CANDLE MEANS TO CAST A SHADOW. Using energy in an intelligent way would mean less pollution and more available resorces and commodities. Americans use their cars to move around everywhere (also easily understandable because of the distances they have to move). But there are other valid ways to do it in group and with other alternatatíve forms of energy. The problem is that they do not help the entrepreneurs to make so much money as they make with the existing fossil fuels.

Rather that not being aware of the problem I would say that this deals with profit. Once that one has faced circumstances in which not a lot is available, then one realizes that (s)he needs to take care of what (s)he has. For example, water. You value it when you live in a desert. Every drop counts, but at home you waste it opening the shower and letting it run until you get hot water.

morlantdk

I remember reading once a book titled OVERPAID, OVERSEXED AND OVER HERE which dealt about the time in which the American troops arrived to the UK during the WWII and one of the first comments was that it was even infamous to see the big waste of food and resources that they made in front of a society which had been rationed for a long time. The problem with energy is that most of the human kind, i.e., the ones living in "developed" societies have never been taught about the rational use of energy and resources. I once visited USA in summer and it was something appalling to walk under the sun and bake yourself and access a mall and then freeze yourself to death. I caught a cold this way.

The aphorism that we should use regarding energy should be LIGHTING A CANDLE MEANS TO CAST A SHADOW. Using energy in an intelligent way would mean less pollution and more available resorces and commodities. Americans use their cars to move around everywhere (also easily understandable because of the distances they have to move). But there are other valid ways to do it in group and with other alternatatíve forms of energy. The problem is that they do not help the entrepreneurs to make so much money as they make with the existing fossil fuels.

Rather that not being aware of the problem I would say that this deals with profit. Once that one has faced circumstances in which not a lot is available, then one realizes that (s)he needs to take care of what (s)he has. For example, water. You value it when you live in a desert. Every drop counts, but at home you waste it opening the shower and letting it run until you get hot water.

whymikewhy.

Absolutely thought provoking. Very simple logic drawn to what seems to be a simple parallel, the microcosm of a body v. the macrocosm of society. This to me is the inherent flaw in the arguement (even though I agree). Can we go backwards? I think no, but I pray for a cataclismic event to force us... then we can dream again

whymikewhy.

Absolutely thought provoking. Very simple logic drawn to what seems to be a simple parallel, the microcosm of a body v. the macrocosm of society. This to me is the inherent flaw in the arguement (even though I agree). Can we go backwards? I think no, but I pray for a cataclismic event to force us... then we can dream again

Wal-Anonymous

Flail you sound like an utter fool, like a man washing his hands with his last bit of water in the desert. What lies beneath all those "choices" and "liberty" is the wasting of a finite resource. Many fools know how to play a game in which they constantly win by taking pieces of the gameboard itself. The board is only so big. Don't forget about the capital of humans and Earth. Do you really think your car, your tv, and your computer make you more free than a tribal cheiftain? The only positive from "energy" consumption is what helps all life - food, medicine, and creating conditions that behoove life. Soon there will be no energy left but what the sun and earth give freely.

And the argument that burning fossil fuels and damaging the environment has improved life thus far only holds weight in the past. You used to wear a diaper because it was the best way to avoid a mess. But then you learned a better way: self-control.

Wal-Anonymous

Flail you sound like an utter fool, like a man washing his hands with his last bit of water in the desert. What lies beneath all those "choices" and "liberty" is the wasting of a finite resource. Many fools know how to play a game in which they constantly win by taking pieces of the gameboard itself. The board is only so big. Don't forget about the capital of humans and Earth. Do you really think your car, your tv, and your computer make you more free than a tribal cheiftain? The only positive from "energy" consumption is what helps all life - food, medicine, and creating conditions that behoove life. Soon there will be no energy left but what the sun and earth give freely.

And the argument that burning fossil fuels and damaging the environment has improved life thus far only holds weight in the past. You used to wear a diaper because it was the best way to avoid a mess. But then you learned a better way: self-control.

Pages

Add a new comment

Comments are closed.