Thursday, December 08, 2011

Energy and Equity, by Ivan Illich (excerpts)

"El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta." (Socialism can arrive only by bicycle)
—José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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By exporting their crisis and by preaching the new gospel of puritan energy worship, the rich do even more damage to the poor than they did by selling them the products of now outdated factories. As soon as a poor country accepts the doctrine that more energy more carefully managed will always yield more goods for more people, that country locks itself into the cage of enslavement to maximum industrial outputs. Inevitably the poor lose the option for rational technology when they choose to modernize their poverty by increasing their dependence on energy. Inevitably the poor deny themselves the possibility of liberating technology and participatory politics when, together with maximum feasible energy use, they accept maximum feasible social control.
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Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.
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Enforced dependence on auto-mobile machines then denies a community of self-propelled people just those values supposedly procured by improved transportation.
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Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement.
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The habitual passenger ... believes that the level of democratic process correlates to the power of transportation and communications systems. He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it.
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Beyond a critical speed, no one can save time without forcing another to lose it.
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At each new level, the concentration of power must produce its own kind of rationale. So, for example, the reason that is usually given for spending public money to make a man travel more miles in less time each year is the still greater investment that was made to keep him more years in school.
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Acceleration inevitably concentrates horsepower under the seats of a few and compounds the increasing time lack of most commuters with the further sense that they are lagging behind.
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The need for unequal privilege in an industrial society is generally advocated by means of an argument with two sides. The hypocrisy of this argument is clearly betrayed by acceleration. Privilege is accepted as the necessary precondition for improving the lot of a growing total population, or it is advertised as the instrument for raising the standards of a deprived minority. In the long run, accelerating transportation does neither. It only creates a universal demand for motorized conveyance and puts previously unimaginable distances between the various layers of privilege. Beyond a certain point, more energy means less equity.
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Social classification by levels of speed enforces a net transfer of power: the poor work and pay to get left behind. But if the middle classes of a speed society may be tempted to ignore discrimination, they should not neglect the rising marginal disutilities of transportation and their own loss of leisure. High speeds for all mean that everybody has less time for himself as the whole society spends a growing slice of its time budget on moving people. Vehicles running over the critical speed not only tend to impose inequality, they also inevitably establish a self-serving industry that hides an inefficient system of locomotion under apparent technological sophistication.
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But as long as any system of vehicles imposes itself on the public by top speeds that are not under political control, the public is left to choose between spending more time to pay for more people to be carried from station to station, and paying less taxes so that even fewer people can travel in much less time much farther than others.
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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.
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The proposal of a limit to speed within this order of magnitude engenders stubborn opposition. It exposes the addiction of industrialized men to ever higher doses of energy, while it asks those who are still sober to abstain from something they have yet to taste.
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People are born almost equally mobile. Their natural ability speaks for the personal liberty of each one to go wherever he or she wants to go. Citizens of a society founded on the notion of equity will demand the protection of this right against any abridgment. It should be irrelevant to them by what means the exercise of personal mobility is denied, whether by imprisonment, bondage to an estate, revocation of a passport, or enclosure within an environment that encroaches on a person’s native ability to move in order to make him a consumer of transport. This inalienable right of free movement does not lapse just because most of our contemporaries have strapped themselves into ideological seat belts.
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Transportation can abridge traffic in three ways: by breaking its flow, by creating isolated sets of destinations, and by increasing the loss of time due to traffic. I have already argued that the key to the relation between transport and traffic is the speed of vehicles. I have described how, past a certain threshold of speed, transport has gone on to obstruct traffic in these three ways. It blocks mobility by cluttering up the environment with vehicles and roads. It transforms geography into a pyramid of circuits sealed off from one another according to levels of acceleration. It expropriates life-time at the behest of speed.
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At unlimited top speed neither public ownership of the means of transportation nor technical improvements in their control can ever eliminate growing and unequal exploitation.
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A country can be classified as overindustrialized when its social life is dominated by the transportation industry, which has come to determine its class privileges, to accentuate its time scarcity, and to tie its people more tightly to the tracks it has laid out for them.
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Underequipment keeps people frustrated by inefficient labor and invites the enslavement of man by man. Overindustrialization enslaves people to the tools they worship, fattens professional hierarchs on bits and on watts, and invites the translation of unequal power into huge income differentials. It imposes the same net transfers of power on the productive relations of every society, no matter what creed the managers profess, no matter what rain-dance, what penitential ritual they conduct.
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The reconquest of power starts with the recognition that expert knowledge blinds the secretive bureaucrat to the obvious ...
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There are two roads from where we are to technological maturity: one is the road of liberation from affluence; the other is the road of liberation from dependence. Both roads have the same destination: the social restructuring of space that offers to each person the constantly renewed experience that the center of the world is where he stands, walks, and lives.
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Such a process amounts to public guardianship over a means of production to keep this means from turning into a fetish for the majority and an end for the few. ... A society that tolerates the transgression of this threshold inevitably diverts its resources from the production of means that can be shared equitably and transforms them into fuel for a sacrificial flame that victimizes the majority.