Energy and Equity

Ivan Illich

``El socialismo puede llegar sólo en bicicleta.''

José Antonio Viera-Gallo
Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende

This text was first published in Le Monde in early 1973. Over lunch in Paris the venerable editor of that daily, as he accepted my manuscript, recommended just one change. He felt that a term as little known and as technical as ``energy crisis'' had no place in the opening sentence of an article that he would be running on page 1. As I now reread the text, I am struck by the speed with which language and issues have shifted in less than five years. But I am equally struck by the slow yet steady pace at which the radical alternative to industrial society---namely, low-energy, convivial modernity---has gained defenders. In this essay I argue that under some circumstances, a technology incorporates the values of the society for which it was invented to such a degree that these values become dominant in every society which applies that technology. The material structure of production devices can thus irremediably incorporate class prejudice. High-energy technology, at least as applied to traffic, provides a clear example. Obviously, this thesis undermines the legitimacy of those professionals who monopolize the operation of such technologies. It is particularly irksome to those individuals within the professions who seek to serve the public by using the rhetoric of class struggle with the aim of replacing the ``capitalists'' who now control institutional policy by professional peers and laymen who accept professional standards Mainly under the influence of such ``radical'' professionals, this thesis has, in only five years, changed from an oddity into a heresy that has provoked a barrage of abuse. The distinction proposed here, however, is not new. I oppose tools that can be applied in the generation of use-values to others that cannot be used except in the production of commodities This distinction has recently been re-emphasized by a great variety of social critics The insistence on the need for a balance between convivial and industrial tools is, in fact, the common distinctive element in an emerging consensus among groups engaged in radical politics A superb guide to the bibliography in this field has been published in Radical Technology (London and New York, 1976), by the editors of Undercurrents. I have transferred my own files on the theme to Valentina Borremans, who is now working on a librarians' guide to reference materials on use-value-oriented modern tools, scheduled for publication in 1978. (Preliminary drafts of individual chapters of this guide can be obtained by writing to Valentina Borremans, APDO 479, Cuernavaca, Mexico.) The specific argument on socially critical energy thresholds in transportation that I pursue in this essay has been elaborated and documented by two colleagues, Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Jean Robert, in their two jointly written books, La Trahison de l'opulence (Paris, 1976) and Les Chronophages (Paris, 1978).

[from: Ivan Illich: Toward a History of Needs. New York: Pantheon, 1978.]

created 95-06-20, last modified 95-07-15 by Ira Woodhead / Frank Keller