Over at a site called Dysophia, devoted to “green anarchism” and the like, someone named Dónal O’Driscoll has published a thoughtful article called “Dreaming Illich.” Billed as an "open letter to the Lancaster Symposium on the Politics of the Bicycle,” it ponders some of the political, sociological, economic, and even health-related consequences and challenges that might arise from a large-scale societal shift away from the car in favor of bicycles. O’Driscoll views this shift as inevitable, if not exactly around the next corner, but he’s brave enough to raise some good questions about what might happen were the car to finally lose its dominance.
Illich, of course, is widely hailed by many of those who advocate just such an elimination of the car. His “Energy & Equity” pamphlet, published in the early 1970s, just as the notion of an “energy crisis” was gaining acceptance as a fact of modern life, argued that modern society’s over-consumption of energy, particularly as used to fuel high-speed transportation systems, hinders any and all attempts at improving social equity. In short, the crisis relating to energy consumption and production exists if and only if one is wed to, and ignores alternatives to, the car.
Because they operate well beyond a certain threshold of speed, transportation systems like the car and the airplane actually generate and enforce great disparity, Illich argued. They are anti-thetical to true democracy and socialism. Such systems inevitably and inexorably segment society into two classes of people, namely those who can and those who cannot afford to jet or drive themselves from here to there on a regular basis.
Illich held up the bicycle as almost a perfect alternative. In terms of energy consumption, it is one of the most efficient vehicles around, for it effectively amplifies the human body’s ability to move itself - its auto-mobility, in other words. The bicycle is relatively inexpensive to build and maintain, and my use of a bike neither forces you also to use one nor does it impede your use of a bicycle, either.
In contrast, it is impossible for everyone in a community to own and drive their own car all or even most of the time; very quickly, the mass of vehicles reaches a point where it permanently clogs all available roads and makes driving more or less impossible. Or, as has happened across much of America, the community will opt to physically reconstruct and further disperse itself just to accommodate the car and all of its trappings (e.g., parking lots, gas stations, and highways) at which point the community, for all intents and purposes, will cease to exist.
O’Driscoll notes that by now, “society is optimized to the combustion engine to the point that we are now blind to its pervasive effects. “ And so, “the challenges of energy descent are under-estimated. If the dream of Illich is to be achieved then we need to be aware of the social ecology of the bicycle - that is, the network of infrastructures throughout society, physical and otherwise, that not just maintain it, but also limit it.”
He then proceeds to identify a variety of those challenges. Road surfaces easily traversed by cars may not be good for mass use of bicycles. Replacing cars with bikes would limit the distances that individuals could cover each day, and that would require a disruptive re-arrangement of urban, suburban, and rural geographies. The distribution of food would have to change in dramatic ways once oil-fueled access to distant farms is eliminated. But what would the enviromental effects of these changes be, given that so much material and energy would likely be needed to rebuild towns, for instance? As energy consumption is lowered, might that not drive up the cost of producing raw materials and therefore the cost of bicycles, too? Would a shift to cycling foster the re-emergence of small-scale businesses - what O’Driscoll calls “crofter-style industries that return skills and manufacturing to communities.” Would different classes of bicycle evolve, much as there are different classes of car today, each one affordable to people of a certain level of income?
And so forth.
O’Driscoll’s thinking is a good, well-considered step in the right direction, though we tend to believe that some of his assumptions bear questioning. For instance, he seems to believe that bicycles must be of fairly advanced design, and therefore costly, to be of much use. But that’s not so, as shown by the bicycle-centric culture that existed until recently in China, for instance. Bicycles that we in the high-income West would consider to be clunky and backwards are for many people in this world a tremendous leap forward. Carbon-fiber frames and hydraulic disk brakes are just icing on the velocipedic cake, as it were. Still, we applaud his making this effort and hope that it didn't land on deaf ears in Lancaster.
Alas, 40 years after Illich published "Energy & Equity," its call for a radical turn in transportation has been pretty much ignored beyond certain eccentric circles of radical activists. China's roads, once teeming with bikes, have been given over almost completely to the car. India is only a few steps behind. And in the U.S., there's great hope for electric and hydrogen-fueled cars which, even if they prove viable, will still be cars, operating at high speeds, spoiling landscapes, and wrecking communities.