We've recently come across a rarely-seen paper by Ivan Illich, one that's new to us and definitely worth a look by anyone interested in Illich's thought. "Eco-pedagogics and the commons" is from 1983, when he was still working on what he called his "history of scarcity," and it shows him at his penetrating and sarcastic best.
The paper is downloadable in PDF format from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. It was published as an item in a newsletter put out by the Swiss-based International Foundation for Development Alternatives.
This paper provides a good basis, we'd say, for thinking critically about the situation currently facing the U.S. and other industrialized nations. They are confronted with mounting unemployment, stagnant economic growth, and impending disaster from climate change. They are, in a way, highly-developed nations looking for their own shot of "economic development" medicine, as it were - the kind of medicine they have been hawking to other, less-industrialized nations for the past many decades. For years, they did their best to mold other nations to their way of intensive commodity consumption, but now, as Illich was seeing signs of all those years ago, the counter-productivities of industrial tools and systems are overwhelming all nations, not just the poorer, "less-developed" ones.
In a way, Illich's paper of nearly 30 years ago anticipated President Obama's call last week - a call that by now is heard ad nauseum from politicians of every stripe - for more education and more science and more "innovation" as the way to solve these global-scale problems. Even as public schools fight cutbacks, college tuition skyrockets, and more students give up and drop out, the calls for "more education" gain both volume and frequency. The value of not only high-priced law degrees but even 4-year college degrees are now being seriously questioned, regularly and in high-profile venues. Wasn't it Illich who once wrote that as the cost of education rises, society will eventually reach a point where it can no longer afford to reproduce itself? Arguably, we are seeing signs that we are approaching just that asymptotic limit. Obama was unable even to sketch out how he might fund all the new educational consumption he calls for, but to a technology-mesmerized public, it sounds like a bet that's a sure winner: More education = increased innovation = stronger economy = more jobs = more consumption = more economic growth. What Illich warned of, though, was not only the expense of delivering educational services that get consumed in schoolrooms. In this paper, as elsewhere, he warns of a world where education is everywhere - "designed into the environment," as he puts it, here. Isn't that we see now, what with information and instructions radiating from the Web and its zillion screens and programmed into practically every digital gizmo we encounter, from mobile phones to desktop computers to remotely-controlled signage on the highway? The more virtual the world, the more "education" will need to be consumed and the more widely and continuously that consumption will need to take place.
Illich, in 1983:
… Education I associate with some kind of swimming lesson in which pupils are trained to keep afloat in an ever rising tide of bits, a flood that has long ago lifted them off the ground of personal meanings. As the pupil is taught how to handle, ever more skillfully, the onrush of information, even his desire for grounding in a meaningful system is eroded.
Education, as manpower qualification, is an enterprise by which people are disciplined for competent performance of work which remains meaningless to them. More recently, education, as training for clientage in the service industry, for computer use and for consumption, is an enterprise that teaches people to content themselves with meaningless lives off the job. In both ways education is a means to make people adjuncts to economic growth. But this economic growth will not come and if it comes it will be of an entirely symbolic nature. If the word ‘development’ is to survive, it must now acquire a new meaning. So far it has meant more energy intensive goods and more professional service. Both types of growth have reached their asymptote, not so much because their externalities have become intolerable, but because they have become counterproductive. At this point, development can only mean a change-over from growth to a steady state. However, what steady state shall mean depends entirely on the way in which we interpret the present.
Typical for this moment in Illich's intellectual inquiry, the paper seeks to highlight the differences between a world of markets and economics, all rooted in the assumption of scarcity, and a traditional, vernacular world based on the notion of commons. "The theme of my lecture," Illich writes,
is the bond that constitutes E & D as I shall call education and development when they are considered as a couple. I cannot pursue the origins of this bond back into romanticism and enlightenment, but I can touch on its history since 1945. I am interested in the bond because it is becoming an evil of an unrecognized kind. I am also interested in this bond because I believe that the assumptions which made it possible have now ceased to exist.
I will first deal with two ways to view the non-economic costs of progress: externalities and counter-purposive function, that appear both in education and all other major economic sectors. For simplicity's sake I will usually use transportation as the counterpoint to education. I will then call attention to the assumption of scarcity that is common to both sides. Then only will I deal with the history of our couple [E & D] and the danger it now gives rise to: highly repressive eco-pedagogical policies.
No book ever got published with the title A History of Scarcity, but Illich's project, started in the late 1970s as he began winding down his public activism and turning to a study of the history of modern certainties, yielded many interesting pieces of writing, like this one. Another from that time, "The Social Construction of Energy," was first published - in English, at least - one year ago by a Harvard journal called New Geographies. In this "new" paper, Illich describes yet more social construction:
Education and Development are both social construction enterprises. Each creates that new kind of space which it then furnishes. Education creates the inner psychic void which demands to be outfitted and then monopolizes the production of its scarce furniture. Development redefines the outer world as "the environment" - a word now used to designate the container for scarce resources in which we live. Together E & D are the catalyst which synthesizes the two into that commodity intensive reality within which we think and move.
Illich argues that economic growth has reached its asymptote, thwarted by rising counter-productivity and the computer making many jobs unnecessary. And inevitably, there is a shift among planners to explore and even lay plans for some kind of "steady state" as an alternative. But then, there is a choice to be made: either continuing with the assumption of scarcity in all things including, most insidiously, education and knowledge, or attempting to recover the commons - "the reconquest of the right to live in self-limiting communities that each treasure their own mode of subsistence," as Illich puts it.
We've been working our way through the paper, enjoying its many observations. We imagine the paper will be of particular interest to those interested in transportation. Whether it's miles-per-hour or miles-per-gallon, the entire discussion about transportation assumes a world of scarcity. "Most people now alive have acquired [this assumption] during this generation," Illich writes.
Take as an example, transportation. A large part of all those still alive were born auto-mobile. They had only their feet for moving about. Culture defined their range, but within this range they had almost unlimited access to each other. Getting from here to there did not depend, most of the time, on a resource which was scarce, which you could not get if I got it. This is totally different for us. We have created a world in which we have to be moved, in which we have to consume "passenger miles". And these are always scarce - if I get there, I compete with you for a seat. We belong to the human subspecies of homo transportandus. In the same way we belong to the sub-species of homo educandus. Once everywhere almost everything that people needed for everyday life they learned because it was meaningful to them and had proven useful. Now, we are constantly taught what is meaningful, from a perspective which is not yet ours, and we are taught things that, we are told, one day will be useful to us. And we are taught only as much as we are able to pay for, or society is rich enough to give us. Education as a result of teaching, is always a commodity, a service and as such is scarce."
Ultimately, as it always was, Illich is concerned with the plight of the less powerful - the world's poor, that is, who are getting force-marched into a world of ever-escalating consumption. Increasingly, they cannot afford the scarce commodities that have replaced the commons on which they once depended. These are the people who once collected wood to cook their food but now must buy electricity, those how who used to walk but now must pay for bus tickets - and schedule their activities to the bus's schedule, as well. Illich writes:
We can continue in the illusion that our most basic assumptions about human nature and society are somehow "natural" - that, without knowing it, all cultures share them with us. If we do this, we shall continue to assume that all cultures, in some way, provide education for their young and that everywhere people live off scarce products. In this hypothesis, both education and commodity dependence have always been the condition of man and it makes no sense to transcend them.
If we remain prisoners of this mind-frame, the development of a steady state society will require an unprecedented intensity of education and management. Only a hitherto unimagined degree of sober production, toil in consumption and mutual policing will make survival possible. Only life-long teaching, designed into the environment, can possibly provide that much "education". Re-reading Skinner might prepare us for this scenario of an eco-pedagogical dictatorship.