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Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Scarcity and the "Social Construction of Energy"

We had a good laugh back in 1982 when a friend recounted to us his visit to the opening of Epcot Center, an adjunct to Disneyworld down in Orlando, Fla. Epcot had been conceived as a corporate shrine to technology, and each of its pavilions conveyed a common theme, which our pal intoned for us in mock-TV gravitas:

“Before Kraft, there was no food.”

“Without General Motors, nobody could move anywhere.”

“Only with Sperry Univac computers does information make any sense.”

And so forth.

This moment came back to us recently while reading a paper by Ivan Illich entitled “The Social Construction of Energy.” Written in 1983 but only published in 2009 by New Geographies, a journal out of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Illich’s paper serves as an illuminating follow-on to and rethinking of his provocative and widely-quoted essay, “Energy & Equity,” published in 1974.

What reminded us of the Epcot episode was Illich’s noting in this new essay the proliferation of advertising by utility and oil companies that assured readers of mankind’s enduring need for “energy,” a need that was supposedly evident even in prehistoric times.

The “message is always the same,” Illich writes:

“[E]nergy is something arcane … we all need it … we just cannot but use it … no one ever has done without it … unless the man in the ad does research it will soon run out … and then comes the punch[line]: remember Neanderthal! How he toiled to light fire from a spark; and then look at yourself, you just turn on the light; he carried his water, you switch on the pump … people always needed energy, from Stonehenge to Telsat. … the reader […] is comforted to learn that Australopithecus was just as dependent on energy as today’s Mr. Smith.”

Today, these ads, often running for several pages and serving as a major source of revenue for old-line magazines like Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly, tout research into solar panels and hybrid cars by companies like BP, Exxon-Mobil, and Chevron. But just as Illich observed 30 years ago, these ads still work to obfuscate the fact that “energy” is an invention, and a quite recent one at that.

After all is said and done, the energy that politicians are so concerned with, that Silicon Valley millionaires invest in, that the Pentagon fights to secure, and that environmental activists urge us all to conserve and find “greener” sources of - this “energy” is a social construction. It is a figment of the modern imagination, an entity that did not exist until 150 years ago but since then has become institutionalized and accepted, discussed, worried about, even fought over with nary a pause to wonder at its origins.

As his title implies, Illich sets out in his paper to deconstruct this mythical and mystical entity, to reveal its history and to identify and aggressively question its underlying assumptions. He explains how he came to understand a critical and “embarrassing”  mistake he made in the original “Energy & Equity” essay. And he makes some of his most insightful comments about the computer.

This is Illich at his best, relating a colorful historical tale, excavating unexamined assumptions, and expressing himself with a scathing mix of precision, humor, and sarcasm. (Accompanying his paper in New Geographies, we should point out, is an essay by longtime collaborator Jean Robert, entitled “Alternatives and the Technogenic Production of Scarcity.”)


Above all, “The Social Construction of Energy” is a major contribution to Illich’s long-running project to write “the history of scarcity.” How, and why, Illich began wondering in the late 1970s, did the modern world come to be “a cosmos defined by the assumptions of scarcity”? Everywhere he looked, as related in books like Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, Illich found modern institutions creating scarcity in the very products and services that they claimed to to be furnishing in abundance. For example, while the school system promotes itself as the best and perhaps only way to educate and socialize the masses, Illich showed that as an institution, schooling actually hampers people's ability to learn. Compulsory schooling makes valuable knowledge scarcer than it would be otherwise. Likewise, he found that modern “health care” burdens people with more illness and suffering than they had to deal with in the past - partly through mistakes in the operating room, for instance, but more importantly, by replacing traditional, culturally-based ways of suffering and dying with professionally-defined services.

In “Energy & Equity,” Illich described how cars and airplanes actually force people to devote more time, more money, and more effort than ever on getting themselves from here to there each day. There would be no “crisis” in energy, he argued, if society chose to adopt speed limits that favored walking and bicycling.

From the moment its machines could put more than a certain horsepower behind any one passenger,” Illich observed in 1974, “[the transportation] industry has reduced equality among men, restricted their mobility to a system of industrially defined routes, and created time scarcity of unprecedented severity. […] A country can be classified as over-industrialized 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.”

Scarcity is, of course, the foundation of modern economics. Whether socialist or capitalist, “the economy” is engineered and operated with the goal of distributing limited supplies of goods and services to the population in the best way, however the powers that be happen to define “best”.

“What is not scarce cannot be subjected to economic control,” Illich wrote in Shadow Work (1981). Even “the modern family is […] built on the assumption that productive activities are scarce. … The identification of that which is desirable with that which is scarce has deeply shaped our thinking, our feeling, our perception of reality itself.”

Throughout the 1970s, through his books and public talks, Illich had actively sought to question “development” and industrial growth. In this he was quite successful, even if the collapse of industrial society that he predicted in Tools never quite materialized. (Like many others, Illich failed to see that information technology would essentially prop up industrialism for several decades more, at least, by bringing new efficiencies to the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And now?, we might ask. Does the current economic crisis perhaps mark the end of this extended grace period?) Illich was a major inspiration for the Greens in Europe and for environmental activists and other alternative thinkers - Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog crowd, for instance - in the U.S.

There then came a change in Illich’s orientation, as described particularly well by Barbara Duden, a German historian who began working with him around 1980:


Illich's hope that sharply focused social criticism and carefully honed analysis of current developments could change the course of events gave way to the painful realization that the transformative power of political resistance had been limited, for even the critics had not relinquished a perspective that assumes a world of scarcity. He gradually moved away from assumptions that sparked so much of his writing in the 1950s and 1960s, a vision of salvaging a life worth living for human beings by protecting “communality” and what he called “the commons,” by calling to mind the “tools of conviviality,” by preserving traditional and customary ways of living. Even he was amazed by the breathtakingly rapid disappearance of "traditional" orientations and practices in Third World villages, and he shed his own illusions that the social critic could help protect the fabric of these villages. He had come to realize that progress and development had created an unprecedented “mental topology.”


No book came from Illich’s attempt to explain the assumption of scarcity, but his efforts did yield arguably the most colorful and fascinating work of his long intellectual journey. Illich’s papers and books from the 1980s are his most poetic and engaging - and his most academically correct, as it were - revealing a boundless curiosity about how the modern, Western world has come to be as monstrously different as it is from everything preceding it. Illich delved into a remarkable range of topics: the nature of work; the history of vernacular gender and its eclipse by "economic sex"; the history and use of taught mother-tongue; the history of water, urban space, and other forms of “stuff”; the mythology of science; the history of the gaze; and the history of the body. And, as we will outline here for those not yet able to read the original text, the social construction of energy.


"E" is for "Energy"

Illich starts his essay by stating that the energy that physicists discuss - the ‘E’ that Einstein famously equated with mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light - has barely anything to do with the “energy” that ecologists, politicians, planners, venture capitalists, and windmill designers talk about when discussing the “energy crisis,” “green energy,” or “energy needs.” Einstein’s ‘E’ is a theoretical notion, Illich notes, “meaningful only within a formula,” while “energy is charged with hidden implications: it refers to a subtle something that has the ability to make nature do work. … It is a symbol that fits our age, the symbol of that which is both abundant and scarce.”

“I discover in the emergence of this verbal symbol the means by which nature has been interpreted as a domain governed by the assumption of scarcity, and thus human beings could be redefined as nature’s ever needy clients,” writes Illich. “Once the universe itself is placed under the regime of scarcity, homo is no longer born under the stars but under the axioms of economics.”

Illich then reviews the “core meanings" of "energy” over time. For the ancient Greeks, the word could be translated as “on the make,” with all of its sexual connotations. For Elizabethans, energy meant the vigor of an utterance. By the 17th century, Leibniz spoke of "a magnitude that remains intact whatever happens, ‘like money when it is changed.'” In 1807, Thomas Young adopted the term energy to describe the force that a rolling ball, for instance, passed along as it collided with a stationary ball. But it was another 40 years before physicists accepted this term, and when they did, they used it to designate not a force but a “something,” as Illich calls it. “Energy is distinguished in modern physics from force as the integral [of] its function.”

Energy was finally understood as the life force of the universe and, as Illich points out, at the same time, nature itself was being systematically denied its vitality - its Lebenskraft - and its traditionally feminine quality, as in “mother nature.” By 1844, nature was perceived as a matrix of forces such as electricity, light, hear, and magnetism, each of them (including light?) able to be measured in units of work. Yet, while midwives had always been the ones to deliver children, by 1820 it was the “bioengineer, the gynecologist, who delivers the child from the matrix, and the child grows up into the work-force,” Illich writes.

Illich now goes on to describe how the thoughts of physicists, such as Mach, and social philosophers, led by Marx, greatly influenced each other, to the extent that a new myth was jointly created. “Physics construed something akin to the division of labor: value equivalents between heat, electricity, and mechanical movements were measured,” he writes. “The search for something like a gold standard in nature thus led to a new kind of experimental metaphysics: to laboratory proofs of entities that cannot be observed. The objective existence of something that just changes its form in ever more precisely observed and measured appearances became itself the scientific mythology.” Likewise, “the womb became the source of life, the universe the source of energy, and the population a source of labour force,” Illich continues. “Through the imputation of energy, nature was recast in the image of the newly constituted human as worker. Nature now understood as the depository and matrix of a work-force called energy mirrored the proletariat, the matrix of available labor force. And the steam engine lurked behind all reality.”

That last thought, of course, refers to the laws of thermodynamics, which to scientists, at least, explain the transfer of heat and the theoretical ability of steam engines and other powered machines to perform work. Previous to the steam engine, Illich points out, the clock was the machine that served as a unifying symbol, its self-regulation reflecting the rational harmony of the monarchy and the state. The steam engine, however, eventually took the stage, precisely because it “symbolizes the age of production, of input and output,” and it unifies a world that deals in “work” and “horsepower” and “labor force.”

And with the advances of physics and of Marx’s analysis of history and economics came the “simultaneous invention of … two distinct ‘potentials for work,’ energy and labor-power,” Illich writes, but to explore that invention “makes it necessary to return to the history of ‘e’ to avoid any confusion of it with ‘energy.’” Illich points to Max Planck as the first person to attempt a history of ‘e’ - at age 26. “It was obvious for Planck that the concept of ‘energy’ … derived all its meaning in physics from the principle of ‘the conservation of energy’ as in the idea that ‘it is impossible to get work done without compensation.’ Planck shows that the idea had been conceived and formulated in the 1840s, and that by the 1860s there was no more doubt about its validity.”

But, writes Illich: “I have not found in this early paper of Max Planck even the slightest suspicion that the language used about the principles of physics was socio-genetic.”

At around this same time, Ernst Mach was writing his own history of energy, focusing on the “principle of conservation,” but not of “energy” but of Arbeit, or work. “For Mach,” writes Illich, “it is inadmissible to postulate something like a work force behind observed phenomena, unless the scientist is able to verify its existence by direct experiment. Mach did not deny the convenience of such a hypothesis; he only requested that the person using it be aware that what he uses is a supposition. The choice of one among several applicable hypotheses, according to Mach, should be made entirely on the grounds of the elegance with which such a concept - as, for instance, ‘energy’ - fits into the formulas that connect observed events.”

Indeed, notes Illich, Mach was critical of H.R. Hertz for not having used “e” in his description of electro-magnetic waves and their movement through space. The use of “e,“ Mach said, would have given Hertz’s statement added elegance.

Einstein, meanwhile, was rigorous in his recognition that entities such as “e” “cannot be derived from experience by logic but must be understood as free creations of the human spirit.”

The Energy Mystics

“To keep as sober as Mach or Einstein was not easy as theoretical modern physics acquired prestige,” however. "People left outside the charmed circle around 'e' looked toward the academic Alchemists as the source of ultimate riches or as initiates into ultimate mystique. Not a few physicists began to pander to the public. Energy was presented as the sold [sic] attribute of ultimate reality.” (We take it that that word sold is a typo, that Illich originally wrote “sole.”) Illich cites German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, winner of a 1909 Nobel Prize and president of something called the World Monist Association, as “present[ing] ‘energy’ as the only real substance.” In the 1950s, with no uncertainty, physicist Werner Heisenberg takes up this banner, stating that “the substance out of which all elementary particles and all things are made … that which causes change, and changes, but is never lost … that which can be transformed into movement, heat, light, tension … that is energy.”

Illich: “As ‘e’ became esoteric, an increasing number of physicists came to act as gurus who popularized its real nature. Once famous physicists had lent their prestige to the interpretation of energy as nature’s ultimate Kapital, the principle of the ‘conservation of energy’ became the cosmological confirmation of the postulate of scarcity. The principle of contradiction was ‘operationalized’; it was restated in the formula that ‘you can’t get a free lunch.’ By a cosmic extension of the assumption of scarcity, the world visible and invisible was turned into a zero-sum game, as if Jehovah, with a big bang, had created das Kapital.”

Illich notes that both 19th-century “energetism” and 20th-century monism, “still with us in the exoteric Heisenberg, ”adhere to the myth that science was a rational undertaking. This changed with Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics (1975). The discovery of energy now reflects an evolution of human consciousness … and the recovery of mystical experience as a superior form of knowledge. … The Alchemists are perhaps turning into theologians. And the theology of ‘energy’ is as alien to my precise concern as the mathematics of ‘e.’” (A few years ago, we heard some people who’d been close to Illich describe an encounter of many years before between him and Capra, on an Austrian television show. The essence of the recollection was that of an indignant Illich ferociously taking Capra apart, publicly declaring him a charlatan. Today, Capra writes books and runs management seminars for business people.)

Spare Time

At this point, Illich pauses to describe briefly a “hobby” of his, namely the study of “superstitious religiosity.” For 30 years, he writes, he has been collecting Latin American superstitions - documents and other artifacts, one assumes. “I learned from [Ruth] Kriss-Rettenbeck to call superstition the popular beliefs and forms of behavior that come into existence under the aegis, the shield, of a church. Therefore they can be studied in contrast to the dogmas taught and the rituals propagated by the organization, the ideologies promoted by the Church. In this narrow sense, superstition is not just any syncretism” - an amalgamation of different religions, such as voodoo, a mix of Roman Catholicism and West African religions - “but the use popular religiosity makes of the Church. This scabrous [ie. rough, indecent] background led me to the history of ‘energy’ as a superstition in modern civic religiosity. The fathers around 1847 revealed it, the Ostwalds preached it and the laity accepted the message of a spiritual awakening to a cosmos defined by the assumptions of scarcity.”

From here, Illich shows how the history of energy as a popular construct and the history of work are inseparable, the destinies of the two keywords “intertwined.” Before Ostwald, energy was an academic term; after him it became “holy,” a “power” that could be tamed. The history of work, however, is more difficult to nail down. At first, Illich states, work meant deed, task, effort, or duty - a concrete action or the result of such action, as in “a good piece of work.” By 1750, work had come to be “recognized as a decisive factor in the creation of wealth.” Thanks to Adam Smith, the idea became acceptable that work “did not just permit the accumulation of wealth but [that it also] could create economic value.” In Smith’s view, “the labor force - work in the abstract - became the true measure of the exchange value of all goods.” And 50 years later, Ricardo “recognized that capital, in the form of machinery, could replace live labor and thus become injurious to the working class. He elaborated a cost theory of value: with the reversible equivalence between the two forms of labor, he remained within the field of the observable. It never occurred to him to connect profit to the expropriation of value that is drawn from a meta-economical sphere.”

Illich moves on to look at the notion of political economy, which “inquires into the matrix from which value flows.” Illich sees a parallel running between the early 19th-century development of ideas about the workings of steam engines and the concurrent analysis of "labor force." Carnot worked out a set of equations that explain how temperature differentials in the steam engine enable it to perform work. Contemporaneously with Carnot, Ricardo defined the value of work as the price paid for a worker’s time. Twenty years later, as Helmholtz was describing how energy is transferred from coal to water to steam to piston to wheel, a young Karl Marx “traced the source of economic value, [developing] a theory that explains how the employer can appropriate the surplus value of labor. For Marx, the economy runs on the positive difference between the total labor time used in production and that part of it that covers the cost of the reproduction of the workforce. For Smith and Ricardo, what the worker sold was his service, his concrete work. In Marx, he sells his labor-power, part of which is expropriated by the capitalist.”

After drawing some additional parallels between physics and economic theory - and a quick comment about how women were redefined around this same moment as destined to reproduce “new life” - Illich states that “political economy soon became as irrelevant to economics as energetics to physics. … just as monist professors of physics preached vulgar energetics, Marxist economists love to pontificate on the labor theory of value.”

The notion of value, of course, is one of the modern notions of which Illich is particularly critical. In his view, the pre-modern world was generally one in pursuit of “the good,” or the right fit between opposites: man and woman, heaven and earth, etc. Today, this search for appropriate fit has given way to assigning values that are seen to flow, that can be traded against each other, that are positive and negative and that therefore imply a zero point. In his thoughtful tribute to Leopold Kohr, Illich states it like this: "Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization. Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good." Quite simplistically, Illich is about as anti-market as a person can be, not in the current sense of socialism but from a cosmological point of view. Making decisions based on evaluation is radically different from searching for an appropriate fit.

Work and energy, Illich continues in his essay, “became keywords of contemporary language,” each one giving “a moral and social interpretation of the sentence in which they occur.” Phrases such as ”the right to work” and “worker’s republic” each “carry direct and strong ethical connotations,” he states.

“It has been overlooked,” however, “that the word energy functions as a collage of meanings whose persuasiveness is based on the myth that what it expresses is natural. Thus, surreptitiously, our lifestyle could become energy intensive. The right to work and the need for gas could be connected. Jobs and watts could be recognized as basic rights because they were both interpreted as basic needs.”

And this, our favorite line from the entire essay: “The modern state could be interpreted as an employment agency with a gun to protect the fuel pump.”

Work, Jobs, Computers

“Politicians could win by the mere promise of more watts and jobs. Development assistance could carry the ideal of ‘man as an energy guzzling commodity producer’ to the ends of the earth, because progress came to mean the replacement of feet by motorized wheels, the replacement of the kitchen garden by frozen foods, the replacement of adobe by cement, the replacement of the trench by the WC. The radical monopoly of our energy-intensive lifestyle over the landscape, culture, and language has made the ideal of energy dependence into an inescapable reality. … the need for energy - and not only for jobs - became morally obvious: part of that civic religiosity that ... lies far beneath the political oppositions in a modern society.”

Trouble is, he continues, society is running out of work. And at the same time, “the terms most frequently associated with energy are crisis and scarcity or, more ominously, atom or neutron. Whatever remedies to unemployment are being proposed, they do not inspire much confidence: work-time reduction, job sharing, energy saving, defense spending, ecology - they look like palliatives comparable to chemotherapy in cancer; if they do add to the survival of our lifestyle, they will also render it more distressing.”

And here, Illich makes one of his few comments about the computer, which in 1983, in the form of the PC, was causing much excitement. "Many people are turning to the computer as a “panacea,” Illich writes, but “if the computer has an effect on the environment analogous to that of the car, soon you will not be able to do without it: no mail, no tax return, no voting, no purchase without.” Twenty-five years later, of course, this prediction is practically true.

He continues: “An entirely new kind of poverty is on the horizon: the under-informed. While in the sixties poverty could be measured by a low level of wattage, it will soon be measured by low access [to?] or use of the computer. While miserly microprocessors will guard energy-trickles more effectively than cavewomen nurtured the fire, half of the population will teach the other half how to use the computer. The computer is credited with the capacity to create unsuspected amounts of busywork. We are straight on our way toward an energy-obsessed low-energy society in a world that worships work but has nothing to do for people. [sic] We cannot break out as long as our principles remain the laws of thermodynamics.”

In the next section of his paper, Illich calls energy “the ultimate symbol of monist sexism affirming itself within the matrix of the law that says that the male principle cannot be destroyed,” and he lays out what he sees as four obstacles to “recognizing energy as a recent invention.” These are, in his words, “historical energetics, soft ecology, belief in the objectivity of science, and epistemological sexism.”


Historical Energetics

The way we perceive the past is, as we’ve mentioned up top here, shaped by the advertising paid for by energy utility companies, among other forms of institutionalized education. These ads, Illich writes, are effective because they “hit a weak spot. The wider the gap that separates the wattage of their reader from that of an Indian, the more obviously silly his needs, the more he is prone to mirror himself in the behavior of his ancestors. He gloats over pop-science that tells him that Cro-Magnon was as aggressive and sexist as he; he hails Mary Douglas [a British anthropologist who wrote a book called Purity and Danger; she died in 2007] for telling him that he has inherited from old rituals his fear of pollution; he is comforted to learn that Australopithecus was just as dependent on energy as today’s Mr. Smith.”


Soft Ecology

Illich then says he is “embarrassed” for having contributed to “propaganda for the soft path.” In writing “Energy & Equity,” he says, he was happy to “compare the efficiency of a man with that of a motor, both pushing the same bike - to the clear advantage of the man.” He was "delighted to belong to the race that had invented the ball bearing and the tire," especially when he found out that the bike was more “energy efficient” than a sturgeon of his weight.

Anyone familiar with “Energy & Equity” will likely remember Illich’s discussion of the ball bearing, invented around 100 years before:

It reduced the coefficient of friction by a factor of a thousand. By applying a well-calibrated ball-bearing between two Neolithic millstones, a man could now grind in a day what took his ancestors a week. The ball-bearing also made possible the bicycle, allowing the wheel—probably the last of the great Neolithic inventions—finally to become useful for self-powered mobility.


Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history. At this rate peasant societies spend less than 5 per cent and nomads less than 8 per cent of their respective social time budgets outside the home or the encampment.


Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

Indeed, Illich goes on to calculate that the car, once all of its external costs are accounted for (loan payments, fuel, building roads, policing the highways, etc.), moves North Americans at an average speed of only 4 to 5mph, equal to normal walking - a fact quoted widely across the Web, particularly by cycling activists.

But now, a decade later, he realizes that he had not grasped how reductive these comparisons were. “I was not then fully aware that by measuring both forms of locomotion in terms of watts I blinded myself and my readers to the essential difference between the two. People and motors do not move through the same kind of space. Auto-mobile people culturally constitute the commons on which they walk, and stay within the range of their feet at the self-limiting rhythm of their bodies. Vehicles tend to annihilate commons into unlimited thoroughfares. By transforming commons into resources for the production of passenger miles, vehicles take the use-value out of feet. They homogenize the landscape, make it non-transitable and then catapult people from point to point.”

“By imputing energy amounts to the man on his feet, I inevitably play into the hands of the ecologist who blurs this distinction, who makes of commons and spatial resources one amalgam. By using energy amounts to measure the distance covered by medieval peasants and pilgrims, I inevitably conjured up the illusion that their milieu, like our environment, was under the regime of scarcity, that they engaged in energy-efficient self-transportation.”

And “once you accept this amalgam" of resources and commons, he continues, “you foster the appearance of the ecocrat. He replaces the technocrat whose authority was at least limited to the management of people and social machines. The ecocrat’s aims transcend these institutions: his management tools fit nature into their domain. Symbolically, the ecocrat tears down the hedge that separates society from the wild, that boundary that was the traditional seat of the witch. He sees himself as a holist because he encompasses society and its environment as two subsystems of a whole that works.”

Illich touches, here, on what strikes us as one of his most important and stimulating conclusions, namely that the human world - the planet as a whole and even the human being itself - have lately come to be conceived in a startling new way, namely in terms of cybernetics and systems theory. In his late conversations with David Cayley, Illich states that he was quite surprised to see this kind of “watershed” actually get crossed during his own lifetime - during the 1980s, he reckons. Much of his thinking in the last decade of his life was affected by this realization, as explained particularly well by Barbara Duden in her rich, appreciative summary of his thought.

Once the planet is perceived as simply a huge cybernetic system that maintains its homeostasis through the kinds of feedback loops and information flows that James Lovelock describes in his “Gaia thesis,” and once the human being is seen as merely an immune system fighting for survival in this larger planetary system, then, as Illich put it, the human being ceases to exist in its historical form of flesh and blood.

Indeed, the human body gets understood as just another needy subsystem fighting continually with other subsystems for scarce resources, including - you got it - energy. And this new body itself is now conceived of as yet another set of systems: immune, endocrine, reproductive, and so forth. Systems, of course, lend themselves to optimization and management. Systems are understood to pursue certain goals. Systems thinking is horribly reductive, Illich might say, particularly when applied to the glory - is that the right word? - that is the human.

(While getting our eyes examined for reading glasses the other day, we asked the optometrist about the difference between his training and that of an ophthalmologist. Very little, he assured us, emphasizing that he, too, had had to “study all 13 systems.”)

In his energy essay, Illich goes on to point to the computer as the “emblem of the new synthesis,” this brand new view of society and its environment as subsystems: “The computer is pictured as the great economizer and economist who will sugarcoat work by rendering energy and employment more effective, more decentralized, more flexible and complex.” (Telecommuting, anyone?)

Illich sees the computer as making possible a dramatic shift in the organization of work and society, a shift that he admits is very unlikely to take place: Computer-based techniques could be used to manage the production and distribution of a few basic commodities that everyone needs and of which there is enough for everyone. This, in turn, would free most people to “live as much of their life as they chose, unplugged from work, watts, and bits.”

“I am definitely not speaking as a romantic of a return to the woods, or as a Luddite angry with chips,” Illich writes. “What I envisage is a step beyond Karl Polanyi, [who] made me understand the dis-embedding of a formal economy as the process that could not but destroy the commons until social life and economy came largely to coincide. I am suggesting that we now envisage the dis-embedding of a new sphere of freedom in which we have exorcised the miserly critters of quite recent creation from the perception of who we are.” In other words, the kind of convivial society that Illich had previously described, a society in which people would not understand themselves as needy souls who always experience a certain poverty because their demand for scarce goods and services always outstrips the supply, would be freed to flourish.

Illich is not so naïve to think this arrangement will come to pass, not anytime soon, anyway, for “the trivialization of economic values … runs counter to the basic myths on which contemporary science and ethics are built.”


Science and Myth

The “third major obstacle  to the recognition of energy as an addicting illusion” that Illich identifies is the general unwillingness to recognize the mythology of science. Physicist James Clerk Maxwell, he notes, recognized the principle of conservation of energy as a law only in the sense that it is a “science producing doctrine.” First, it was recognized as a law of nature and only then was “energy chosen as the expression of its value.”

“Historically and psychologically, the rule that nature, like citizens of the nineteenth century, must live in the matrix of a zero-sum game was prior to the value at stake in this game,” Illich writes. “Only then did that value take the form of a function, namely ‘e,’ or a ‘goody.’

And, he adds, “progress in the social sciences went in the same direction. Social interactions were reduced to exchanges, and subjects to role players between whom these exchanges take place. The perfectly neutral medium of exchange is implied in all science based on conservation, and energy is its paradigm.”

As we’ve noted previously in these columns, Illich in the mid-1980s saw the entire discussion of systems and cybernetics - still very much in vogue, then, inspired largely by figures such as Gregory Bateson, who had even wondered aloud if god might not be explained as a set of infinitely nested systems - as tainted by the assumptions of scarcity that underpin all economic thought. Descriptions of the world - whether people conversing or bees “communicating” about new sources of nectar - that relied on the movement of “information” ultimately rested on the notion that the parties involved were engaging in an exchange of information bits, and that one of these parties thus suffered from a relative scarcity of bits, and so forth.


The Sexist Ideal of the “Human Being”

Illich’s fourth and final obstacle to understanding energy for what it truly is is the widely-held belief that work is genderless - that men and women can and should do the same jobs. Up until about the time of Marx and Helmholtz, he writes, “men did not do what women did, and vice versa. Up that time in each community, tasks and tools were split in two halves and, in each community, the split was a different one. This split was transcended through the constitution of the labor force - in theory and practice. The genderless worker was called for by the matrix of the work-force, as energy by the law of conservation. And this worker - he or she - inhabits a universe in which everything is made of one stuff only: energy.”


Illich concludes by noting a “masterly study” by a certain B. Easely that describes how, during the 17th century, natural philosophers “banished life from the cosmos … and minimized the role of women in conception. Step by step, they succeeded to declare matter pure, inert nature … pure mater, the amorphous mother of things, a pure womb in formless readiness for the conception of paternal powers; a mere framework within which virile force could give rise to all things. Materia/mater in this process became logically unknowable, because amorphous and physically unobservable, nothing but a shapeless presupposition. [sic] The study of this necessary and complementary principle of all existence was thus by definition excluded from science. Science became the knowledge of virile forces and the shapes they take. In the 1840s, their complement reappeared as the matrix and the law that exalts the conservation of virile energy as the first law of the cosmos and the foundation of modern science.”

And thus, the paper ends.

Uncovering myth and exposing religiosity is hardly a new move for Illich. As a man of the Church and even more so, as a highly trained student of liturgy, Illich was keenly aware of how institutions manage to create and maintain myths. In his best-known book, Deschooling Society, Illich saw compulsory schooling as a set of myth-making rituals, a new “world religion.” School, he wrote in one of that book’s more colorful passages,


combines the expectations of the consumer expressed in its claims with the beliefs of the producer expressed in its ritual. It is a liturgical expression of a world-wide "cargo cult," reminiscent of the cults which swept Melanesia in the forties, which injected cultists with the belief that if they but put on a black tie over their naked torsos, Jesus would arrive in a steamer bearing an icebox, a pair of trousers, and a sewing machine for each believer.



Likewise, a major section of Tools for Conviviality concerns the “demythologization of science”:


… political discussion is stunned by a delusion about science. This term has come to mean an institutional enterprise rather than a personal activity, the solving of puzzles rather than the unpredictably creative activity of individual people. Science is now used to label a spectral production agency which turns out better knowledge just as medicine produces better health. The damage done by this misunderstanding about the nature of knowledge is even more fundamental than the damage done to the conceptions of health, education, or mobility by their identification with institutional outputs.

Clearly, "The Social Construction of Energy" is one of Illich's major attempts at demythologizing science. We hope we have helped, here, to make sure it gets the attention it deserves.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.