Ivan Illich
Natural Gas
Global Warming

The Energy Crisis

It has recently become fashionable to insist on an impending energy crisis. This euphemistic term conceals a contradiction and consecrates an illusion. It masks the contradiction implicit in the joint pursuit of equity and industrial growth. It safeguards the illusion that machine power can indefinitely take the place of manpower. To resolve this contradiction and dispel this illusion, it is urgent to clarify the reality that the language of crisis obscures: high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.

The advocates of an energy crisis believe in and continue to propagate a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command. This belief is common to the conflicting economic ideologies now in vogue. It is threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.

The energy policies adopted during the current decade will determine the range and character of social relationships a society will be able to enjoy by the year 2000. 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.

At this moment, most societies---especially the poor ones---are still free to set their energy policies by any of three guidelines. Well-being can be identified with high amounts of per capita energy use, with high efficiency of energy transformation, or with the least possible use of mechanical energy by the most powerful members of society. The first approach would stress tight management of scarce and destructive fuels on behalf of industry, whereas the second would emphasize the retooling of industry in the interest of thermodynamic thrift. These first two attitudes necessarily imply huge public expenditures and increased social control; both rationalize the emergence of a computerized Leviathan, and both are at present widely discussed.

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. The one option that is at present neglected is the only choice within the reach of all nations. It is also the only strategy by which a political process can be used to set limits on the power of even the most motorized bureaucrat. Participatory democracy postulates low-energy technology. Only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology.

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.

The widespread belief that clean and abundant energy is the panacea for social ills is due to a political fallacy, according to which equity and energy consumption can be indefinitely correlated, at least under some ideal political conditions. Laboring under this illusion, we tend to discount any social limit on the growth of energy consumption. But if ecologists are right to assert that nonmetabolic power pollutes, it is in fact just as inevitable that, beyond a certain threshold, mechanical power corrupts. The threshold of social disintegration by high energy quanta is independent from the threshold at which energy conversion produces physical destruction. Expressed in horsepower, it is undoubtedly lower. This is the fact which must be theoretically recognized before a political issue can be made of the per capita wattage to which a society will limit its members.

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.

In previous discussions, I have shown that, beyond a certain level of per capita GNP, the cost of social control must rise faster than total output and become the major institutional activity within an economy. Therapy administered by educators, psychiatrists, and social workers must converge with the designs of planners, managers, and salesmen, and complement the services of security agencies, the military, and the police. I now want to indicate one reason why increased affluence requires increased control over people. I argue that beyond a certain median per capita energy level, the political system and cultural context of any society must decay. Once the critical quantum of per capita energy is surpassed, education for the abstract goals of a bureaucracy must supplant the legal guarantees of personal and concrete initiative. This quantum is the limit of social order.

I will argue here that technocracy must prevail as soon as the ratio of mechanical power to metabolic energy oversteps a definite, identifiable threshold. The order of magnitude within which this threshold lies is largely independent of the level of technology applied, yet its very existence has slipped into the blind-spot of social imagination in both rich and medium-rich countries. Both the United States and Mexico have passed the critical divide. In both countries, further energy inputs increase inequality, inefficiency, and personal impotence. Although one country has a per capita income of $500 and the other, one of nearly $5,000, huge vested interest in an industrial infrastructure prods both of them to further escalate the use of energy. As a result, both North American and Mexican ideologues put the label of ``energy crisis'' on their frustration, and both countries are blinded to the fact that the threat of social breakdown is due neither to a shortage of fuel nor to the wasteful, polluting, and irrational use of available wattage, but to the attempt of industries to gorge society with energy quanta that inevitably degrade, deprive, and frustrate most people.

A people can be just as dangerously overpowered by the wattage of its tools as by the caloric content of its foods, but it is much harder to confess to a national overindulgence in wattage than to a sickening diet. The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver. It eludes the underconsumer and the overconsumer alike. Neither is willing to face the facts. For the primitive, the elimination of slavery and drudgery depends on the introduction of appropriate modern technology, and for the rich, the avoidance of an even more horrible degradation depends on the effective recognition of a threshold in energy consumption beyond which technical processes begin to dictate social relations. Calories are both biologically and socially healthy only as long as they stay within the narrow range that separates enough from too much.

The so-called energy crisis is, then, a politically ambiguous issue. Public interest in the quantity of power and in the distribution of controls over the use of energy can lead in two opposite directions. On the one hand, questions can be posed that would open the way to political reconstruction by unblocking the search for a postindustrial, labor-intensive, low-energy and high-equity economy. On the other hand, hysterical concern with machine fodder can reinforce the present escalation of capital-intensive institutional growth, and carry us past the last turnoff from a hyperindustrial Armageddon. Political reconstruction presupposes the recognition of the fact that there exist critical per capita quanta beyond which energy can no longer be controlled by political process. A universal social straitjacket will be the inevitable outcome of ecological restraints on total energy use imposed by industrial-minded planners bent on keeping industrial production at some hypothetical maximum.

Rich countries like the United States, Japan, or France might never reach the point of choking on their own waste, but only because their societies will have already collapsed into a sociocultural energy coma. Countries like India, Burma, and, for another short while at least, China are in the inverse position of being still muscle-powered enough to stop short of an energy stroke. They could choose, right now, to stay within those limits to which the rich will be forced back through a total loss of their freedoms.

The choice of a minimum-energy economy compels the poor to abandon fantastical expectations and the rich to recognize their vested interest as a ghastly liability. Both must reject the fatal image of man the slaveholder currently promoted by an ideologically stimulated hunger for more energy. In countries that were made affluent by industrial development, the energy crisis serves as a pretext for raising the taxes that will be needed to substitute new, more ``rational,'' and socially more deadly industrial processes for those that have been rendered obsolete by inefficient overexpansion. For the leaders of people who are not yet dominated by the same process of industrialization, the energy crisis serves as a historical imperative to centralize production, pollution, and their control in a last-ditch effort to catch up with the more highly powered. 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.

The energy crisis cannot be overwhelmed by more energy inputs. It can only be dissolved, along with the illusion that well-being depends on the number of energy slaves a man has at his command. For this purpose, it is necessary to identify the thresholds beyond which energy corrupts, and to do so by a political process that associates the community in the search for limits. Because this kind of research runs counter to that now done by experts and for institutions, I shall continue to call it counterfoil research. It has three steps. First, the need for limits on the per capita use of energy must be theoretically recognized as a social imperative. Then, the range must be located wherein the critical magnitude might be found. Finally, each community has to identify the levels of inequity, harrying, and operant conditioning that its members are willing to accept in exchange for the satisfaction that comes of idolizing powerful devices and joining in rituals directed by the professionals who control their operation.

The need for political research on socially optimal energy quanta can be clearly and concisely illustrated by an examination of modern traffic. The United States puts between 25 and 45 per cent of its total energy (depending upon how one calculates this) into vehicles: to make them, run them, and clear a right of way for them when they roll, when they fly, and when they park. Most of this energy is to move people who have been strapped into place. For the sole purpose of transporting people, 250 million Americans allocate more fuel than is used by 1.3 billion Chinese and Indians for all purposes. Almost all of this fuel is burned in a rain-dance of time-consuming acceleration. Poor countries spend less energy per person, but the percentage of total energy devoted to traffic in Mexico or in Peru is probably greater than in the United States, and it benefits a smaller percentage of the population. The size of this enterprise makes it both easy and significant to demonstrate the existence of socially critical energy quanta by the example of personal mobility.

In traffic, energy used over a specific period of time (power) translates into speed. In this case, the critical quantum will appear as a speed limit. Wherever this limit has been passed, the basic pattern of social degradation by high energy quanta has emerged. Once some public utility went faster than 15 mph, equity declined and the scarcity of both time and space increased. Motorized transportation monopolized traffic and blocked self-powered transit. In every Western country, passenger mileage on all types of conveyance increased by a factor of a hundred within fifty years of building the first railroad. When the ratio of their respective power outputs passed beyond a certain value, mechanical transformers of mineral fuels excluded people from the use of their metabolic energy and forced them to become captive consumers of conveyance. This effect of speed on the autonomy of people is only marginally affected by the technological characteristics of the motorized vehicles employed or by the persons or entities who hold the legal titles to airlines, buses, railroads, or cars. High speed is the critical factor which makes transportation socially destructive. A true choice among practical policies and of desirable social relations is possible only where speed is restrained. Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.

First Chapter of Energy and Equity by Ivan Illich, first published in Le Monde in early 1973.

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