Illich, I. (1973) Energy and Equity

August 17, 2015 | Comments Off on Illich, I. (1973) Energy and Equity


One of Ivan Illich’s groundbreaking texts, Energy and Equity, argued that under some circumstances technologies create structures that incorporate class structures. In a reflection, Illich insited “on the need for a balance between convivial and industrial tool.” Like many contemporary observers, Illich noted that modern educated-i.e. schooled-people are slaves to machines and institutions and out of touch with conviviality, “individual freedom realized in interpersonal dependence.” He pointed a large part of his critique at our technologies which were industrial and served not everyday people, but the machines and the commodity makers themselves. What is interesting, from today’s perspective, is how insightful his critique of the use of a term like “energy crisis” could be.

In the books’s opening he writes, “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.”

How does Energy and Equity interact with some of the other resources we have today? How does it play into global development conversations about energy “needs” today? How does this argument play with talk of economic growth in America today? Illich wrote about needs many times, notably in Toward a History of Needs and his essay “Needs” in The Development Dictionary.

This resource is admittedly advanced. However, in courses focusing on development, energy, or ethics of sustainability, Illich could play a powerful part.