Ivan Illich:
Observations on the Tools of Industrial Institutions and the Changes
Needed to Achieve Sustainability and Independence

Don Ferris

     The attractiveness of emerging Asian markets to the world's transnational automobile corporations has been in the news recently. China, Thailand, and Vietnam are seen as a new frontier in auto manufacturing & sales and American based corporations are vowing to catch up with the Japanese corporations that have already made inroads there. As this scenario unfolds and scores of millions cars join the hundreds of millions on the planet from the West, it would certainly add to our environmental woes. It may also be stressed that this would be a social disaster for these Asian states if the observations of Ivan Illich regarding the literal enslavement of humanity to its tools are valid. Although Illich's work in Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Energy and Equity (1974) is almost wholly normative, one must grant that his predictions of over twenty years ago are chillingly accurate in regards to the loss of quality of life that has continued to occur as the liberal economic paradigm has asserted itself and its tools. Developing states must consider what Illich has observed regarding tools such as cars and truly ask whether or not they should make the same mistakes about transportation that the West is coming to realize grudgingly. His exhortations to developing countries to avoid the addiction to harmful machines and thereby maintain their unique social and cultural heritage should carry much weight in encouraging leaders to maintain the sustainable levels of living often found existing in those states.

     The old adage that power corrupts apparently applies to mechanical power as well as political. A society's high use of energy increases inequity, dependence, and social control and fails to fulfill the oft promised liberation from drudgery to the subsequent pursuit of leisure. Illich (1973, p. 7) proposes that institutions that engage in or support the industrial mode of production such as education, transportation, health care, communication and energy pass a critical "second watershed," where ills quickly outpace benefits from the increased institutionalization and universal dispersion of a `tool.' This becomes a habit that ends up exploiting its alleged `master' by taking more than it gives. When the tool passes this threshold of use, it escapes the political control of humanity (1973, p. 77) and ends up benefiting only an elite few for the most part. In the case of the car, for example, this tool quickly gained what Illich calls a "radical monopoly" (1973, p. 52). This is a monopoly where the product, not a single corporation or a brand dominates. Thus, cars have formed a 'monopoly' that strongly precludes all other forms of urban transportation such as walking, bicycling, and mass transit.

Inequity among people and groups is increased in multiple ways. The ability to pay for, maintain, insure, license, and park a car keep many people from the use of this tool, particularly in urban environments. Less obviously, while taxes improve highway connections to the suburbs, poor people face increasingly sporadic transit service and rising fares. Demonstrating the insidiousness of this monopoly, cars further dictate dimensions of urban planning, national politics, and the conduct of personal lives of the individual. Illich uses Marxist concepts to assert that radical monopolies are created when the monopoly of a single (industrial/capitalist) mode of production is formed, which influences all social relations and overwhelms any other mode of production.

Fifteen years before globalization became a buzzword, Illich wrote,

     Another result is a centralization of power. Illich practically predicted another tenet of globalization with the assertion, "...(there is) little challenge as executives claim services for the sake of greater production" (1973, p. 70). This has its effects on inequity as bureaucracies are pulled into the support of industries and hierarchies of knowledge capital are formed that legitimize growing disparities of income. Education and professionalization currently reinforce sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism in a society. The deeper questioning of the long-term sense of the industrial system that these minorities might ask is deflected as the system is actually reinforced by the aspirations and efforts of minority individuals to gain "equal pay for equal rank" (p. 71). Illich notes that nevertheless, most members of minorities remain outside the industrial power structure.

     The normative concept that `better' is being developed as opposed to `good' is an important point for Illich. Products that are new and improved promise the concept of being better, but leave the concept of whether or not it is good for the individual or society overall completely unaddressed. Therefore, industry can create obsolescence for previous product lines and also a measuring rod for relative affluence and privilege that reinforces the hierarchical nature of society. New and better products create more wants, dependency, and dissatisfaction for most (i.e., the older products must be inferior), and "constantly renovate poverty" for the poor (1973, p. 75). Elites get to demonstrate their vital contribution to the maintenance of the industrial system to one another with their display of the use of new and limited tools. Meanwhile, most individuals face increased frustration in their personal lives as they strive to maintain their responsibilities and aspirations in an increasingly competitive and harried society.

     Furthermore, the promise of time being gained with the use of power tools in reality turns out to be a loss of time. With cars, distances are stretched, roadways become congested, and leisure time is lost to the well known tyranny of the commute. Illich claims that one fourth of an average American man's waking hours (1600 hours/year) are spent in the car or paying for it (1974, p. 18) and this doesn't include time spent watching car commercials. The average American drives 7,500 miles a year (which equals a 30 mile round trip commute 250 days of the year--here Illich's figures seem quite low for four hours, has he included the entire population of America in this average?), so this comes to less than five miles for each hour devoted to the car, less than half the speed of a bicycle.

Illich points out more areas in which the transportation system we have developed is counterproductive (1974, p. 68). Its flow is broken and time is lost to congestion. Destinations are spread out and isolated, thereby requiring more trips, time, and frustration. Every day, people face the need to travel farther than they can physically go without internal combustion With time being given exchange value, inequity is produced in this dimension as well (1974, p. 30). The speedy transport of a few (in aircraft primarily) is supported by all of society, but the day-to-day flow of most of society's transportation is determined at the slow rate above. The hidden costs in time, pollution, and noise is absorbed by society. Higher rents are also determined by ease of access to traffic mobility.

     The bicycle is lauded by Illich as an excellent example of a convivial tool that works well within its own self-determined limits (1974, pp. 60-2). They are extremely efficient in terms of energy, expense, and urban space. They require much less infrastructure such as parking lots and less maintenance is needed for that infrastructure. Engineered roads are needed only in the areas of heaviest traffic. The bicycle allows the rider to reach her/his destination instead of a parking lot (the prices of which and proximity to important destinations are another measurement of inequity). Without cars, bicycle traffic flow is steady and relatively uninterrupted. The access of alternative means of transport is not barred by bicycles. Broad segments of society could be liberated from the dependence and frustration of the current radical monopoly. Bicycle riding is invigorating and it relieves stress, while it allows for easier stopping and social interaction.

     However, these advantages are ignored, and it is up to proponents of less energy intensive tools to prove their claims, while the proponents of the industrial globalization clique are allowed to assume the benefits of continuous growth, efficiency, and high energy inputs.

     On the question of sustainability, Illich makes an appeal to values beyond the empirical facts of industrial life and offers admittedly difficult choices for the individual and the hierarchical system. He asserts that the energy used driving vehicles in the U.S. would power twenty times that number of vehicles with motors running at a bicycle speed for those worldwide who could not or don't want to pedal a vehicle (1973, p. 81). The value in this in terms of increased equity is obvious, but Illich also believes that communities should realize that such a convivial speed would greatly increase the quality of transportation, social interaction, life, and freedom from dependence and auto-scale urban problems. He calls for research that would demonstrate these facts to the public and beyond that, to involve the public in honest participatory democracy that would determine limits on the use of tools within their second watershed. Maintenance of these limits ought to be helped in the future by the memory of the varied hidden costs the West encountered with its dependence on tools such as cars.

     Growth has become addictive. Like heroin addiction, the habit distorts basic value judgments.

     Addicts of any kind are willing to pay increasing amounts for declining satisfactions. They have become tolerant to escalating marginal disutility. They are blind to deeper frustration because they are absorbed in playing for always mounting stakes (1973, p. 82).

     Illich realizes that what he asks is difficult. His drug addiction metaphor is an apt choice. Illich can only see a catastrophe as the catalyst for the West to turn away from autos or degrading tools (1973, p. 105-6), since there is heavy dependence and high investment in them. Obviously, this has to be a catastrophe of a much larger magnitude than tens of thousands automobile accident deaths annually, repeated oil spills and a significantly degraded environment, and frustrated and rushed lifestyles overall. For Asia and the developing world and its elites though, it may be difficult to turn away from the promise of or the long-ingrained desires for industrial panaceas. However, Illich sees that people there have a real opportunity to avoid this path before investing too much into it.

     Illich points out that a single generation will have to bear the brunt of the huge crisis that will allow the move away from the industrial mode of production. He sees an inversion of politics occurring if groups that can mobilize the disaffected majority of society are prepared for the tumultuous times. While the law and politics currently support the liberal industrial mode, Illich remains committed to participatory democracy. Survival depends on "a majority of voters (choosing) limits for all rather than promises of equal consumption" (1973, p. 44). An integral part of survival, equity, and democracy is the use of low energy technology (1974, p. 12). Groups advocating a convivial society must be continually ready to deflate the positivist myth of science, technology, and perpetual growth by using alternative research and ordinary language for broad appeal in order to gain political acceptance of the sacrifice involved for society facing "multiple catastrophe" (1973, p. 105). Illich sees the adversarial nature of democratic politics as important in determining the limits society will put in place to maintain a sustainable way of living. Rather than destroying constitutional procedure, the recovery of legal institutions can reassert the rights of people over industry.

     Traveling about with an extra ton of car everywhere one goes does suggest an illogical set of values contrary to common sense. The twentieth century has given ample evidence that this practice is indeed unsustainable in the long run. The road Illich proposes to get to a convivial society is indeed a rocky, tenuous, and difficult one, and in the interests of people overall, a road best taken by bicycle, not a four-wheel drive. After all, along a precipice, a person can walk his/her bicycle and not plunge into an abyss.


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