Energy and Equity

The images of motorway tailbacks, even before Britain’s lockdown period officially loosened, brought two things home to me. The first was that, without clear leadership, crises always take you perilously close to collective insanity.

I’m sure none of the families who decided it was a good moment to nip off to the coast (or the countryside) ever expected to spend the day walking between stationary vehicles on the motorway. They just didn’t expect everyone else to have had the same idea.

No one should pretend that the lockdown has been universally easy. The desire to get out – to get a life – is an understandable one. What turned this into an act of lemming-like insanity was its disconnection from where we are in getting through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ambiguous government messages, and the sheer duplicity of their daily briefings, created the space in which lying to ourselves became much the same as being lied to.

Illusions of freedom

We are a long way from getting through this pandemic. If Ministers had the courage to say so the public response would be different. Instead, as in Trump’s America, the ‘let’s get the economy going again’ brigade fosters a consciousness of sheep that guarantees to make matters worse.

Figures from the day before the motorway ‘mass breakout’ told a different story. They compared Covid-related deaths in 14 European countries on 28th May 2020. The range was a significant measure of successful intervention strategies.

At the better end, Spain (2), Ireland (6) and Hungary (8) had all reduced deaths to single figures. Germany (24) with a larger population was still doing better than Belgium (42) and France (52).

At the top end of the scale, Italy (87) and Sweden (84) were still struggling. In the UK, on the same day, there were 324 Covid deaths. We really are in a league of our own.

This would have made for an interesting traffic-jam conversation … except that Ministers studiously failed to mention it.

Post-pandemic planning will not begin with a traffic jam. In fact, most people recognise that tomorrow’s economics will involve far less commuting, congestion and (air) contamination. The question is how do we get there? This takes me to my second recollection.

Energy Slavery

I’ve always had an affection for people whose ideas got me into trouble. So it is with Ivan Illich, the Austrian born priest, academic and iconoclast whose most famous work – Deschooling Society – caused such educational forment in the1970’s. I’d met Illich in Nottingham during one of his speaking tours, but it was his later writing on energy and transport that really stuck with me.

In Energy and Equity (1974), Illich argued that equity and industrial growth are incompatible beyond certain limits. If we ignore these limits then the economic model itself requires that most of us end up as ‘energy slaves’; the difference between slavery under the Roman Empire and under modern industrial capitalism being more about social conditioning and propaganda than objective reality. It was a challenging read at the time. It is no less so today.

Almost 50 years ago, Illich wrote

“While people have begun to accept ecological limits on maximum per capita energy use as a condition of 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 characterised by high levels of equity.” (p17)

This didn’t go down well with economists, but the really incandescent reactions were reserved for his analysis of what this meant for transport. In essence, Illich drew a distinction between transit (which we have always done in our daily work and search for food) and traffic (in which increasing amounts of other people’s life/time goes into the illusion of travelling faster).

Traffic or transit?

For most of human history our speed of transit, by foot or donkey, was around 5mph. For many millions of people, it still is. Illich’s argument was that society’s ‘equitable’ limit of transport improvements was probably only 3x this speed.

“Once some public utility went faster than +/-15mph, equity declined and the scarcity of both time and space increased.” (p23)

Today, his argument will come as mana to those campaigning for pandemic-deserted streets to be handed back to pedestrians and cyclists. From Copenhagen to Paris, to Milan it is an argument already grasped by City leaders. But for Illich, speed itself was the enslaving delusion; in which both the speed and distance covered by a limited elite must be paid for by the time everyone else puts in to prop it up.

“Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a worldwide structure of speed capitalists is created.” (p41)

His argument was that beyond this critical speed no one can save time without stealing it from someone else. Even worse, Illich argued that in doing so you create a distorted economics based entirely around time-theft and energy over-consumption.

“In the United States, four-fifths of all man-hours on the road are those of commuters and shoppers who hardly ever get into a plane, while four-fifths of the mileage flown to conventions and resorts is covered, year after year, by the same one and a half percent of the population, usually those who are well-to-do or professionally trained to do good.” (p29)

The shrunk world of the powerfully rushed

The shrunk world of ‘the powerfully rushed’ is underpinned by time-payments from everyone else. No matter how many traffic jams we sit in, we barely recognise how the imperatives of a high energy economy bring enslavement far more than liberation. As an example, Illich cited the average 1970’s American, devoting some 1,600 hours/year to his car. Much of this time was spent idling, in traffic, or looking for parking space. To this, you then add the time spent earning money to pay for the car, insure it, pay road tolls and fuel bills. Illich ignored accident time/costs, hospital bills or garage repairs but, in sum,

“The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than 5 miles per hour.” (p31)

Under the same accounting, the Mexican peasant with his donkey travelled faster.

To Illich the most emancipating modal shift was the bicycle. Against measurements of health, cost, impacts on air quality, social inclusion and transport system efficiency the bike – not the car or the plane – became the real game changer. Today’s invention of E-bikes would only enhance this claim, allowing older and less able riders to be part of such social inclusiveness.

In simple, practical terms, Illich argued that in one hour you could move 40,000 people across a bridge using modern trains. By bus it would take 4 hours, and by car 12 hours. But by bike it took only half the train time.

The solitude of plenty

Energy and Equity, however, was not really a homage to the bicycle. Illich’s bigger message was about the need for a different, low-energy economics; one in which ‘minimum feasible power’ forms the basis of living more sustainably and more equitably. His contention was that we cannot build such a society without putting a ceiling on energy use and limits on our addiction to speed.

“The impact of industrially packaged quanta of energy on the social environment tends to be degrading, exhausting and enslaving; and these effects come into play even before those which threaten the pollution of the physical environment and the extinction of the race.” (p89)

Unless we make the break, today’s traffic jams and urban congestion will become the ‘solitude of plenty’ that alienates us from ourselves, each other and all that surrounds us. If it takes a pandemic and a climate precipice to get this message across then, even posthumously, Illich would feel it was worth the wait.

Alan Simpson

(Ivan Illich, ‘Energy and Equity’, Calder & Boyars, 1974)


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.