Energy and equity

Ivan Illich's Energy & Equity shows how large-scale energy systems entail inequality, unfreedom, and loss of human dignity. 


Aaron Peters and Tony Curzon Price, in their important exchange about workfare, both seem to accept a basically techno-utopian view of the future of hyper-automation. But this view ignores two crucial factors which make the fundamental picture much less rosy: the environmental constraint and global-scale immiseration on a global scale. Ivan Illich's ‘Energy & Equity’ (1973) is still the right place to start to understand the nexus involved.
To start with the last of these: the future scenario Keynes described in 1920 - in which increasing productivity make economics essentially disappear as a constraint in our lives has - contrary to what Peters and Curzon Price imply - only very partially been realised. One need only look at the sheer scale of global and intra-national inequality. Immiseration is widespread (and arguably increasing growing), at least partly because, since Keynes wrote, there has been a massive the global population has increased almost four-fold and there has been the emergence of an energy-environmental crisis of the first order (both of which Keynes did not envisage).
Bearing this in mind the fundamental problem we face in my opinion is therefore not primarily - as Keynes would have it – and accepted by Peters and Curzon Price - about the need to effect a transition towards greater leisure activity; nor is it primarily about the distribution of abundant social goods consequent on automated hyper-production (although this perspective is probably closer to the truth).
Instead I would argue that the material basis of the scenario described by Aaron Peters is unstable in relation to three primary factors – the systems’ energy requirements, environmental consequences and social impacts. Aaron and Tony clearly recognise the last mentioned of these problems and both investigate the capacity of workfare to address this source of instability. In so doing, Aaron very insightfully analyses the changing nature of work (including the so-called ‘cybernetic hypothesis), the growth of surplus labour (and even surplus population) under late capitalism, and the wider ‘crisis of the society of work’ as he refers to it. Tony, in his last paragraph, correctly notes “the conditions for this [i.e. hyper-automated] economy seem to be ones of very great inequality ... [and] global plutocracy”. Both seem to see a basic citizen’s income in return for workfare as a necessary and, in the case of Peters, potentially a progressive response, although Tony notes the severe constraints on the potential generosity of workfare payments within a capitalist system.
Although both writers therefore seem acutely aware of the potential adverse social impacts of increasing automation, neither appears to explicitly, or perhaps even implicitly, acknowledge and consider the potential constraints and impacts of the other two sources of instability identified, and the connections between all three. Indeed, both Aaron and Tony appear to treat increased automation – hyper-automation – as an inevitable fact of life unrelated to and unaffected by the issue of energy and its impacts - and also – apparently – immune to political control. Instead both their visions see hyper-automation as providing the basis for reduced labour time/increased leisure in society in general and, to some extent, funding a basic citizen’s income in return for workfare.
To me this is a decidedly second best solution – and furthermore one which is not sustainable in the longer-term. One needs to understand however that energy - cheap, high quantity energy - has been key to creating this our whole industrial social system and keeping it going. In principle, while we have a host of strong motives, including climate change, environmental pollution, energy resource wars, and rising commodity prices, to wean ourselves off our current high energy (primarily) fossil fuel ‘drug’, unfortunately we also at the moment have stronger and deeply embedded motives not to: myths of social progress, scientific and technological development, consumerism, status, domination, luxury, and greed.
The relationship between energy and social relationships and politics was very presciently and insightfully analysed by Ivan Illich in ‘Energy & Equity’ (1973). Illich argued that high energy consumption is inversely correlated with equity and inevitably degrades social relations and human freedoms.. Read more:

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