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A Convivial Life
EDGAR NEWTON writes about the life and philosoophy of Ivan Illich
The renaissance of the bicycle has been underway for a quarter of a century. This claim may draw hoots of derision from those cyclists who risk their lives on a daily basis in oppressive traffic. Throughout the sixties the western world had continued an innocent romance with the motor car. The chrome, the fins and the palatial bulk of the American motors were the way to go, with the soundtrack from Chuck Berry. In Europe, teenagers bought rickety pre-war deathtraps as soon as they were legally able, and the roads were so uncrowded that most remained unnamed.
The destructive effects of motorway building became apparent in the early seventies, and the Middle East began to play petrol politics. Green campaigners worldwide began to confront the powerful road lobbies. Radical thinkers developed the critiques which would inspire the campaign.
Amongst the most scathing was Ivan Illich, a Roman Catholic priest who had realised the modern transport systems left the poor behind. "More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody's daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spends a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips" ('Energy and Equity', Harper & Row, 1974) and "For the sole purpose of transporting people, 250 million Americans allocate more fuel than is used by 1,300 million Chinese and Indians for all purposes. Almost all of this fuel is burnt in a rain dance of time-consuming acceleration."
Illich's knack for the telling aphorism was exactly in tune with the radicalism of the day. His talent is that of a polemicist, extracting a compelling argument from a mass of information. In 'Energy and Equity', he drew upon an article on bicycle technology by S.S. Wilson, published in 'Scientific American', March 1973, which discussed the remarkable energy efficiency of the cyclist. The findings were pure poetry to cycle campaigners, weary of having their mode of transport treated as a crude anachronism. Henceforth the cyclist could claim to be at the peak of evolution:
"Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometre in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorised vehicle and most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history. At this rate peasant societies spend less than five per cent and nomads less than eight per cent of their respective social time budgets outside the home or the encampment.
"Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometre of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man's metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines, but all other animals as well" ('Energy and Equity').
'Energy and Equity' developed themes which had earlier appeared in 'Tools for Conviviality' (Harper & Row, 1973). Here Illich asserted that "Cars create distance. Speedy vehicles of all kinds render space scarce. They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that was manufactured for their sake. This monopoly over land turns space into car fodder. It destroys the environment for feet and bicycles."
Furthermore, "Transportation beyond bicycle speeds demands power inputs from the environment. Velocity translates directly into power, and soon power needs increase exponentially. In the United States, 22 per cent of the energy converted drives vehicles, and another 10 per cent keeps roads open for them... The energy used up in the United States for the sole purpose of driving vehicles built to accelerate beyond bicycle speeds would suffice to add auxiliary motors to about twenty times that many vehicles for people all over the world who want to move at bicycle speeds and do not or cannot push the pedals because they are sick or old, or because they want to transport a heavy load or move over a great distance, or because they just want to relax."
Illich claimed that speedy vehicles are a problem in themselves irrespective of the resources they consume or the physical danger that their velocity presents: "Of course cars burn gasoline that could be used to make food. Of course they are dangerous and costly. But the radical monopoly cars establish is destructive in a special way... Even if planes and buses could run as nonpolluting, nondepleting public services, their inhuman velocities would degrade man's innate mobility and force him to spend more time for the sake of travel". This is a considerable challenge to those who think that we can replace today's gas guzzlers with super-efficient non-polluting alternatives
Bicycles and transport were but a part of Illich's philosophical concerns. He is dismayed at the way that contemporary society seems to be losing touch with the personal scale of human interactions and decencies of civilised behaviour. His work was 'Deschooling Society' (Harper & Row, 1971), dealing with the cruelties of an education system which discards those who fail to make the grade, and which teaches all the wrong things. A few years later he tackled the medical establishment with 'Medical Nemesis' (Pantheon, 1976), expressing his lifelong distrust of conventional medicine and its so-called ethical agenda. He is not afraid to make enemies. In 'Gender' (Pantheon, 1982), he outraged conventional feminist thought by dismissing 'false equality' of the sexes, which induces competition rather than cooperation.
Illich's view of the world is often received as almost crazy. He once said "I often have the impression that the more traditionally I speak, the more radically alien I become." Such sentiments are often echoed by campaigners trying to convince technology-obsessed audiences of the merits of that traditional form of transport, the bicycle.
His iconoclasm led to a carpeting at the Vatican and resignation from any formal connection with the church. He spent the rest of his life splitting his time between guest professorships in Germany and America, spending the remaining months in a Mexican village working on various writing projects.
De Motu Urbanorum