Freedom and the price of oil
By Harry Eyres
Published: January 24 2009 00:43
We have another energy crisis upon us. I remember the last one, caused
by the Opec oil embargo and subsequent price rise in 1973-74, and the
apocalyptic mood-music it provoked about the end of oil, and of
civilisation as we knew it. It coincided with a particularly dark period
in British industrial relations, culminating in two miners’ strikes, the
imposition of a three-day working week and rotating power blackouts.
There was something quite romantic, for me as a 15-year-old schoolboy,
about parsing Virgil by candlelight, but I suppose it was rather a grim
time for most adults.
Our current energy crisis is less immediately dramatic but more ominous
in long-term outlook. The price of oil has fluctuated wildly in the past
year, tending to obscure the arguments about whether we have in fact
reached, or come close to, the moment of peak oil predicted by
geoscientist M King Hubbert. But even if oil, by some miraculous
dispensation, could be extracted indefinitely from the earth’s crust, we
would still have an energy crisis, or a fossil fuel crisis. We are
choking in our pollution, dangerously overheating the planet, and we
have not yet come up with a reliable, consistent, safe and clean source
Of course there are those who maintain that nuclear energy is clean and
safe, and that carbon capture and storage will solve everything, but the
former argument remains contentious and the latter technology in an
Writing at the time of the first energy crisis in the 1970s, the
maverick Catholic priest, historian and ecologist Ivan Illich exploded
the whole idea of energy crisis. Both the problem and the solution,
according to Illich, were to be located not in the earth’s crust but in
the mind of man.
The key to understanding the energy crisis, Illich said, lay in a
“peculiar notion that man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves
which he must painfully learn to master”. These slaves could be human
beings or machines designed to perform slave tasks. The energy crisis,
Illich continued, “focuses concern on the scarcity of these slaves. I
prefer to ask whether free men need them.” He had the barmy-seeming idea
that we would do better – that is to say would lead more human, fairer
and freer lives – if we consumed less energy. Far from freeing us up,
the addiction to ever-greater quanta of energy enslaves our souls,
making us passive consumers rather than active doers, and concentrates
power in mega-institutions.
All mainstream thinking about the energy crisis, now as then, as well as
the thinking of gloomy ecologists such as James Lovelock and George
Monbiot, assumes the need for ever-increasing amounts of energy from
sources outside the human body. In his most scintillating book Tools for
Conviviality (1973), Illich pointed out that all the great glories and
horrors of civilisation up until the industrial age were achieved mainly
by the power of human muscle. “A small energy parcel from each man was
the major source of physical power with which temples were built,
mountains were moved, cloth was woven, wars were waged.”
You might already be dangerously overheating with indignation about a
reactionary thinker’s plan to return us all to the inhuman drudgery we
escaped with such brilliant applied ingenuity, but hold your horses.
Illich liked to be provocative, but it is worth thinking seriously about
what he has to say. Much of the energy we consume goes on
transportation, and this is the area which remains most stubbornly
dependent on fossil fuels, and specifically oil.
In another book, Energy and Equity (1974), Illich focuses on the social
and economic costs of the unstoppable growth of traffic (at the same
time, Jacques Tati was making his gently humorous film Traffic). As you
would expect, Illich did not see the solution in terms of new runways,
ever-multiplying networks of motorways or even high-speed trains. What
needed to be examined first was the mindset of the habitual passenger.
Removed from the sphere in which people still move on their own, this
product of industrialism “has lost the sense that he stands at the
centre of the world … The passenger has come to identify territory with
the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed.”
The passenger’s personal alienation is compounded by city planning that
prioritises cars and leaves those without them stranded in no-man’s
land. Illich was decades ahead of his time in alerting policymakers to a
problem which bedevils cities from Brasilia to Shanghai.
Another writer I bumped into a few times in my 20s, a contemporary of
Illich, died just before Christmas. His name was Peter Vansittart, and
he devoted most of his life to writing dense, allusive historical novels
read only by a small circle of admirers. But I always thought there was
something impressive about this tall, rangy, eccentric man with an
untamed look. I remember friends telling me that Peter, when he lived in
London, used to walk everywhere, whatever the weather or the distance.
Shortly before he died at 88, Peter Vansittart was still walking
energetically through the Suffolk countryside he loved. He reminds us of
the untapped energy we possess, and its connection with freedom.