Chapter Twenty, The Apparent Austerity of an Oil-less Life may be More Convivial & Full Than We Had Imagined

Ivan Illich sought to discover how some tools could assist convivial societies and how some created social division.  He could see that social behaviour in Nineteen Seventy indicated that despite a dependency on finite supplies, most people lived as though they had infinity in the tank.   He knew that such behaviour would grind any culture to a halt, but I doubt that he could foresee the even wilder excesses of today.  However, if we put climate change aside, then we have the advantage that many can now visualise the precarious state of the developed world’s economies.  Energy supply is shrinking, while money supply, by force of habitual denial, is continuing to expand.  So the cliff over which we’ll fall is becoming progressively taller – and progressively, if intermittently more apparent to more people.

But this provides the opportunity to reconsider our tools.  Cultures are what we do and so tools are central to considerations of proper behaviour.

A happy culture will develop tools to sit easily in its ecology and with regards to replacing oil-power with man-power, one in which we don’t work for a happy leisure time, after we have clocked-off, but work to be happy.

It is a post-modern perversity that we agree to unhappy work to pay for happiness at leisure.  For many, their life’s purpose has become the pursuit of happy leisure by means of unhappy work.  What we do is therefore regarded as what we don’t do.  Our identity is our conspicuous leisure – the larger our purchase of property or service, so the larger will be our happiness.  That what we do at work is unimportant is a demonstration of how easily we have slid into the ridiculous, barely-considered status quo cult of economic growth from diminishing resources and of future (none existent) abstract ideas replacing those vanished resources.  In short, we don’t consider our work.  We consider our leisure.  What’s more, no-one else considers our work either.  There is no-body in charge.

Finally, of course, none of us will be able to put climate change aside.

So now I shove forward (again) the both radical and ancient proposition that civilisation is what we do; that true identity is what we do; that happiness is in what we do; that everything we do has an effect; that those effects are ours to consider, study, delight in, or remedy by what we do.  We, not authorities are responsible for our effects.

None will dispute that putting anything more than food, conversations and songs on the table, beneath a more or less comfortable roof (and paying basic bills) leads to happiness.  Indeed it is anciently proposed and (I think) universally accepted that additional properties and services lead only to anxiety, defensiveness and unhappiness.

So I propose that we demand happiness at work – that is – the liberty to be professional rather than discretional.  I propose that there could be a contagious fashion, or folk movement for that demand.  If what we do becomes important, then the effects of what we do become important to us and our curiosity and ingenuity can expand.

What are tools for happiness, or in Ivan Illich’s words – What are convivial tools?

We’ve seen that if we re-organise ourselves, (as in the true meaning of organic) then, for instance, all those hours of misery “worked” to pay for the car, its fuel, insurance, maintenance and the time spent driving it and parking it and anxiously flaunting it may be removed at a stroke by removing the need for out-of-town super markets and distant, centralised work-places.

When that disorganisation (or anti-organic system) is entirely-dependent on a continuous supply of fast-disappearing fossil fuels, or of dust-bowl-creating, famine-inducing bio fuels, then it becomes plain that we must re-organise fast.  That we have not already done so is a measure of the potency of this delusion: because the marvellous power of oil is irreplaceable, we cannot live without it.

The truth is that the topography now visible from space – of ring roads, industrial estates; retail parks; motorways; endless streams of headlights; vapour trails teased-out into anthropogenic cirrus clouds; cities levelled by just a handful of missiles fired from very safe distances – all are products of that marvel.  Not one of those things is necessary and not one has contributed either to happiness or to the essential integration of economies into the ecologies which sustain them.  We used oil, as we climbed Everest – because it was there.  Climbing Everest had no effect.  Using oil has created an Everest of effects – marvels – but most with no purpose – simply because we could.  It has also created those extra hundred or so parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.  As Richard Heinberg points out – economies have not grown by a series of improving technologies, but simply by increasing consumption of coal, gas and oil.

If our energy-use is confined to heating and building homes and work places and to a transport system with perhaps a fiftieth of today’s energy needs, then I suggest that our large population can probably live at ease in its finite Earth.  I also suggest that such a world would make most of us very-much happier.  A fiftieth?  Yes.  It is possible.  Your relatives are in America?  A schooner lies at the quay….

Of course, the foundation of all cultures is soil and the founding techniques of modern cultures are agricultural techniques.

The same acreage has been farmed for centuries by horse, ox and man-power and so it is ridiculous to say that without oil-power productivity must necessarily falter.  In returning to man-power, we return to ingenuity, dexterity, perception and the morals of consequence.  That production per man/hour will dramatically falter as “men” replace oil can be turned on its head by considering that dispossessed labour can return to its livings, while dehumanised fields become repopulated with observant eyes, ears, noses, professional voices and engaged hearts.  We’ll have the same human population per acre and at the least, a similar crop production per acre.  But fields will be humanised, just as the dereliction of manufacturing towns is evacuated and people occupy some commons beneath the old enclosures.  If we’ve the food, then all the rest of a civilisation can follow.

The UN points out that small farmers grow seventy percent of the world’s food, as a valuable report from GRAIN shows, on less than twenty five percent of farmland (see appendix 3).

Of course productivity will falter during the transition from what was always destined to be an ephemeral green revolution towards the resumption of ordinary laws of appropriately-tooled history.  For instance, we have a UK government fervently set on the cult of very large, satellite-aided, labour-shedding, oil-eating, machinery to cultivate pesticided, herbicided, fungicided, heavily-fertilised fields.  Those fields are little more than stuff to hold plants upright, while diminishing supplies of phosphate and potash are poured in.  Abundant nitrogen is fixed from the air, but by the energy of similarly diminishing fossil fuels.  The longer the transition is delayed, so the more likely will we face mass starvation and its consequences: migration, war and lawlessness.

How can shed labour be happy, since happiness is in what we do?  Various historical waves have enclosed commons, shedding people for sheep and for the power of holding property.  Now the propertied are shedding even more people, not for increased production, but for the delusions of the machinery market.  As we’ve seen, it is not production which accumulates wealth, but property.

The casino price of land has risen to beyond the possibilities of fairytales – for nothing – for the whim of punters – for the joy of machinery purchasers and people clearers – for the joy of bankers who readily shell out readies on the now magnificent security of land.

Post modern husbandries are decided, not by experience, but by the pages of glossy machinery, pesticide and veterinary catalogues.  The knowledge economy is at its zenith in a society in which ingenuity and dexterity have been enclosed and then sold as technology transfer – obtainable through coffee table-like brochures and promoted by government policy documents as the march of progress.  No-one wants to stop the selling, so long as there is something to be sold.

Vast inputs of sold fertilisers have been enough to create the biomass of most of the food in our super markets with little contribution from the biomass of soil.  Fossilised biomass has fed a plague of humanity, but the sources are shrinking.  Soil, which is the natural power-house of all terrestrial life, often lies sickly and underused.  The biomass and diversity of soil is the key to a secret – we came from it in the first place and we can come from it again.  I think that a revival of soil-life can feed even current fossil-grown populations.  If we contribute to the soil, then the soil will contribute to us.  Will human population rise still further as most suggest?  I think not.  Population grew by the power of vast sediments of fossilised life.  That’s history.  I think that populations will begin to fall.

Let’s repeat Tom Paine, Men did not make the Earth.  Every proprietor owes the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.  Let’s hope that as we come to understand that we depend on the productive power of a common terrain that we also revive the primary question of just distribution.

As thinkers such as Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill and Henry George saw, inequality between rich and poor expands as economies develop – not by the means to create wealth, but simply by the increasing value of land – which inevitably and always accompanies increased production.  Wealth is created by the skill and dexterity of labour, but wages for labour, instead of rising with production will always fall.  Land value and land rental will always rise – so commanding a rising base for further borrowing at an interest rate lower than the value of the property-increase.

This is from the executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation:


“There is a phenomenal concentration of power in the hands of a few. For instance, if you look at cocoa, coffee, sugar and bananas you have millions of small holders selling to a handful of companies who then sell on to billions of consumers.

“For example, 75% of bananas are in the hands of five companies, there are 5m cocoa smallholders selling to just four traders.

“This extraordinary concentration of power means that over the last 40 years there had been a drive down of prices going back to the farmers – today cocoa farmers receive approximately 3% of an average price of a chocolate bar, whereas in the 1980s they received 18%.”

That most land-property has been stolen from the common by a variety of historical acts of violence means that any primary moral consideration of a just, settled society, must consider restoratory justice by law (land reform) and by taxation.  That wealth accumulates, not by economic activity, but by enclosure of commons means that increasingly-wealthy cultures become progressively less responsive to the environments on which they depend.  The state of property overrides the method of settlement.  We’ve seen how both governments and citizens have become blind to the climate change they are causing – I suggest that is why the post-modern “economy” responds only to adverse reactions to the settled state of property and not to natural reactions to the methods of human settlement.

That floods and storms are an anxiety to the propertied, may be useful in redirecting ingenuity towards – not the state of settlement, but the methods of settlement – from property value to labour value.

Interestingly, even John Locke whose Seventeenth Century writings have been used to justify invasions, enclosures and the right of property owners to “freedom” (irresponsibility), believed that land could be enclosed only to the limit of at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

Here is David Bollier, from Think Like a Commoner: Locke starts with the idea that human beings are isolated individuals with sweeping rights of personal entitlement to resources based upon the labour they invest in developing them.  This is Locke’s “Labour theory of value”.  It was his attempt to emancipate people from kingly dominion.  I think that if John Locke was writing today he might consider emancipation from the private property dominion, he had once advocated as overturning the tyranny of kings.  Following from Locke, G K Chesterton believed Everyman had a right to own a house – a home as castle.  His attempted political movement, distributism, was an egalitarian one.    “There is less difference than many suppose between the ideal socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the state, and the present capitalist system, in which the state is run by the big businesses. They are much nearer to each other than either is to my own ideal; of breaking up the big businesses into a multitude of small businesses.”  You see, there are those on a wide variety of journeys, who seek similar ends.  Let’s watch and listen, while travelling our own with more curiosity and surprised delight than the fanatic’s passionate intensity.  That neo-liberalism has hoisted portraits of Adam Smith and John Locke as flags in the conflict is not the fault of Adam and John.                                                                                            

Here is the legendary Bhaskar Save’s list of the eighteen major differences between chemical farming and organic farming in harmony with nature (courtesy of the Institute for Science in Society):

  1. Chemical farming fragments the web of life; organic farming nurtures its wholeness.
  2. Chemical farming depends on fossil oil; organic farming on living soil.
  3. Chemical farmers see their land as a dead medium; organic farmers know theirs is teeming with life.
  4. Chemical farming pollutes the air, water and soil; organic farming purifies and renews them.
  5. Chemical farming uses large quantities of water and depletes aquifers; organic farming requires much less irrigation, and recharges groundwater.
  6. Chemical farming is mono-cultural and destroys diversity; organic farming is poly-cultural and nurtures diversity.
  7. Chemical farming produces poisoned food; organic farming yields nourishing, poison-free food.
  8. Chemical farming has a short history and threatens a dim future; organic farming has a long history and promises a bright future.
  9. Chemical farming is an alien, imported technology; organic farming has evolved indigenously.
  10. Chemical farming is propagated through schooled, institutional misinformation; organic farming learns from Nature and farmers’ experience.
  11. Chemical farming benefits traders and industrialists; organic farming benefits the farmer, the environment and society as a whole.
  12. Chemical farming robs the self-reliance (and self-respect) of farmers and villages; organic farming restores and strengthens it.
  13. Chemical farming progressively leads to bankruptcy and misery; organic farming liberates people from debt and woe.
  14. Chemical farming is violent and entropic; organic farming is non-violent and synergistic.
  15. Chemical farming is a hollow ‘green revolution’; organic farming is the true green revolution.
  16. Chemical farming is crudely materialistic, with no ideological mooring; organic farming is rooted in spirituality and abiding truth.
  17. Chemical farming is suicidal, moving from life to death; organic farming is the road to regeneration.
  18. Chemical farming is the vehicle of commerce and oppression; organic farming is the path of culture and co-evolution.

Tragically many of those points cannot be applied to the corporate supply chains of consumerist UK and European “organic” agriculture.

As Albert Einstein expressed in the last chapter, simply by reclaiming social responsibility we reclaim our human nature and shed those corporate dehumanised supply chains.  We arrange our own supply – or rather we rub shoulders in a convivial, bustling muddle of expressed and professed responsibilities.  The society which emerges will be too complex to describe precisely – just as all organisms are.  People seek wealth, because they seek the social status it confers.  Well, a far happier route to social status – and a more durable one is to contribute to society and to become a valued member of it.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s