The Prophet of Conviviality

Ivan Illich saw the ecological crisis as a genuine turning-point: a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rediscover what he called conviviality: "the autonomous and creative intercourse among persons and of persons with their environment".

THE DEATH LAST December of Ivan Illich, the most radical critic of late-industrial institutions and the most unsettling prophet of the age of ecology, was greeted with an embarrassed stutter of tributes. Like W. B. Yeats in Auden's elegy he "disappeared in the dead of winter"; unlike Yeats, Illich died a rather marginalised figure, cold-shouldered not just by the mainstream media and establishment, but also by large sections of the ecological movement he helped to inspire. 

Illich, a polymath, one-time Catholic priest, medieval historian and teacher on two continents, is best known as a critic of institutions, in particular of the counter-productive hypertrophy of professionalised medicine and education: the way health care, at ever greater cost, may keep us not so much alive as excruciatingly moribund, and the sacrifice of our native ability to learn at the altar of institutionalised and certified knowledge. His ecological thinking - his piercing yet compassionate vision of the devastation being visited on the Earth and its inhabitants by industrialism - was always allied to a social and philosophic perspective, which celebrated the full richness of human potential. 

Unlike many ecologists, Illich did not merely preach a gospel of impending catastrophe based on physical, 'scientific' limits. The catastrophe, for Illich, is already with us, not just in the destruction of nature but in the cultural devastation of impoverished language and the forgetting and atrophying of innate human capacities of caring, consoling, entertaining and creating. He saw the ecological crisis as a genuine turning-point: a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rediscover what he called conviviality: "the autonomous and creative intercourse among persons and of persons with their environment". Conviviality at root means living with; and the word's celebratory ring can connote not so much tipsy jollity as the realisation of the joyful potential in full living, with one another and with nature. 

Conviviality, in this sense, could hardly be more opposed to the currently prevailing versions of sustainable development or sustainability, to whose hegemony much of the environmental movement has succumbed. The allure of this kind of sustainable development (especially for big business and government) is not hard to understand; as Jeremy Seabrook has written, it holds out the promise that we can eat our cake and have it too: continue consuming at the same or even at a faster rate, while reducing the environmental impact of that consumption through ever-smarter technologies. Even if that were true (and recent reports from the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Worldwatch Institute, detailing the massive destruction of critical wildlife habitats and great swathes of the natural world, show that for the time being development is anything but sustainable), it would not have satisfied Illich. His most disturbing insight, for environmentalists, is that ecological modernisation or the greening of industry might actually intensify the human crisis of the loss of aliveness and creativity caused by commodity dependence: "industrial technology that was cleaner and less aggressive [might] be used for now-impossible levels of frustrating enrichment." (The Right to Useful Unemployment)

At the heart of the economic thinking behind sustainability is the translation of everything in nature and the human world into the language of resources, commodities and capital. Proponents of 'weak' and 'strong' sustainability argue over the substitutability of various kinds of natural and human-made capital. The madness of weak sustainability, which argues for the more or less infinite substitutability of human-made for natural capital (as if, Illich once remarked, a recording of bird songs of the world could substitute for a live nightingale), is glaring, at least to the non-economist. But even to speak in terms of 'natural capital' is to have turned nature's infinite variety and irreducible quiddity into a neutral substance or means of exchange, like money. 

Illich reminds us that this way of thinking is a modern peculiarity, or perversion. For millennia most human beings (together with animals) lived from 'the commons'. The commons provided for humankind collectively, and thus were quite the opposite of the natural world seen in terms of resources: that is, under the regime of scarcity, competed for by invidious, atomised, de-gendered individuals, subjected to exploitation, commodification and marketing. In his great poem 'The Lament of Swordy Well', John Clare enters into the being of a common meadow as it suffers the transition to enclosure: subject to the iron laws of profit, extraction and monoculture, the field becomes a pauper, unable to support the rich variety of beings it housed in its unenclosed heyday. 

NOW WE SEEM to have succumbed not just to seeing nature as natural resources, but to the terminology of 'human resources' - as if the reduction of the human being to "the indefinitely malleable resource of a corporate state" (Tools for Conviviality), subject to infinite exploitation and processing in the interests of profitability, did not amount to a crime against humanity, cognate with the crimes of Hitler and Stalin. 

Of course the proponents of so-called sustainable development argue that only through an intensification of these processes of expropriation and marketing, conducted under the aegis of multinational corporations, can poverty and scarcity be combated, especially in the developing world. Illich maintained quite the opposite: that these processes are impoverishing, at first quite literally, and ultimately culturally and spiritually. Rural Mexico was one of the parts of the world Illich knew especially well - he was partly based in Cuernavaca for the last forty years of his life - and where he was able to witness the physical and cultural losses associated with the industrial mode of development. He records, for instance, the disappearance from the village of Acatzingo of the "four groups of musicians - who played for a drink and served the population of 800" - replaced by radios hooked up to loudspeakers. 

Perhaps Illich's most controversial claim is that nearly all people in the industrialised world suffer from what he called "modernised poverty". He defined this as "the experience of frustrating affluence that occurs in people mutilated by their reliance on the riches of industrial productivity". He went on to argue that "beyond a certain threshold, the multiplication of commodities induces impotence, the incapacity to grow food, to sing or to build." Clearly, sustainable development, in the industrial mode, can only intensify this type of frustration. Not only that, but the kind of sustainable development which stimulates infinite desire and needs - we read, for example, that today's children cannot survive without television - in a finite world, is a contradiction in terms, ultimately as unsustainable as it is unsustaining. 

IN ITS PLACE Illich offers us his inspiring vision of conviviality. Conviviality starts from the paradoxical notion that 'less is more'. His point is not so much that we must reluctantly accept limits to growth, as that we should joyfully embrace the limits to unbridled exploitation which allow us to live in harmony with the natural world and with each other. A reduction in commodities could lead to an increase in creativity; a decrease in the speed of transportation could lead to everyone having more, not less time; restraint on the spiralling spending on health care, especially what Illich called "intensive care for the dying", might bring about a revival of true caring. Bicycles and libraries are two paradigms of what Illich called "convivial tools". But perhaps the ultimate, and the most threatened, convivial tool is poetry, defined by Illich as the "ability to endow the world with personal meaning". 

Sceptics might argue that conviviality hardly amounts to a political programme, let alone a plausible electoral platform (who ever voted for reductions in services?). Illich would agree: conviviality is not a programme but a principle designed to sanction legal limits to the size and structure of institutions, countering what he called radical monopoly. Conviviality rests on a probable belief in the inherent creativity of human beings, gathered together in communities and polities of the right size and scale. 

After his more wide-ranging works of the 1970s attacking the institutionalisation of knowledge and medicine, in the last years of his life Illich wrote a series of more intimate and personal essays on language and dwelling. He saw that the current of a late-industrial world intensifying its denial of salutary limits was flowing strongly against people like him, but his own example of spirituality, undaunted energy and courage (in the face of a disfiguring cancer which he refused to have treated by conventional medicine) inspired his circle of friends and colleagues, and constitutes one of the great bulwarks of defence which humanity must rediscover if it is to escape from the technicised nightmare in which we are currently engulfed.

Harry Eyres is a poet and freelance writer. His first poetry collection, Hotel Eliseo, was published by Hearing Eye in 2001.

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