Using Tools for the Common Good - Revisting the Ideas of Ivan Illich

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, June 1998

“During the period that environmentalism became a force in North American public life,our cities and communities have sprawled without consideration for resource efficiency. Infrastructure has been constructed - housing, roadways and sewage systems, for instance - which encourages disregardful resource consumption.Water sources have been taxed or polluted. Built environments have been designed which alter microclimates and promote photochemical smog formation. Environmental services, such as public transit systems, have been left without public support.Our settlements have become less and less habitable for humans and most other species.”
(Bergmann in the preface to Toward Sustainable Communities: A Resource Book for Municipal and Local Governments, Ottawa: 1992)

It is obvious that concern for ensuring that Mother Nature is not chocked, polluted or paved over takes second place to economic growth and the dream of efficiency. Why is it that expressions of concern for the environment seem to be nothing but a sentimental feeling for the forests, wetlands, birds and animals that find themselves under attack from encroaching humans?

This is a fundamental question about our culture. The project of Ivan Illich, social critic and philosopher, has been to bring such questions to the forefront of our consciousness. “What are the roots of our alienation that causes us to destroy what we sentimentalize?”

Illich has identified two clear forms of alienation that can help individuals see how far our culture has travelled from its roots. The first is our alienation from tools.

Illich starts by bringing technology back into its proper realm of philosophy and theology. Illich finds a voice for this project in a twelfth century teacher, Hugh of St.Victor who thought of a tool as a humble means, that assists in a small way, to remedy our alienation to the world. The tool brings us into contact with soil, culture, shape and order. It teaches us that limits are the conditions of our life and suffering is an expression of this experience. A reflection on the way that we use a garden hoe, a knitting needle or a hammer tells us about the limits that are part of our existence. Over time, Hugh of St. Victor’s teachings were ignored in favour of the ethos of tools as domination and control. In the last 150 years, technology has been defined by highly centralized capital systems that make men and women slaves to machines. We can no longer even reflect on how our existence is tied to humble tools.

The second alienation is what Illich calls paradoxical counterproductivity in which industrial and institutional overproduction paralyses autonomous action.

“Persons on the mainstream or on the fringes of society are pushed by all modern institutions towards expecting some product or package from their respective institutions, while being discouraged from hoping in an action flowing from a personal vocation, one’s own or someone else’s.”

Jerry Brown summarized Illich’s point this way,

“What he’s saying is that we’re looking to the institution to save us, to make our lives more comfortable, to illuminate us, to keep us alive, to make everything work -- and that’s an expectation, or even an entitlement. Whereas hope from the action of another person, a person who has a vocation -- “I am called to heal”, “I am called to teach,” “I am called to some craft” -- that’s a very personal, human individual reality. And the system conspires to minimize that kind of personal hope in another, and even in the idea that we have vocations, that we are called to a certain way of being in the world. And so our focus is on health care systems, educational systems, transportation systems, prison systems, free trade systems, communication systems, all of that.”

The result of this alienation is deep and destructive. Illich tersely described its effects in his book Tools for Conviviality in 1973. The nature of the problem has changed very little since then.

“The present world is divided into those who do not have enough and those who have more than enough, those who are pushed off the road by cars and those who drive them.The have-nots are miserable and the rich anxious to get more.”

Illich has written about how “the political process breaks down because people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed”. This is like insisting on measurable economic data and strategic planning to analyse every problem. It ignores the fact that the self-sustaining well being of communities and the environment is all about people involving themselves with others, creating public places for conversation, building a history of communal trust.

Well being is derived from the blessings of rediscovering walking and cycling in lieu of frustrating transportation, of nurturing and growing a vegetable garden, of crafting and creating useful things for yourself and others, of meeting and working with others in your neighbourhood, of multiple informal hangouts like coffee houses and pubs that encourage conversation. These are the essence of living in a community.

Illich went so far as to call for creative and useful unemployment. If an individual is not part of the formal market, then it is possible to pursue productive activities outside of the formal market. The dominant culture is happy when this is seen as escapism or not pulling ones weight. In fact, it is something quite different. When one uses a bike to get around and learns to expertly fix it, then Illich calls this “freeing oneself from the multiple restraints, schedules and bureaucratic red tape that have been imposed for the sake of centralized and dominating institutions.” The bike is like a freedom machine, inexpensive to operate, propelled by ones own energy and a symbol of all the other choices individuals can make to loosen themselves from institutions and monopolies that are only to happy to take control away from individuals.

Community Tools are an example of how the informal economy can grow in meaning and usefulness. Community Tools are projects and undertakings that assist people to live full and productive lives with less income. Community Tools put productive means into the hands of people.They have the added benefit of a cooperative and neighbourhood structure so that individuals do not have to work in isolation. Facilities where individuals have access to tools helps support local producing and trading. Community gardens, bartering systems, access to telephones and computers, woodworking shops, community kitchens, and bicycle projects are all examples of Community Tools.

The determination of our culture to destroy the common good can only be confronted by “creating a different basis for morality, for action, for living, and therefore for politics”. The only way to overcome our collective alienation from nature and each other is to create conditions where human relationships flourish, where there is a commitment to diversity and mutual support, where people have the ability to shape their tools to create their own informal production and where there is respect for disorderly order.

The change in approach must come through friendships and personal relatedness. Dominating institutions set an agenda for control, divisiveness and environmental destruction when the local community has allowed its civic culture to be diminished. Neighbourhoods, gathering places and access to tools can overcome alienation and build community trust and respect when teaching, healing, crafting with humble tools is at the heart of their purpose.

David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Toronto, 1992
Ivan Illich, In the Mirror of the Past, Lectures and Addresses 1978-1990, London 1992
Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, New York, 1994
Jerry Brown, Transforming Politics, Creation Spirituality, Spring 1997

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