Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

The Shadow Our Future Throws

Because of his groundbreaking critique of mass industrial society in such books as Energy and Equity, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health, Toward a History of Needs and Deschooling Society Ivan Illich was considered a founding thinker of the alternative and ecological movements, the prophet of an “era of limits.”

This conversation took place at Illich’s rustic retreat in Ocotopec, Mexico, in the spring of 1989. (The title of  the second chapter of Al Gore’s 1992 book, The Earth in Balance is taken from this interview– “The Shadow Our Future  Throws.”)

Illich was no armchair witness but lived what he preached. In the early 1990s he developed a large tumor that protruded from his right temple. Claiming the right not to be a patient but to “die without diagnosis” as part of “hygienic autonomy,” he was never treated, smoking opium to ease the pain over his last years. He died—without diagnosis—in 2002 in Bremen, Germany.

Nathan Gardels | Because of your radical critiques of industrial society 15 and 20 years ago, you are widely regarded as a founding thinker of the environmental movement. Now, many of your concepts have entered the vocabulary of the established institutions of industrialism and development: the World Bank now talks about “sustainable development” and incorporates ecological concerns into their sponsorship of economic development; world leaders worry publicly about the ozone layer and promise “an environmental agenda.” What’s changed?

Ivan Illich | What has changed is that our common sense has begun searching for a language to speak about the shadow our future throws.

The central thesis that ran through much of my early work was that most man-made misery—from the suffering of cancer patients and the ignorance of the poor to urban gridlock, housing shortages, and air pollution—was a byproduct of the institutions of industrial society originally designed to protect the common man from the environment, improve his material circumstances, and enhance his freedom. By breaching the limits set on man by nature and history, industrial society engendered disability and suffering in the name of eliminating disability and suffering.

In this early critique, I recalled Homer’s warning of the doom of Nemesis. Driven by pleonexia, or radical greed, Prometheus transgressed the boundaries of the human condition. In hubris, or measureless presumption, he brought fire from the heavens and thereby doom onto himself. He was chained to a rock, an eagle preyed on his liver, and heartlessly healing gods kept him alive by regrafting the liver each night. The encounter of Prometheus with Nemesis is an immortal reminder of inescapable cosmic retribution.

Common to all preindustrial ethics was the idea that the range of human action was narrowly circumscribed. Technology was a measured tribute to necessity, not the implement to facilitate mankind’s chosen action. In more recent times, through our inordinate attempt to transform the human condition with industrialization, our whole culture has fallen prey to the envy of the gods. Now Everyman has become Prometheus, and Nemesis has become endemic; it is the backlash of progress. We are hostage to a lifestyle that provokes doom.

Man cannot do without his CO2-belching cars or the chlorofluorocarbon deodorant sprays that destroy the biosphere. He can’t do without his radiation therapy, his pesticides, or his nonbiodegradable plastic bags at the supermarket. If the species were to survive, I argued in my early work, it could do so only by learning to cope with Nemesis.

For a seminar in the summer of 1970, I gathered a reading list on “environmental issues.” It included several of the first studies on genetic changes in children born into the fallout from atomic experiments at the bikini Atoll; a study on the pesticide residues in the human liver; and the very first study of its kind on DDT residues in mothers’ milk. At that time, I was widely criticized for engaging in “apocalyptic randiness.”

Now, two decades later, a woeful sense of imbalance has dawned on the common sense. The destruction of the ozone layer, the heating up of the earth’s atmosphere, the nonreversible and progressive depletion of genetic variety—all these things bring to consciousness the consequences of our Promethean transgression.

There is a generalized sense now that the future we expected is not working, and that we are in front of what Michel Foucault has called an “epistemic break”—a sudden image-shift in consciousness in which the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Until the French Revolution, for example, it was simply not thinkable that a king could be beheaded. Then, suddenly the king was beheaded, and a dramatically new image of the common man’s role in society emerged. A language was invented which spoke in new, previously unimaginable, terms about the order of society.

Similarly, it is no longer tolerable for us to think of nuclear bombs as weapons; now they are known as tools of self-annihilation. The warming atmosphere is making it intolerable to think of industrial growth as progress; now it appears to us as aggression against the human condition. Perhaps for the first time, we can now imagine that, as Samuel Beckett once put it, “this earth could be uninhabited.”

What is new is not the magnitude, not even the quality, but the very essence of the coming rupture in consciousness. This rupture is not a break in the line of progress to a new stage. It is not even the passage from one dimension to a new dimension. We can only describe it as a catastrophic break with industrial man’s image of himself.

Gardels | When the World Commission on Environment and Development called for “sustainable development,” it both contributed to and detracted from a language that speaks to the future’s shadow. “Sustainable” is the language of balance and limits; “development” is the language of the expectation of more.

Illich | Although the commission exposed the detrimental side effects of industrial progress and told the rich nations they must bear the burden of saving the planet, they remained firmly within the “development” discourse. While they are quite capable of delinking the pursuit of peace and justice from the 19th-century dream of progress, the underlying critique of the concept of development still remains outside their thinking. The outer forms are crumbling, but the conceptual underpinnings of “development” remain vigorous.

The pressing questions today are: After development, what? What concepts? What symbols? What images? In order to find an alternative language, one must return to the past—to discover the history of those invented certitudes that are the mythological crystallization points around which modern experience is organized, certitudes such as “need,” “growth,” “participation,” “development.”

To paraphrase the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, insight into alternatives not chosen can be found by remembering “those hours which have lost their clock.”

For example, before Cortez, a unique Indian corn seed made up of at least 150 distinct genetic strains came into existence. It was uniquely adapted to the microclimate of the area where I live. When ground into meal, the corn was the characteristic blue color of local flowers, different from those ten miles east or west of here. Religious festivals, marriage customs, ovens, and diet were shaped by that crop.

Then came Dr. Bourlag’s “miracle” seed, with government subsidies for fertilizer, insecticides, and fungicides. In the first few years, the fields produced fantastic returns. But then, within less than a decade, the terraces that had covered this region from pre-Columbian times, left uncultivated, were all washed out. Now, the young people here no longer work in the fields. They seek work in larger towns, repair old cars, or try to earn some money peddling household appliances. The tools and donkeys of their fathers have disappeared. These changes occurred so rapidly that the “blue corn” festivals are still celebrated.

Only by reentering the present moment with knowledge of the lost time of the blue tortilla—to extend this example—will it be possible to establish a new way of seeing and a new set of terms that can guide sustainable “policies” without recourse to “development.”

Gardels | What is the history of the term “development”? How has it transformed our relationship to nature?

Illich | The “human condition” once described a way of life bound by immutable necessities. Each culture cultivated commonly shared desires or projects of a symbolic nature. In the instance I just described, before transportation and refrigeration, or scientifically produced seed strains, great varieties of food, such as blue corn, were grown, complex diets formalized, and seasons ritualized. “The Good” was defined within the “commons” and bounded by accepted limits.

“Development,” on the other hand, is one of those modern terms that expresses rebellion against the “necessity” that ruled all societies up to the 18th century. The notion of “development” promises an escape from the realm of necessity by transforming the “commons” into “resources” for use in satisfying the boundless wants of the possessive individual.

“Development” combines a faith that technology will free us from the constraints that bound all past civilizations with the root certainty of the 20th century: evolution. As interpreted by optimistic politics, “evolution” becomes “progress.” The term “underdevelopment,” in fact, was first used by Harry Truman in 1949, when the colonialism shattered by World War II “revealed” a world that was not on the track of industrial growth.

Parallel to the construction of this idea of industrial progress, another concept, which implied the assent of the “masses” to development, came into vogue: participation. Since development reduces the constraints of necessity, people must, for their own good, transform their vague and sometimes unconscious desires into “needs,” which then must be fulfilled.

“Needs” redefine “wants” as “lacks” to be satisfied by “resources.” Since “wants” are boundless, resources become “scarce” because of the value “lack” places upon them. This is the basis for the insatiable demand for more.

“Needs” are not “necessities.” They are “wants” that have been redefined as claims to commodities or services delivered by professionals from outside the vernacular skills of the community. The universal appearance of “needs” during the past 30 years thus reflects a redefinition of the human condition and what is meant by “the Good Life.”

For example, in Mexico City today, the burgeoning population needs to be provided with food because fewer people in absolute numbers can grow their own food. More people in Mexico City need public transportation or recycled American cars because they have no choice but to commute in order to work in the market economy. More housing, with water and electricity, needs to be provided by borrowing from North American banks because there is less space suited for self-built shacks, and because people have lost the skills necessary to pour a roof slab.

Gardels | Then the path  “after development,” in your view, would involve a return to subsistence and restoration of the commons?

Illich | Yes, exactly. Sustainability without development, or subsistence, is simply living within the limits of genuinely basic needs. Shelter, food, education, community, and personal intimacy can all be met within this framework.

Gardels | A renunciation of economic growth hardly seems capable, at the moment, of garnering much political support. And, in modern times, where political will lacks, technology substitutes. Indeed, one wonders why we can’t move on to “postscarcity” instead of “subsistence.” Why not go the route of ecological modernization? If energy is finite, why not resource-efficient technology? If petroleum-powered cars pollute, why not switch to methanol? If passenger miles are excessive for the commute to the office, why not stay at home and work on the computer?

Illich | The information revolution has injected new life into what would otherwise have been the exhausted logic of industrial development. It encourages expectation that, through his tools, man can escape the limits of his condition.

On the other hand, subsistence assumes a context of commonly defined needs balanced against the limits of nature. The social awareness that distinguishes between postscarcity and subsistence rests upon historical knowledge that the human condition is precarious.

Gardels | With the technologies of the Information Age, especially bioengineering, I suppose it is even more crucial to see attempted escape from the human condition as a transgression. In your terms, this delusion is all the more dangerous for seeming all the more possible. Does this make you more or less hopeful about the future?

Illich | I distinguish between the attitudes of hope and expectation. “Expectation” is based on a belief in instruments and the naïve acceptance of socially constructed certitudes. “Hope” is based on historically rooted experience. To face the future feely, one must give up both optimism and pessimism and place all hope in human beings, not trust in tools.

I, for one, see unsquashable signs of hope in the lifestyles of subsistence peasants or in the network of activists who save trees here, or plant them there. But, I admit that I am still unable to envisage how, short of a devastating catastrophe, these hope-inspiring acts can be translated into ‘policy”

Gardels | Surely, when Nemesis crystallizes in the ruin of an ancient metropolis such as Mexico City—where the fetuses of the unborn are poisoned by lead from the air their mothers breathe—its ruins will stand, like Prometheus, as a testament to the curse of Nemesis. Then, perhaps, “policy” will desert development and new forms of organizing life will take hold.

Illich | Mexico City is beyond catastrophe. It is a metaphor for all that has gone wrong with development. That ancient city, founded on a lake in the pristine air of a high mountain valley, will have no clean air or water in the future. But what is marvelous about Mexico City is why the city survives at all.

Why are people there not dying from thirst? Of the enormous amount of water pumped over the mountains from the countryside, 50 percent goes to less than 3 percent of the households, and 50 percent of the households get less than 3 percent of the water. That means the latter 50 percent gets only enough water to drink, cook, and wash, and then flush away only every 17th shit!

The fact is that dilution of feces in water is totally unfeasible in Mexico City. Yet, the 5.5 million people who have no stable place for shitting somehow keep even this aspect of their life under control.

So, Mexico City is also a symbol of the stability of neighborhood equilibrium beyond catastrophe. In such a world as this, I see frightening but effective forms of self-government emerging that keep government and the development institutions out of people’s everyday affairs. Most of this new activity emerged after the earthquake in 1985 when the government was paralyzed and unable to aid recovery. Today, demands for self-governance are formulated routinely by the Assembly of Barrios (neighborhoods) in discussions such as these:

“How can there be enough water in Mexico City for everyone? Let us build the water tanks, fill them, and then we will distribute the water in our own barrio.”

“How to avoid gridlock and traffic jams and lower the lead level in the air? No trucks on Mexico city streets during the day. During the night food can be brought to the central markets in each of the barrios and then hauled from there to neighborhoods by pushcart.”

Now, there are even demands for the self-management of their own shit! And in many barrios, there is an increasing number of places where the police are barred because they are considered a menace.

These are practical indications that people can invent alternatives to a concept of development that has thrown the whole nation into a debtor’s prison. Self-management of genuinely basic needs is what occurs here.

Gardels | So, new forms of living emerge out of the ruins of development?

Illich | Some novelists, such as Doris Lessing in The Fifth Child, create a sense of the emergent future, of what kinds of relationships are possible in the ruins. There is  a sense in Lessing’s writings of the frightening beings who have survival capacity.

It is fascinating to discover this shared experience of outsiders in post-earthquake Mexico City. There is something here of the taste of the gang, the ragpicker, the garbage-dump dweller. Our difficulty is finding a language to speak about this alternative because, contrary to professional wisdom, people with unmet basic needs are surviving with new forms of conviviality.

Perhaps we can think of them as the technophagic majority of the late 20th century—people who feed on the waste of development. This population comprises two-thirds of Mexico City’s dwellers, whose excrement goes untreated. From New York’s underclass to Cairo’s “city of the dead” where people live in the cemeteries, these survivors are the spontaneous architects of our postmodern “future.”

Guilty of the crime of “social disillusionment,” these survivors reassert unsquashable hope with the chilling character of the gang. As outlaw communities that have no diplomatic consistency, their experience is barred from the development discourse except as recalcitrant, “needy” clients who require the kindness of strangers.

Yet, as living renunciations of the “future,” these survivors somehow show the way forward. Their willingness to engage in communitarian exercises, outside “development,” makes us smile about the pompousness of professionals plotting humanity’s next step.

Gardels | You’ve sketched a path beyond development and outside the dominant debate now shaped by the idea of sustainable development. What is the next move within that discourse?

Illich | It is clear to me that an administrative-intensive global ecology follows logically from the utilitarian ethic of management that undergirds the idea of sustainable development.

Originally, utilitarianism was conceived as an attempt to give the most good to the largest number of people. Then, sometime in the 1970s, it came to mean the least pain for the largest number of people. This medical metaphor illuminates the next step: not the greatest good, nor the least pain, but the greatest pain management for the species.

I envision management of the depletion of the commons, not restoration of the common environment to culturally bounded, politically sanctioned limits to growth. In this utopia, we will see the technologically assisted management of man from sperm to worm, including rates of reproduction.

Gardels | Would you then welcome the emergence of a new ecological world view that focuses man’s attention on restoring the natural equilibrium? Might that be the new universal ethos that ties this fragmented planet together?

Illich | You must understand that the concept of ecology is deeply related to the concept of “life.” “Life” cannot be understood apart from the “death of nature.” In a continuous thread that runs back to Anaxagoras (500-428b.c.) and up through the 16th century, an organic, whole conception of nature was a constant theme in the West. With the scientific revolution, a mechanistic model came to dominate thinking. As the object of man’s will, nature was transformed into dead material. This death of nature, I would argue, was the most far-reaching effect of the radical change in man’s vision of the universe.

Now, this artificial character of “life” appears with special poignancy in the ecological discourse. The pattern that connects living forms and their habitat is dissolved into the cybernetic concept of an “ecosystem” which, through multiple feedback mechanisms, can be regulated scientifically if the inputs are chosen properly by intelligent man. Man, the agent of disequilibrium, projects upon himself the task of restoring equilibrium to nature. Ecological man protects “life” and defends resources from depletion.

The self-regulating system of “life” thus becomes the model for opposing industrial destruction. It is a very destructive idea and it simplifies everything. In an attempt to come to grips with Nemesis, man expands his presumption to managing the cosmos! In the name of nature, ecology idolizes Promethean man.

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The following are excerpts from a further conversation with Ivan Illich at the University of Chicago in 1994, which appeared in NPQ as “Brave New Biocracy: Health Care From Womb to Tomb.”

Physicians in the Hippocratic tradition were pledged to restore the balance—or “health”—of a patient’s constitution but forbidden to use their skills to deal with death. They had to accept nature’s power to dissolve the healing contract between the patient and his physician.

When the Hippocratic signs indicated to the physician that the patient had entered into agony, the “atrium between life and death,” he had to withdraw from what was now a deathbed. Both quickening—coming to life in the womb—and agony—the personal struggle to die—defined the extreme boundaries between which a subject of medical care could be conceived.

In our technological system, these boundaries have been obliterated. By the early 20th century, the physician came to be perceived as society’s appointed tutor of any person who, having been placed in a patient role, lost his own competence.

Physicans are taught today to consider themselves responsible for lives from the moment the egg is fertilized through the time of organ harvest. They have become the socially responsible professional manager not of a patient but of a life defined abstractly as an immune system, from sperm to worm. Physicians have become the bureaucrats of the brave new biocracy that rules from womb to tomb.


What I fear is that the abstract, secular notion of  “a life” has been turned into a fetish, embedded in a technological matrix, divorced from nature and the idea of the “person” as a reflection of God, which is the basis of the humanism of Western individualism. This secular notion of “a life,” thus sacralized, is made into a spectral entity that will progressively replace the “person.” Unlike a “person” “a life” is amenable to management. The “person” is reduced to “an immune system” to be medically monitored.

This transmogrification of a “person” into “a life” is a lethal operation, as dangerous as reaching out for the tree of life in the time of Adam and Eve. For over a century now it has become customary to speak about the “conservation of life”—divorced from its contingent potentiality in nature and God’s graceful sharing of His own being—as the ultimate motive of human action and social organization.

The churches—one of the most important agencies for defining moral issues in public life—bear a particular responsibility as a lost civilization turns to them for guidance on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, organ transplants, embryo cloning and eugenics.

“A life” is the most powerful idol the church has had to face in the course of its history.

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A majority of medical achievements are deceptive misnomers, actually prolonging the suffering of madmen, cripples, old fools and monsters.

Only if one understands the history of health and life in their historical interconnection is there a basis for the passion with which I call for the renunciation of “life.” I completely agree with T.S. Eliot:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust

The concept of life which can be reduced to the survival phase of the immune system is not only a caricature, not only an idol, but a blasphemy. And seen in this light, desire for responsibility for the quality of life is not only stupid or impertinent, it is a sin.

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I demand certain liberties—hygienic autononmy—for those who would celebrate living rather than preserve “life”:

  • The liberty to declare myself sick;
  • the liberty to refuse any and all medical treatment at any time;the liberty to take any drug or treatment of my own choosing;
  • the liberty to be treated by the person of my choice, that is, by anyone in the community who feels called to the practice of healing, whether that person be an acupuncturist, a homeopathic physician, a neurosurgeon, an astrologer, a witch doctor of someone else;
  • the liberty to die without diagnosis.

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We will never eliminate pain; we will not cure all disorders; we will certainly die.