Home > Ecological Design, Economics, Guest Writer, Public Anecdotes > Energy & Equity: Democracy and the Bicycle

Energy & Equity: Democracy and the Bicycle

Guest writer: Henry Morgenstein

I wrote half of an essay that I was going to post on “MyWHaT” when I was derailed. I was recommending to all of you a very small, very short, book in my library of books on cars & cities, Energy & Equity by Ivan Illicha man way ahead of his time.

Love it: Speed-Stunned Imagination

How was I derailed, stopped in the middle of the flow of words? I decided to see how much a copy of Energy & Equity would cost all of you. After all, I wanted you to buy it, read it cover to cover. How does $36 dollars a copy sound — or $268 dollars for a hardback copy? I was stunned. It is a slim book, an even-smaller-than-usual paperback. There are perhaps 70 pages of text.

Why does it cost anywhere from $36 dollars to nearly $300 dollars to buy a copy of this small book. Many of you already figured it out.

High price equals Scarcity. That’s right. Eight copies are available on Amazon in the U.S.A. Since I live in two countries, I tried Amazon in England. Unbelievably, two copies were available in England — and the price was five dollars. Five dollars! I could make a killing I tried to buy both copies. After selling me one copy, they said there were no more copies. Sun of a gun. Somebody was buying the other copy just as I was buying my copy.

Where the Energy Is

All that is a side issue. Why is this brilliant book no longer being printed? Why are all of us not able to pick up a cheap copy of Ivan Illich’s book Energy & Equity written in 1974?

The United States puts 45 per cent of its total energy into vehicles: to make them, run them and clear a right of way for them when they roll, when they fly and when they park. Most of this energy is to move people who have been strapped into place.”

No one has said it this way. It is how it is said as well as what is said:

Forty five per cent of total energy to make em, to run em, to clear a right of way for ‘em when they roll — and all for people strapped into place. Participatory democracy demands low energy technology and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.”

Brush Creek Township Election House in Pennsylvania by Padraic.

Democracy and the Bicycle

Again, so well said — and it needs to be said loud & clear 40 years after Ivan Illich first said it:

True democracy demands low technology, needs social relations to occur at the speed of a bicycle.

When I am on my bike, people in cars, people on the sidewalk, people on bicycles, all talk to me. No one talks to me when I’m surrounded by two tons of steel — when I am inside a car.

Ivan Illich is a genius. Borrow the book from a library. Almost every page has a gem of an insight said in such a way that you are made to see the situation from a wholly new angle.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Henry loaned me Illich’s book over the weekend. I couldn’t put it down. Re-read pages and plan to read it one more time before I hand it back. Also, the text of Energy and Equity is re-published in entirety online. It inspired a few tweets while I was reading it.

  • A healthy society where all are equally encouraged & able to participate without institutional favoritism, travels under 18mph+/- #WhyWeRide
  • #TeaParty thought: shouldn’t libertarians all ride bikes? Infrastructure for cars demands an advance level of technocratic gov control.
  • #TeaParty thought con’t: more bicyclist & walkers=less government. Where’s the active transportation platform from libertarians?
  1. September 8, 2010 at 11:33 am

    great post!!!

  2. Henry Morgenstein
    September 8, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Gary always takes my essays & improves them. He knows how to highlight important points, add a picture or two. The man is great!

  3. Raymond
    September 13, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    I am intrigued by this concept and plan to read more about it. However, I wonder how the horse and carriage and their costs fit into this continuum of travel modes over the preceding centuries. Bikes are relative newcomers, but I suppose their speed is similar to horses? I imagine the cost of bike ownership and operation is a fraction of what a horse was. Maybe horses have better winter performance, though…

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