There has been talk recently both in the UK and the US of rebalancing the economy; that seems to mean trying to make the economy less dependent on financial services and encouraging manufacturing. Or it could also mean, in the UK, redressing the balance between the relatively affluent south and the north, where unemployment is higher.

This talk does not go nearly far enough; there is not just one balance, or even two, that need to be restored but several. The term that the radical historian and ecologist Ivan Illich (1926-2002) used in his wide-ranging book Tools for Conviviality (1973) was “the multiple balance”. In fact Illich identified six “mutually reinforcing stresses, each distorting the balance of life in a different direction”.

The first balance that is out of kilter, according to Illich, is the “precarious balance between man and the biosphere”. Before such issues as acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming had hit the headlines, he was raising the alert about a planet threatened by uncontrolled emissions of polluting gases and poisons and overextraction of resources. Such alerts strike us as old hat nowadays, but what made Illich especially challenging was his refusal to go along with conventional remedies. He saw that anti-pollution technology, when not accompanied by a profound shift in values, simply tends to “shift garbage out of sight, push it into the future, or dump it onto the poor”.

Illich’s solution does not consist in clever technical manipulation of what is “out there”, but in looking at ourselves and seeing what has brought us to this pass. “The only solution to the environmental crisis,” he wrote, “is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other.” Illich, controversially, was opposed to the assumption that machines could do most of our work for us, at least without the perverse effect of making us slaves of those machines, on a treadmill of overproduction and overconsumption. Even more controversially, he challenged the institutionalisation of caring and education, the turning of what were god-given gifts into industrial behemoths.

These are the broken balances of work – satisfying, creative work, that is – and learning. Further broken balances include those between the past and the present – the increasing irrelevance of the past in the era of planned obsolescence – and between the rich and the poor.

How do these broken balances stack up today? Our current solution to the environmental or ecological crisis – which has certainly intensified since 1973, with hardening evidence of man-made global warming, acidification of oceans, decimation of species – seems to be one Illich did not envisage: to pretend it isn’t happening. When David Attenborough drew attention to some of these problems in his BBC TV series Frozen Planet, he was accused in some quarters of being an extremist. According to Simon Kuper in these pages, “we in the west have recently made an unspoken bet: we’re going to wing it, run the risk of climate catastrophe, and hope that it is mostly faraway people in poor countries who will suffer.”

On the broken balance of work, we are more likely to speak about a work-life balance that is out of kilter than to take Illich’s more radical step and demand that our work become fully human and creative. We certainly seem to be in a situation in which a certain number of “lucky” people work harder and harder while hundreds of millions are unemployed. Step forward Anna Coote of the New Economics Foundation, whose 2010 report “21 Hours” suggested that the number of hours each person works should be cut down to share the reduced amount of work more equitably. At a colloquy at the London School of Economics in January, Coote suggested we might simultaneously tackle such social, economic and environmental “broken balances” as “overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low wellbeing, entrenched inequality, the lack of time to live sustainably, care for each other and simply to enjoy life”. Next, we heard Professor Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude, brilliantly explain how “working harder and longer” – the conventional response to recession – is, even in purely economic terms, the wrong thing to do.

There is one overarching broken balance that Illich never mentions explicitly but alludes to everywhere implicitly. This is the balance between means and ends, or between physics and metaphysics. The dubious achievement of modernity has been to transform ends into means. Everything has become a technical challenge – how to live forever, how to colonise Mars, how to create the ultimate smartphone – in the cause of an unquestioned idea of progress whose end has got lost along the way. Illich reminds us that our human constitution requires us to question ends – who we are, how we should live a good life both individually and collectively – not merely to pursue means. 

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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