David Cayley, Concerning life, 2021

an open letter to Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Wolfgang Palaver


“And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No”.

They said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then then seized him and slew him in the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites.” (Judges 12: 3-6)


A shibboleth is a dividing line, and dividing lines are sharpest when they are razor thin. For the Ephraimites the price of forty-two thousand lives was nothing more than what linguists call an unvoiced fricative. Things are not yet quite so bad with us, but the pandemic has certainly brought division between friends. (And how great, after all, were the differences between Ephraimites and Gileadites, if all that distinguished them was the ability to make this crucial sound?) One of the shibboleths dividing us seems to be life. Recently two admired friends have taken issue with me over this word and the interpretation I have given of Ivan Illich’s views on the subject [see here].

Theologian Wolfgang Palaver, in an interview in the German weekly Die Zeit for Dec. 23, 2020, expresses concern that Illich’s claim that life has become “a fetish” is being abused as a justification for “sacrificing the weak.” And French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, in an article for the website AOC called “The True Legacy of Ivan Illich,” argues, similarly, that those who follow “the fashion of covidoscepticism” misunderstand and misappropriate Illich’s strictures on “the idolization of life.” Dupuy’s article is the second of two on the “alleged ‘sacralisation of life.’” The first denounces what Dupuy calls “the blindness of the intellectuals.” Lire la suite »

William Morris, Makeshift, 1894

As other ages are called, e.g., the ages of learning, of chivalry, of faith and so forth, so ours I think may be called the Age of makeshift. In other times of the world’s history if a thing was not to be had, people did without it, and there was an end. Nay, most often they were not conscious of the lack. But to-day we are so rich in information, that we know of many and many things which we ought to have and cannot, and not liking to sit down under the lack pure and simple, we get a makeshift instead of it; and once more it is just this insistence on makeshifts, and I fear content with them, which is the essence of what we call civilization.

Now I want to run through certain of these makeshifts, and see what there is of evil in them, what of present good and what of future hope. For I must tell you that I have come here to rail to-day, and to rail at a state of things without trying to mend it is a futile business I think. Lire la suite »

Alexandre Grothendieck, The New Universal Church, 1971

Science and Scientism

The experimental-deductive method, spectacularly successful for four hundred years, has continually increased its impact on social and daily life, and thus (until recently) its prestige.

At the same time, through a process of “imperialist expansion” which needs closer analysis, science has generated an ideology of its own, which we may call scientism. This ideology has many of the features of a new religion. The influence it exercises over the public derives from the authority of science, through science’s successes. It is now firmly implanted in all countries of the world, both in capitalist and so-called socialist countries (with important qualifications in the case of China [1]). It has fax outstripped all traditional religions. It has pervaded education at all levels, from elementary school to university, as well as post-scholastic professional life. In varying forms and intensities, it is dominant in all social classes; it is strongest in the more developed countries, within the intellectual professions, and within the most esoteric fields of study [2]. Lire la suite »

Richard Horton, COVID-19 is not a pandemic, 2020

As the world approaches 1 million deaths from COVID-19, we must confront the fact that we are taking a far too narrow approach to managing this outbreak of a new coronavirus. We have viewed the cause of this crisis as an infectious disease. All of our interventions have focused on cutting lines of viral transmission, thereby controlling the spread of the pathogen. The “science” that has guided governments has been driven mostly by epidemic modellers and infectious disease specialists, who understandably frame the present health emergency in centuries-old terms of plague. But what we have learned so far tells us that the story of COVID-19 is not so simple. Lire la suite »

David Watson, Saturn and Scientism, 1980

There she is, looking vaguely pornographic on the glossy covers of the weekly magazines, the planet Saturn. What have we discovered? I don’t know, I haven’t read them, feeling squashed as I do to the Earth by the giddying inertia of this century which plummets like a flaming satellite towards the nothingness. Grey skies, the weather turning cold, sirens in the distance. Some citizens walk by whispering reverently of the wonders of Saturn, disputing the number of rings and moons according to the latest counts, as the corroding universe about them threatens to be annihilated. They drool over photographs of a planet most of them couldn’t spot in a clear night sky — that is, if the night sky hadn’t already been colonized and obliterated by the city light and the lethal dust of the very civilization which made it possible to send gadgets and technicians to the stars. But everything is so groovy on Saturn, so colorful and tempestuous. They know because they watched it all on television. Lire la suite »

David Watson, We All Live in Bhopal, 1984

This essay was first published in the American radical ecological journal Fifth Estate, shortly after the Bhopal chemical explosion, a day of death that is still killing to this day. Children are born deformed or dead, land destroyed. Those who survived the initial massacre — industrial refugee families who fled the chemical cloud are watching each other slowly die of cancer and other pollution/stress related ‘diseases’.


The cinders of the funeral pyres at Bhopal are still warm and the mass graves still fresh, but the media prostitutes of the corporations have already begun their homilies in defense of industrialism and its uncounted horrors. Some 3,000 people were slaughtered in the wake of the deadly gas cloud, and 20,000 will remain permanently disabled. The poison gas left a 25 square mile swathe of dead and dying people and animals as it drifted southeast away from the Union Carbide factory .“We thought it was the plague,” said one victim. Indeed it was: a chemical plague, an industrial plague. Ashes, ashes, all fall down! Lire la suite »

Ivan Illich, Dwelling, 1984

To dwell is human. Wild beast have nests, cattle have stables, carriages fit into sheds, and there are garages for automobiles. Only humans can dwell. To dwell is an art. Every spider is born with a compulsion to weave a web particular to its kind. Spiders, like all animals, are programmed by their genes. The human is the only animal who is an artist, and the art of dwelling is part of the art of living. A house is neither nest nor garage. Lire la suite »

Arturo Escobar, The Invention of Development, 1999

Development was – and continues to be for the most part – a top-down, ethnocentric, and technocratic approach that treats people and cultures as abstract concepts, statistical figures to be moved up and down in the charts of “progress”. … It comes as no surprise that development became a force so destructive to third world cultures, ironically in the name of people’s interests.


One of the many changes that occurred in the early post-World War II period was the “discovery” of mass poverty in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Relatively inconspicuous and seemingly logical, this discovery was to provide the anchor for an important restructuring of global culture and political economy. The discourse of war was displaced onto the social domain and to a new geographic terrain: the third world. Left behind was the struggle against fascism as the “war on poverty” in the third world began to occupy a prominent place. Eloquent facts were adduced to justify this new war: “Over [1.5 billion] people, something like two-thirds of the world population”, Harold Wilson noted in The War on World Poverty, “are living in conditions of acute hunger, defined in terms of identifiable nutritional disease. This hunger is at the same time the cause and effect of poverty, squalor, and misery in which they live”. Lire la suite »

Ivan Illich, Disvalue, 1986

Professor Tamanoy’s Forum

This first public meeting of the Japanese Entropy Society provides us with an occasion to commemorate Professor Joshiro Tamanoy. Most of us knew him as friends and as pupils. The questions he asked bring together today 600 physicists and biologists, economists and green activists.

While a Professor of Economics at Tokyo University, he translated Karl Polanyi into Japanese. But in his own teaching and writing he brought a uniquely Japanese flavor to ecological research by relating cultural to physical dimensions. He did so by focusing on the interaction between an epoch’s economic ideology and the corresponding soil-water matrix of social life. He was an active environmental politician and a master teacher. And no one who experienced his friendship will ever forget its delicacy. Lire la suite »

David Cayley, Questions about the current pandemic, 2020

from the point of view of Ivan Illich


Last week I began an essay on the current pandemic in which I tried to address what I take to be the central question that it raises: Is the massive and costly effort to contain and limit the harm that the virus will do the only choice we have? Is it no more than an obvious and unavoidable exercise of prudence undertaken to protect the most vulnerable? Or is it a disastrous effort to maintain control of what is obviously out of control, an effort which will compound the damage being done by the disease with new troubles that will reverberate far into the future? I hadn’t been writing for long before I began to realize that many of the assumptions I was making were quite remote from those being expressed all around me. These assumptions had mainly come, I reflected, from my prolonged conversation with the work of Ivan Illich. What this suggested was that, before I could speak intelligibly about our present circumstances, I would first have to sketch the attitude towards health, medicine and well-being that Illich developed over a lifetime of reflection on these themes. Accordingly, in what follows, I will start with a brief account of the evolution of Illich’s critique of bio-medicine and then try to answer the questions I just posed in this light. Lire la suite »