The Enemies of Progress – The Dangers of Sustainability
Austin Williams, Imprint Academic, Copyright 2008, 153 pages
The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability wants to challenge – with a modernist approach – and provoke the reader to think/rethink, and further to recognise that human’s progress is under attack by the ‘world of sustainability’, its advocates and followers. Expressing that sustainability epitomises a destructive philosophy of misanthropy, low aspirations and limitations. The author, Austin Williams, is an architect and project manager; director of the Future Cities Project, which aims to fight “for development instead of sustainable development” (The Future Cities Project, 2017), and writes on transport and urban issues for different publications. This book review will focus on the aspects of the sustainability agenda where the enemies of progress hide regarding the transport, energy and architecture sections. However, the book also covers topics on Developing (third) World, China, India, and North America. The book has a straightforward structure, with the inclusion of quotations and examples intended to expose – humorously at times – environmentalist excesses, making the book easy and entertaining to read.
It is not a coincidence that this provocative book was launched in the early 21st Century (2008), when the discussion around sustainability was at its climax of global environmental awareness. However, in the years to follow the publication of the book, the concept of sustainability has grown exponentially, becoming the centre of discussions and actions in the 21st Century. In recent years, many sustainable projects and policies have been introduced and many agreements, such as COP21 in Paris and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, or more recently COP23 in Bonn, have been agreed to fight global warming and climate change worldwide. Therefore, the topics analysed by Williams, make this book very modern and coherent with the current challenges. On this theme, the book argues that sustainable development is the real enemy of development as well as environmentalists are the real enemies of humanism. Hence, the author, concludes that sustainability is the enemy of progress. Although this book can be seen as a provocative and reflective piece, especially in these times where the fight against climate change and global warming is at its highpoint. The author insists that the society’s principles and politics should be anthropocentric and that to put environmental ‘needs’ on the same level as ours or even prior to our needs, is an extreme mentality – such as those of environmentalists – and a self-defeat. Further, Williams expresses the necessity to separate humans needs from nature’s needs. However, in doing so, the author fails to analyse the intersect bond between human and nature, and takes an opposite extremist position – anthropocentricity. Extremist positions are often-contested and deeply attacked by Williams; nevertheless, he pursues an extreme position himself, often making it challenging for the reader to perceive a balance in his arguments.
Throughout the chapters, the author attempts to provide arguments against the ideology of sustainable development. Williams’ critical exploration of the concept of sustainability, where he argues that sustainability has undermined human progress, “man has gone from being a solution, to becoming seen as the problem” (p.2). This actually contradicts the most well-known definition of sustainable development: “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Therefore, sustainability advocates argue first that the concept of ‘sustainability’ is built around human needs, which is intrinsic within nature. The definition of sustainability itself focuses on humans and their needs, and does not denigrate humans as the problem, rather it elevates the single as an equal opportunity to realise his individual human potential. In contrast, Williams argues that there is a recurrent contemporary idea, often pushed by the media, public and political parties, which sees humans as the problem and as enemies of progress, which can lead to turning human beings against each other. The book gives the reader enough material to open debates around humans and their role as a solution or as a problem. However, Williams’ approach in expressing his theories – in certain discourse –includes subliminal prejudices and generalisation. “For environmentalists, commuters are the epitome of arrogance; cosseted in their anti-social bubble” (p.20), and “all change is automatically assumed to have negative consequences for future generations…” (p.52), or comparing on the same level Holocaust deniers and global warming deniers: “Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future” (p.132). The style of simplifying into one category, supporters of environmental activities or deniers of global change, excesses in inaccuracy and generalisation; consequently, lacking in validity and credibility for the author’s arguments.
Williams emphases that the contemporary idea of sustainable transport is a regressive paradigm, which induces to reduce the demand for transport opportunities. In this book, progress through sustainable mobility is defined by the need of abandoning cars, and travelling only when strictly needed. While the author defines transport’s progress as the development of speed and efficient transportation, and of the use of private cars without feeling guilty. However, it is a recurrent theme in sustainable transport researches and urban planning strategies, that the idea of designing sustainable transportation systems, within a city, is to allow both a high-quality environment and accessibility. The intention of urban and transport planners is not to prohibit, neither demean the use of cars, as it would be against the concept of freedom and choice, which Williams particularly promotes. The intention, however, is to design cities in such a way that cars are not needed, where a fully sustainable implemented and linked transportation system is available and accessible to all citizens. Where citizens have the option to use their private cars, but they choose other forms of transport as they are more beneficial – economically and health-wise – and more efficient, avoiding delays and congestions (Banister, 2008).
The author continues further into analysing the dangers of sustainability, stating that “CO2 may or may not be a problem, but it shouldn’t be allowed to be resolved at the expense of freedom of movement” (p.29). The concept of freedom of movement that Williams protects is universally important and commonly supported. However, there is a strong scientific agreement that CO2 emissions – which are in part significantly emitted by the transport sector – are affecting the global climate with irreversibly long-term consequences (Banister, 2011; Sadorsky, 2014). Although, the author rightly encourages the freedom of movement; yet he seems to neglect the fact that with no controls or restrictions, severe environmental, health and economic problems can be caused. Therefore, a misinterpretation of the idea of sustainable mobility, can be found in this book, which is not to reduce the freedom of movement; but it is to increase the accessibility and quality to all the citizens (György et al., 2017; Bekiaris et al., 2017). However, Williams clearly states that this book is not about climate change and the correlated concerns, rather it tackles the issue of progress, which in the author’s opinion is the main challenge (p.9):
“public and political discourse might lead you to believe that climate change and global warming are, indeed, the most important issues in the world. Wrong. One of the most important tasks today, is to undermine the fear-generating perception that human agency, modernity, growth, materialism, want, development, experimentation, technology, infrastructure, political debate and critical engagement – in a word, progress, is a problem.”
Williams decision to write this book, with little consideration for global climate change, is thought-provoking and ‘refreshing’, especially in this age of global awareness. However, often he misses to seek further explanation in his theories. The author states that “Demanding more energy to create a better world would be our starting point” (p. 52), which in itself is a valid point, however the reader might rightly question, where do we get the energy from? Can we support the costs of demanding, producing and using more energy? Which the author fails to even mention.
Williams produces an exploration of the ‘damages’ that sustainability has caused regarding the progress of architecture. He conveys arguments to prove his main point, which is that sustainability is the enemy of progress. He believes that unless stopped, sustainability with its restrictions, reductions and minimisations, will be the death of architecture. Furthering that sustainability index, carbon reduction and environmental impact assessment is what architecture is reduced to in nowadays society. Architecture’s progress is then limited by the concept of sustainability and of being restrained into nature’s limits. He then declares that architecture has been instrumented by social sustainability. Williams clarifies this concept by stating that hospitals with a view on trees and classrooms with openable windows are being encouraged because of their therapeutic and improving benefits. Yet, the author argues that “None of these ridiculous pseudo-scientific interpretations are worth anything… but they simply provide an evasion tactic for designers who no longer have the confidence to justify their work in its own terms” (p.65). However, Williams fails to take into consideration the numerous studies on the benefits of being surrounded by green and being able to access these zones; which is a vastly researched area, with a strong scientific agreement of the benefits of the green on humans (Groenewegen et al., 2006; Fuller et al., 2007; Wolch, Byrne and Newell, 2014; Lee and Maheswaran, 2011). By not expanding on the reasons why architects include the ‘pseudo-scientific interpretations’, and only generalising that designers ‘no longer have confidence to justify their work in its own terms’; Williams’ point lack validity in certain aspects.
To further his arguments against the concept of sustainability and how the modern society has shaped it, the author presents ‘excessive and odd’ initiatives and campaigns, which reveals some of the modern society ‘faux-pas’. The case of Energy Australia, which launched a campaign to save water, by encouraging people to stop singing in the shower: “Showering, it says, normally takes an average of 4.35 minutes – but if you sing while showering it takes 8.96 minutes thus wasting fractions of kW of power” (p.39). The book also covers a very modern issue in our society: claiming to be sustainable for the imagine rather than for the actual cause, which affects its principles and origins; “it is fashionable to pretend that reduced energy consumption is some kind of positive political engagement” (p49).
In conclusion, it is often difficult to agree with the author’s concepts around the different sustainability ‘issues’ that are presented in this book. While the author suggests that sustainable development, and its following different sustainability policies, ideas and behaviours to solve the main 21st Century challenges, are a regress and not a progress for humanity. Williams fails to address the current concerns over climate change, which is one of the main reason why the concept of sustainability is so broadly applied, and to enlighten us with different solutions and approaches to tackle the correlated issues. Therefore, the author repeatedly addresses the dangers of sustainability as the enemies of progress, however, he does not present an alternative, but the one of consuming in ever-increasing amount, without being concerned about the consequences of those actions. In the early-mid 20th century, this book would have been perceived in a different way, as the philosophy of consumption led to the era of Mass Consumption. However, nowadays, the negative effects of consumption on the global environment and consequently on humans are scientifically proven to be the biggest contributors to environmental destruction. Furthermore, the book provides a radical and provoking concept of sustainability, which can be challenging to understand. Yet, it is worth reading Williams’ polemical and ‘uncommon’ examination of the concept of sustainability. It is Williams’ radical and powerful – and also refreshing in certain aspects – argument that makes this book interesting and engaging and worth reading for academics researching into the social aspects of sustainability, development, and for anyone interested in the urban present and future.