#KCLUrbanFutures Book Review: ‘Enemies of Progress’ by Austin Williams

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Image Credit: Imprint Academic

Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability is a polemical progressive humanist critique of the contemporary sustainability agenda that challenges the agenda’s orthodoxy in political, social, economic, environmental, and academic circles. Williams aims to question sustainability orthodoxy through critically exploring “the insidiously dangerous concept at odds with progress” (p2) and its “all-pervasive influence on society” (p2), and also to forward the debate with the objective of “reinstat[ing] capitalist notions of development, progress, ambition, growth, and technological advancement” (p140). Written in 2008, in the midst of a growing global acceptance of environmentalism and willingness to adhere to sustainable practices, the book represents a dissenting voice advocating ideas of accelerationism and technological determinism to complement its humanist underpinning. It is however unclear who the intended audience is. There is a distinct lack of academic sources (and even any sources in some cases) and a complete failure to engage critically and in a balanced manner with the environmental challenges that the sustainability agenda seeks to address. This lack of academic rigour suggests it has been written for laypeople or those who share his worldview, yet the jargon and vocabulary are of a high level.

The key theme of the book is summarised by man versus nature. Williams fervently believes in the primacy of humanity, and sees progress as incompatible with sustainability. This black and white worldview is typical of the book, and counterproductive to producing a critical exploration of the topic. It does however lend a spotlight to an alternative perspective (humanism) to the orthodoxy. The crux of his argument relies on his definition of progress as “free[ing] people from the constraints of nature” (p106), and betrays his view as irreconcilable with environmentalism. Enemies of Progress comes across as a wider analysis of sustainability and environmentalism in society that grew from a personal seed of resentment against the concepts. His profession – architecture – has been constrained and limited by sustainable policies, which has shaped Williams’ ontological worldview, and is discussed at-length. The author’s technological determinist perspective is evident throughout, and consequently he sees the inhibiting nature of sustainability practices as anathema to progress, hence the book title.

Main Ideas

Urbanists may find his assertion that efforts to mitigate climate change are “sacrific[ing] the gains of modernity” (p139) useful, given urbanism’s ‘love affair’ with futuristic and utopian ideas, yet there is evidence that humanity is responding to environmental challenges in a technologically innovative fashion. For example, geoengineering is a flourishing practice that is pushing scientific boundaries in a way that Williams cannot deny is progressive, and the transport and energy sectors are a hotbed of technological innovation. The author’s view that we should throw caution to the wind is problematic and ignores overwhelming evidence that such behaviour is the very reason environmentalism has become such a dominant concept. This recklessness is the bane of the sustainability agenda, but Williams appears unable to fully grasp this. Instead, his blend of humanism and technological determinism leads to statements such as this: “by restricting our scientific and technological imaginations to whatever can be fitted into the sustainability rubric, we are…restricting the terms of open enquiry” (p151).

Where Williams’ book appears to be the most useful is in its potential to provoke discussions on the ethics of imposing an unchallenged theory on the school curriculum – something that has been discussed by Lambert and Morgan (2009) and Matthewman and Morgan (2013). Indeed, many of the citations of Enemies of Progress refer specifically to this debate. The author makes his views clear in titling the referent chapter ‘The Indoctrinators’. However, Williams fails to engage in a discussion about the potential societal benefits of promoting environmental citizenship to young people. The idea of environmental rights and justice stokes relevant debates such as the common good conflicting with individual rights (Dobson & Bell, 2006) that would be ripe for discussion in this context, and his cynicism towards citizenship as an educative tool is unjustified.

Williams’ concerns about the ethics of such practice align with his assertion that “it is imperative to argue against the moralising of politics” (blurb). These opinions betray his fundamental and somewhat callous belief that politics should not have moral or ethical bases. Further evidence of this is his low prioritising of climate change in his “list of things-to-worry-about” (p8), for even a basic knowledge of climate change would reveal its moral implications. The author does nevertheless discuss ‘moral authority’ as a key point of contention when analysing the discrepancy in responsibility between the global north and south for the current environmental situation. This is a key debate that deserves attention, and in describing it as “ethical colonialism” (p109), it is clear where Williams stands. This is an interesting discussion for urbanists and policymakers in the context of the rapid urbanisation in China, for example, where cities are seen as a potential vehicle for positive change, but the immediate environmental, social and economic costs of such urbanisation might offset future dividends. Additionally, Williams could have analysed the ethical concerns of China’s one-party system vis-à-vis its potential to incorporate longer-term environmental, political, and economic thinking. This brings to prominence the cultural elements that we must acknowledge in bringing about a less vague definition of sustainability and a more nuanced approach to the environmental challenges humanity faces.

Indeed, the book provokes the reader to consider the defining thought behind sustainability. Debate is necessary so that a stronger and more defined concept can emerge. This would allay fears Williams and others (e.g. Hudson & Vissing, 2013) may have of its potential to be exploited and broadly applied, leading to further mistrust in the concept and greenwashing (p63-4). The inherent irony is that the author displays a crucial lack of understanding of the conceptual differences between sustainability and environmentalism, using the terms interchangeably throughout the book. A comprehensive understanding of the sustainability agenda would not only allow him to engage more effectively on the topic, but would also tell him that, as defined by the seminal Brundtland Report, “sustainable development…meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (1987). Here he would see that sustainability neither caters only for nature and the planet, nor neglects people in its objectives.

This conceptual nescience undermines his humanist view – given the direct effect of climate change on humanity. In what is the greatest weakness of Enemies of Progress, there is little to no discussion about how the sustainability agenda responds to environmental challenges. In stating that the book is “nothing to do with [climate change]” (p7), Williams thwarts a scientific debate about sustainability and limits it to the political sphere, and disregards the inextricable links between sustainability and climate change. This non-engagement in a balanced debate may seem myopic, but can actually serve to provoke reflection from those who see sustainability as infallible. Williams’ views are so diametrically opposed to the apparent consensus that we must consider their value, if not scientifically then at least politically. Indeed, it may be representative of the growing voice of those suspicious of the establishment and its motivations in painting an ominous picture of our future.

Whilst the dangers of depicting our future as bleak and occasionally catastrophic are immeasurable, it is not ridiculous to implicate such negativity in shaping the societal apathy and lack of political will that evidently hinder environmental action. In this instance the author makes a useful point that could assist scientists, journalists, and policymakers in their approach towards facilitating change. However, Williams himself maintains a pessimistic tone throughout the book, and ignores optimistic literature on issues of climate change such as Gaia: A New Look at Life On Earth and The Lorax, or Olson’s claims that a sustainable society is one of the few images of the future with capacity to rekindle social imagination (1994, p168). His espousal of humanity’s potential, and lamenting of its suppression, does not offer a counterpoint to the pessimism he claims to beset sustainability doctrine that he opposes so vociferously. What Williams has not considered is that it is perhaps a reflection of the dire environmental situation that most environmentalist literature is pessimistic.

Stylistically, Williams tends to adopt ethos in his attempts to persuade the audience. Usage of the more academically rigorous logos might have strengthened his claims. The overall tone of the book is negative and bellicose (epitomised by the chapter titles), which is ironic given one of his criticisms of the sustainability agenda is of its pessimism contributing to a bleak vision of the future. Indeed, the book is an exercise in irony; it is polemical and linguistically hyperbolic throughout – an accusation Williams levels against environmentalists. Throughout the book, he attacks the “parochialism” of the sustainability agenda whilst displaying comparable conceptual narrow-mindedness – failing to critically analyse any benefits the agenda might have. He goes on to contradict this very idea in attacking sustainability’s “broad embrace” (p7). The consistent misrepresentation of opposing ideas severely delegitimises his own arguments – for example in asserting that sustainability is “masquerading as progress” (p7), Williams fails to understand that the doctrine has been borne of necessity, not to stifle progress, and consistently depicts sustainability as “misanthropic”. Indeed, the author continues to say that “progress is under sustained attack by the environmentalist and sustainability lobby” (p7), symbolising the hyperbole and logical fallacies typical of the book. His lackadaisical spelling (p12, 20, 86), numerous grammatical errors (p68, 146), and factual inconsistencies (p20 – Indianapolis “USA’s second most populous city”, pp114 & 124 – Malawi and Sierra Leone both called poorest country in the world) undermine any sense of trust the reader may have in the author. The final nail in the coffin for Enemies of Progress is its structural failings; Williams tends to simply list his grievances without further exploring them, and his arguments are disjointed and often lack sources (especially the education chapter which is heavily anecdotal).

Conclusion

The sustainability agenda is a fast-moving one, and thus it would be intriguing to know whether or not Williams’ views have changed in the decade since publication, and whether or not climate change has moved up in his aforementioned “list of things-to-worry-about”. In this time it is unquestionable that environmentalism and sustainability have become even more pervasive in society – perhaps this has further entrenched his worldview, or perhaps he has ‘seen the light’ in the face of mounting evidence supporting these agendas. In particular, the inexorable encroachment of automation would present a dilemma for the author in reconciling his humanist perspective with his technological determinism; it represents the progressive fruit of humanity’s labour yet negatively impacts people’s job security. Indeed, this debate predates Enemies of Progress, and its exclusion from discussion is somewhat revealing.

In presenting a heretical opinion on the subject, the author adds another voice to the debate. Whilst he does introduce ideas that merit reflection – the pessimism of the agenda, the consensus of the agenda, and the agenda’s incompatibility with progress – he does not sufficiently engage with them critically and consistently turns a blind eye to any possible counterpoints. Furthermore, he ignores wider discussions about topics that are clearly relevant – namely the environmental challenges humanity faces, the technological advancements occurring within the ‘constraints’ of the sustainability agenda, and the implicit benefits of the agenda. The stylistic and linguistic flaws compound this unbalanced approach and limit the range of people who would find it useful.

Overall Williams fails in his first objective – to critically explore the debate surrounding environmentalism and the sustainability agenda. His arguments are disjointed and unbalanced and despite raising some important points he does not engage with the topic effectively. The author nonetheless does provide, however polemically and ham-fistedly, an alternative perspective of the concepts at hand – thus forwarding the debate as per his second objective. This would ideally have prompted a wider reflection of the sustainability orthodoxy, but the book has been cited a mere 35 times (several of which by one academic). Nevertheless it is vital to balanced discussion to be familiar with all sides of an argument, so that a concept can be advanced as much as possible.

Bibliography

Brundtland, G.H. (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

Dobson, A. & Bell, D. (2006) Environmental Citizenship, MIT Press

Hudson, C.G. & Vissing, Y.M. (2013) ‘Sustainability at the Edge of Chaos: Its Limits and Possibilities in Public Health’, BioMed Research International, 2013, pp1-7

Lambert, D. & Morgan, J. (2009) ‘Corrupting the Curriculum? The Case of Geography’, London Review of Education, 7(2), pp147-157

Lovelock, J. (1979) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press

Matthewman, S. & Morgan, J. (2013) ‘The Post-Carbon Challenge for Curriculum Subjects‘, International Journal of Educational Research, 61, pp93-100

Olson, R.L. (1994) ‘Alternative Images of a Sustainable Future’, Futures, 26(2), pp156-169

Seuss, Dr. (1971) The Lorax, Penguin Random House

Williams, A. (2008) Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability, Imprint Academic

By Daniel Galloway Green, current MA Sustainable Cities programme student, Urban Futures research domain, Department of Geography, King’s College London


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