"The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability"

"The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability"
Book published by Societas. Orders: http://www.imprint.co.uk/books/williams_enemies.html

I o I Education Forum

I am indebted to Dennis Hayes for a very charitable review in the Institute of Ideas Education Forum:


Criticism from Adrian Hornsby

NOTE: This letter is answered in the 'Comment' afterwards

Dear Austin,
I really enjoyed the book, but seeing as that side is less interesting, I have two beefs:

Firstly I felt at times that it was something of an exercise in tenpin bowling, in that you had very effectively hoovered up a host of daft comments, some from influential people who should know better, some from loonies, then set them up neatly in a diamond formation, and then, with considerable rhetorical zeal, bowled the ball of your arguments down the lane at them and sent them all flying. This is certainly fun, but it also slips out of some of the larger arguments, such as that improved efficiency, be it greenwashed or not, is progressive, and that significant and exciting new innovation is coming out of the sustainability labelled camp (the argument at the end that politically motivated technological developments are somehow less valid I don't buy at all, and have to point out that your own delight in JFK's moon statement, which was undeniably highly politicised, is essentially at odds with this notion).

The second and more interesting thing that struck me is that, being apolemical-rhetorical book, the author reveals a bit more about themselves than they would do if they were working exclusively with closely argued technical points, and that which is revealed is at times oddly traditionalist. I was surprised to read in a book directed at the enemies of progress the phrase, 'and it was ever thus' - hinting at a belief that there are all sorts of things which aren't subject to progress at all. There was something curiously nostalgic about your exuberance for the railway into Tibet as a feat of pure engineering (a kind of 1940s boy's wonder) which completely absolved the project of its true motivations - based around neither development nor freedom but the straight political objective to boost the Han Chinese population of Tibet in order to suffocate the independence movement. Even more amazing, the train passage comes as a kind of preamble to talking with equally nostalgic admiration for Victorian Britain, throwing things even further back seemingly to justify the truly appalling current levels of pollution and urban squalor in rapidly developing countries on the grounds that, back in the grand old days, the UK too had terrible smog and awful slums. To suggest that the model for progress - i.e. rampant abuse - has not progressed at all since Victorian times strikes me as deeply unprogressive.

Morevoer I would argue the way you go on to affirm that material benefits and improvements in social equity follow one another with the same ineluctability as day does night is not only questionable but ultimately retrogressive. It strikes me as a deeply static Western model (something like, "that's how things happened in Europe and, therefore, it was ever thus ..."), which is highly contentious, teleologically conformist, and increasingly inaccurate.
More and more it seems that high growth economies and new middle classes are not pursuing democracy at all - in fact at times the opposite.

Therefore to proclaim an unequivally pro-growth agenda irrespective of environmental costs or social costs or indeed perhaps total costs on the grounds that it is somehow inevitably driving toward a better life for all ("because that's just how development works") sounds to me like a proclamation of the cessation of progress in ideas about progress. And thus, Mr. Williams, you become an enemy of progress yourself ...

Adrian Hornsby, co-author 'The Chinese Dream-a society under construction', June 2008

In answer to Adrian Hornsby


Let me address these point by point:

(I stand accused of) ’Tenpin bowling…a host of daft comments…from influential people who should know better.’
The idea that these comments were loose canon quotes from erstwhile sober commentators is wrong, many of the ‘silly’ comments include Jonathon Porritt’s delight at implementing a one-child policy in this country and Monbiot advocating that we should all stay in bed to save carbon. Pointing out their stupidity was not intended to suggest that they should be more careful in future… it was to point out that this is what they believe. Using their own words to parody their position, I think, is justifiable (and I’m sure that I will be on the receiving end soon enough)

‘Improved efficiency, be it greenwashed or not, is progressive’.
Firstly, I don’t care about ‘greenwash’. Secondly, I agree that improved efficiency has the tendency to be progressive; but, for example, the idea that economic efficiency can be achieved by sacking loads of workers, is not inherently progressive and I am against it. The point I make is that under environmentalism, there is an over concentration on ‘resource efficiency’ as opposed to ‘labour efficiency’: the second one is progressive, the former may well not be (say, the efficiency of the chain gang, where materials can be used really efficiently at the expense of laborious human labour time).

(There is ) significant and exciting new innovation is coming out of the sustainability labelled camp.
Maybe. I’m in favour of thin-film PV, etc, like anyone. It’s not the ‘innovation’ (as such) but the unidirectional motor for innovation that I am critical of.
Secondly, innovation can mean all sorts of things these days. How about the Welsh Parliament’s innovative transport plan? Just in case you think that they’d bought into the truly innovative Ultra transit system? [1] or were distributing jet-packs, it simply ‘aims to provide young job seekers and young people in higher education with a personalised travel plan with information on how to get from their homes to their place of work or study using public transport.’[2] (In case you think I a selectively quoting from people who should know better… this sort of excuse for real investment in real technological innovation is pretty much everywhere).

(The author suggests that) politically motivated technological developments are somehow less valid… (see) JFK's moon statement, which was undeniably highly politicised
Well everything and anything can be politically motivated. I accept the contention… but the point is that I have a politically disagreement with certain political positions. The fact that I like Wordsworth’s poetry doesn’t mean I can’t argue against the culture of the Romantics - I am against environmental politics for a range of reasons. However… before you retort, let me say that I am not a supporter of JFK, I am simply alluding to a socio-historical shift between 60s dynamism (with all of its many faults) and 00s risk-aversion.

The author… revealed (as) oddly traditionalist… the phrase, 'and it was ever thus' - hinting at a belief that there are all sorts of things which aren't subject to progress at all.
Even Trotsky wrote about the eternal nature of ideas and emotions, asking why 2500 year old Greek tragedies still makes us cry. The quote refers to the sentence ‘liberation of free movement is clearly an advance and ever has it been thus’ alluding to the cry for freedom by slaves and the exploited since time immemorial. I also am making an illusion – as I do in the opening sentence to the chapter on America – to the Communist manifesto that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’

(The book is) curiously nostalgic... exuberance for the railway into Tibet… absolved the project of its true motivations… to suffocate the independence movement.
It is, is it not, a fantastic feat of engineering? I am not endorsing (as a matter of fact, I am probably more critical than many Western based contemporary books on) China. Criticism is more than legitimate – I argue that it is essential. But I hate to break it to you that the construction of the Indian railways was not primarily for the benefit of the Indians … but it still doesn’t preclude people being impressed by the results. If you think that every article praising technological advances should be appended with a condemnatory footnote about its true objectives, then everything evaporates in a relativistic puff of smoke. Let me tell you that the British Welfare state was not some utopian idyll, but had its origins in eugenics and the rebuilding of the ‘national stock’

(I have a ) nostalgic admiration for Victorian Britain… seemingly to justify the truly appalling current levels of pollution and urban squalor in rapidly developing countries
I don’t justify them at all. What I am describing is a historical parallel… not a blueprint. History – ie the making of history – is in the hands of individuals and societies: it is not fated. However, the social and material ambition and drive that lifted people out of their squalid conditions 100+ years ago, is not so much in evidence today. The ambition is the thing I’m pointing out, not the squalor. I want people to fight to rise above their meagre economic relations. As a matter of fact I make great play of the fact that there is more to life than simply consumer culture

(I suggest that) material benefits and improvements in social equity follow one another… (in) high growth economies… new middle classes are not pursuing democracy at all.
I agree. However, there is something to be said for improving material benefits regardless of social equity.
But your point is taken that to challenge the political deficit – be it authoritarianism in China or political vacuousness in Britain – we need a political response and an intellectual and ‘physical’ intervention. The whole point of the book is to point out that unless we challenge the environmental logic of human self-loathing, then there will be no human-centred, intellectually-clear, politically-polarised fightback.

[1] http://www.atsltd.co.uk/

[2] Press release, ‘Innovative travel scheme for young people in North East Wales launched’, Welsh Assembly Government, 27 October 2004

The Guardian aren't keen

It seems as if John Vidal of the Guardian doesn't appreciate my book. I'm left til last in this unbiased piece of reporting... just after he's advocated censuring a telly programme he didn't agree with.


I am grateful to the first reviewer here though (Scroll to the bottom). The second reviewer is less generous. Mind you, suggesting that the book's 'central message seems to be that all development is essentially good and so we need to do away with planning regulation' seems to imply that they haven't read the book - just the Guardian 'review' listed above. (For the record, I don't argue any such thing):


Times Higher Education

A very nice mention from Dennis Hayes in the Times Higher Education, 1 May 2008


Dennis, with Kathryn Ecclestone, is the author of 'The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education', Routledge, May/June 2008. He is also the founder of the campaign group Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF)

New Culture Forum

Peter Whittle's New Culture Forum has laid me bare:


I guess that this is as near as I'll get to 'Desert Island Discs'.

Nature blog

Here's a blog posting on the book by Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature.


I have to say that I'm NOT calling for a more moderate form of environmentalism, but unlike Henry's interpretation, I also do not think that progress is some kind of fateful process of history... but I do believe that it is - almost by definition - a universal good.

Talks in Melbourne, Australia

Austin Williams will be speaking at the Alfred Deakin Lectures in Melbourne, Australia between June 8-14th 2008

If you are in Melbourne, it'd be good to see you there.



Editorial, 'The Enemies Of Progress', Pan Pantziarka

"...This is an angry little volume, of that there's no doubt. William's has plenty of invective for those who champion 'sustainability..."



"SUSTAINABLE? OVER-USE OF THE WORD WILL RUN OUT", by Jasper Gerard, 2nd May 2008

"...Austin Williams has a point; almost anything can be made to sound virtuous if cloaked in greenery: eco-friendly terrorism, perhaps, or low-energy land mines, or carbon-neutral ethnic cleansing..."


Edited extract

An edited extract of the Chapter on China and India, is available on Spiked-online.
Read here: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/reviewofbooks_article/5029/


Ian Abley of Audacity has given the book its first - and terrifically generous - review here. http://www.audacity.org/IA-06-05-08.htm