"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

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