"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

2 out of 5

This review by Mark T. VanDyke on US Review Scout - gives me 2 out of 5 - although typically positions me as some kind of free-market groupie... which I am not. (NB: Actually I am opposed to the market as the regulator of society). I'm sorry too that he didn't see that this was a critique of the social forces of sustainability rather than environmentalism and didn't accept that arguing for the advance of humanity at the same time as arguing for the primacy of protecting the environmentalism is a contradiction.

Read on...
I really had high hopes for this one; true and intelligent critiques of sustainability are hard to come by, and for William's credit, this book is a step in the right direction. However, this is not so much a critique on "sustainability" as it is on "environmentalism". Williams' text attacks "sustainability" without ever really addressing the concept in general; economic sustainability and social equity (two of the three so-called components of the sustainable concept--and the important anthropocentric ones at that) are notably absent as Williams lays out a familiar and played out (albeit passionate) argument against environmentalism.

Williams displays a viewpoint described by Michael Colby (1991) as classic "Frontier Economics": progress as infinite growth; extremely strong anthropocentric views; privatization and free markets; exploitation of infinite natural resources et cetera. The downfall of this viewpoint is that although it is creative and pro-humanity (very important aspects), it has absolutely no awareness of any reliance on ecological services--which is apparent in Williams lack of coverage throughout the book. To Williams, nature is still that force to be conquered by man, providing nothing of value without human labor and ingenuity (once again, strongly anthropocentric). For those interested in possibly buying this text, some of William's key arguments are as follows: Sustainability is a dangerous concept that restrains human imagination Human ambition is suppressed by sustainability's biocentric viewpoint A progressive future relies on human-centered (anthropocentric) politics Thesis statement: Sustainable development is the enemy of development; environmentalism is the enemy of humanism; ergo, sustainability is the enemy of progress (page 3)

To his credit, Williams presents some valid points, particularly the chapters on education of young children and America's role and influence in the developing world. However, I can only give this book two stars as the arguments presented completely ignore the presence of any important environmental problems, offers no solutions beyond the continuation of business as usual, and therefore, in my opinion, is far from progressive in any way. The real fallacy, and the thing that really rubs me wrong in this text, is Williams steadfast framing of an argument with only two sides--humans or the environment; to use Williams' own vocabulary, that seems awfully "parochial" and altogether less than "progressive" thinking.

To move past the elementary and played-out human/environment argument in this text, let's instead build upon the easily recognizable fact that we need the environment and therefore reframe the argument as, "how can we sustainably develop our environment FOR HUMANS, without destroying its abilities to provide the many ecological services which we rely on for our present quality of life?" After all, as Peter Senge points out eloquently in his book the fifth discipline, "today's problems come from yesterday's solutions." Once again, I hope to see much more literature critiquing the sustainability concept in the future, but I also hope that these critiques are far deeper in their evaluation and content than this first attempt by Austin Williams.


“Enemies of Progress” was published in late May 2008.

Lo and behold, UK foreign secretary David Miliband used the phrase in a speech at University of South Africa just 5 weeks later on 7 July 2008 and Gordon Brown did the same in a speech to the Knesset on 21 July 2008.

Obviously they used it in a completely vacuous way… but even so... it’s nice to see that they are reading productively these days.