Keywords: Public policy, development, science, science policy

Title: The Enemies Of Progress

Author: Austin Williams

Publisher: Imprint Academic

ISBN: 1845400984


Who can be against 'sustainable development'? Surely no one can be in favour of 'unsustainable' development? And thus the discussion is ended. No right-minded individual would admit to being against something that is so self-evidently good and progressive. It's not just development, the word 'sustainable' can be pre-fixed to all areas of public policy and discourse - from sustainable education to sustainable tourism and all points in between.

However, Austin Williams, Director of the Future Cities Project, has clearly had enough. He for one is unwilling to suspend critical faculties when he comes up against the 'sustainable' tag. In this well argued polemic, he takes issue with the very concept. He argues that 'sustainability is an insidiously dangerous concept at odds with progress…[that] represents a pernicious and corrosive doctrine that has survived primarily because there seems to be no alternative to its canon.'

Rather than being a progressive movement, he argues that it is the fetishisation of nature and a retreat from humanism that lies at the heart of the 'sustainable' project. It is indicative of a loss of faith in humanity and the power of humanity to fashion the future in a positive way. Where we once looked forward the future with optimism, now our future is assumed to be something to fear. Doom and disaster is all we have to look forward. Environmental degradation, global warming, climate chaos, over-crowding? this is all that the future holds in store for us. It is the Al Gore vision of the future that is now propagated endlessly in the press, particularly in the more self-consciously liberal wings of it.

Williams looks at the roots of this change - from Victorian optimism to model pessimism and malaise. He makes the point that it has occurred at a time when the establishment has lost faith in itself and when politics has become a battle of competing management styles rather ideologies. With no alternative visions of how we might proceed, we are faced instead with a project that seeks to minimise humanity's footprint. We are the only species on the planet not allowed to change it. The implication of this is that we stop development. And this, Williams argues, is what sustainable development is. The most sustainable building is the one that isn't built, the most sustainable life the one that does not exist.

The influence of 'sustainability' extends to all aspects of policy. Williams looks at the built environment, education, energy policy, transportation and so on. The models of economic development for the poor are revealed as a new form of imperialism that champions under-development in order to fight climate change and preserve the environment. That it coincidentally preserves the privileges of the West is just that, a happy coincidence for those of us lucky enough to be over here, tough look for those who'll never have what we have.

This is an angry little volume, of that there's no doubt. William's has plenty of invective for those who champion 'sustainability'. At times the invective palls, but his points are well argued and worth listening to. This is certainly an antidote to the pessimism and anti-humanism that is now the dominant unofficial ideology in the West.

Review © Pan Pantziarka, 2008. Site © London Book Review 2008. Published May 14 2008