In praise of unsustainability

by | Jul 17, 2008 | Articles, Culture Wars

The idea of ‘sustainability’, at first glance, has some footing in common sense. To disagree with it seems to mean standing up for unsustainability, defending houses that will collapse: who would be mad enough? Architect Austin Williams’ new book, The Enemies of Progress: Dangers of Sustainability, offers a snapshot of sustainability’s increasing influence, and gets beneath the sustainable agenda to reveal its true character and aim.

Environmentalism is a main player in the story of the rise of sustainablism, and climate change provides its biggest narrative arc. But this is not a book about climate change, which is refreshing. It’s too easy to see environmentalism as a political movement that has generated its own momentum, albeit preying on fears by amplifying facts from environmental science. Instead, the book shows that it is ‘the poverty of ambition in political life’ that the dynamic driving the sustainability agenda. From this perspective, growing anxieties about the security of the future represent the establishment’s struggle to define itself, and inject purpose and legitimacy into its operations. This void is not simply figurative; it has become the ethic around which public life is organised. The objective of sustainable development is inertia, which demands we get ourselves on a ‘war footing’, to ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’. But if this is a war, Williams asks, who is the enemy? He argues that, through the logic of sustainability, we are being asked to wage a war of attrition against ourselves: ‘sustainability…is an insidiously dangerous concept’.

The observation that the politics of sustainability are prior to any scientific claims allows us to explore what is being lost as we embrace this worldview. For example, Williams argues that mobility itself is under attack from the sustainability movement (pardon the pun). Whilst it has been demanded that we travel less, he points out freedom is meaningless without mobility, quoting a former Rugby School headmaster, who, seeing the transformative effect of the trains crossing the country on the constitution of British society, remarked that ‘feudality has gone forever’. It has been a tactic of the sustainability movement to pretend development has taken place against people’s interests, foisted on everybody throughout the world though benefitting only industrial capitalists. But this forgets the role technological progress has played in toppling the old tyrannical political orders of Europe, where development created the conditions for political progress. Whatever the reality of the scientific claims made by sustainability advocates, Williams asks us to focus first on the political environment. The baby – social, political and economic progress and higher living standards – is being recycled with the bathwater, which is the much-overplayed tendency of development to cause environmental problems.

Indices used by advocates of sustainability bear little relation to human experience. Architecture has become a job of balancing basic human necessities against ‘environmental impact’. Rather than our own interests, it is this abstract, inhuman metric which is the organising principle for development. Perhaps recognising this, in an attempt to connect the sustainability agenda with human experience, its advocates have drawn up new markers of progress as an alternative to measures of growth (such as GDP), that suggest you don’t need development to have a good time. Williams isn’t impressed: ‘We must be on our guard against miserablists bearing happiness agendas’. The irony would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Whilst going ‘off-grid’ in the UK is a lifestyle choice, in other parts of the world, the sustainability agenda is being pushed on people on the grounds that ‘environmental justice’ is equivalent to ‘social justice’. Williams cites Friends of the Earth who claim that ‘ecological damage is a principal factor causing poverty’. The environmental agenda has hijacked the anti-poverty agenda, and the sustainability movement’s dominance over the development agenda has forced people to abandon understanding the link between material and social progress. But focusing on happiness gives way to poisonous relativism, ‘Once the environment becomes the sole framework for debate, every previously acknowledged progressive development is up for grabs’. While sustainable agendas in the UK start with talk of banning plastic bags, in the developing world, it precludes the possibility of centralised energy generation (which sustainablist Jonathan Porritt sees as marking the ‘end of the world’, rather than the beginning of one) in favour of treadle pumps operated by children and pregnant women.

There is much to be suspicious about in the thinking behind these bizarre new metrics; not just in the developing world, but at home too. In the face of a housing shortage, the UK government doesn’t simply argue for building more houses because people want them; they feel the need to appeal to a higher ‘moral’ principle. Thus we have ‘eco-towns’ on the cards, where people will live low-impact lives without power-showers, recycling rain water, being reminded of their eco-footprints with every bodily function. Debate about these plans doesn’t relate to the experience ‘eco-homes’ will create for the unfortunates placed there, but whether the contractors have sufficiently green credentials, whether the proposed sites are ‘brown field’ enough, and how ‘sustainable’ the designs actually are. Sustainability is thrown back at the sustainability agenda by good, old-fashioned Nimbys who have found a new language to hide their selfishness. Deep, selfish conservatism expresses itself as an appeal to the ‘greater good’ through sustainable rhetoric. Plus ça change

Enemies of Progress contrasts this inertia with the rapid development underway in India and China, where entire cities are being constructed, and tens of thousands of miles of road are being laid every year. Instead of encouraging off-grid living (which plenty of people are keen to escape from), millions of homes are connected to the rapidly expanding energy supply. This process isn’t without its problems, but these are not necessarily good reasons to oppose it. Solutions to problems such as poor working conditions can emerge from the associations formed by the ‘empowered ranks of the emerging working classes’, whereas ‘sustainable’ lifestyles would preclude such possibilities: such are the realities of subsistence living. And ironically, the solution to environmental problems is technological. Here in the UK, matters of environmental health proceeded from technological and economic development.

This relentless energy in the East makes the monopoly of the dull language about sustainability at home all the more disappointing. Why are there no plans for expanding the road system? Where are the UK’s maglev trains? Stuff Eco-Towns, where are our shiny new cities with their opportunities and luxury? Williams contrasts what is on the horizon for the Chinese and Indians, with our own lower expectations of the future. The difference between lives in the UK and India are of course substantial, but why do we feel we’ve reached the end of the developmental line? Why is the language surrounding our future so bleakly terminal? Problems like congestion are not seen as suggesting a need for more development, but instead as the consequence of development itself. Sustainablists are fond of saying that building more roads is not a solution to congestion because it merely results in more people using them. Of course development creates new problems, but first world problems are preferable to third world solutions.

The book uses a wealth of quotes to show that sustainabilism is not a niche political movement, but a mainstream ideology. The woman who recycles her own faeces shares a view of the world with Gordon Brown, David Cameron, the UN, and even the upper ranks of the IMF and the World Bank. The ideas of people like John Gray and James Lovelock, that humanity is a ‘slime-mould’ or a ‘plague’ aren’t disregarded as misanthropic lunacy, but actually influence domestic and international political agendas. Super-miserable Jonathan Porritt isn’t regarded as a fringe weirdo, but his book is placed on the national curriculum so that children can learn their own parents and grandparents are stealing their futures. Forget education: terrifying small children about the future and alienating them from their parents is seen as the way to manufacture an obedient generation in a sustainable society. It’s hard not to wonder whether that’s what this ‘sustainability’ is all about.

This ‘ideology of restraint’ is described by Williams in chapters concentrating on its influence on travel, energy, architecture, education, the rise of India and China, the third world, and surprisingly, the USA, where sustainability – in spite of European anti-American eco-rhetoric to the contrary – is doing just fine. Along the way, there’s a sense of how sustainability has developed against the backdrop of weakened Western governments, who lack confidence in their own political footing, since ‘the environmental message is seen as politically neutral’. But its consequences are profoundly political, and end up serving the interests of wealthy Western elites. It arms them with a surrogate moral purpose and legitimises interference in the lives of people and politics in the developing world, and at home fosters a culture of low expectations to remove them from any responsibility to make the world better through genuine development.

The overwhelming influence of sustainablism today seems to represent an insurmountable obstacle to genuine progress. At the beginning of the book, Williams quotes Franklin D Roosevelt’s inaugural address, ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’, and the final chapter calls for people, rather than nature to be put at the centre of our political ideas and scientific investigation. Claiming our interests are the same as nature’s is a fundamental misconception that carries terrible consequences. To put nature first is necessarily to put people second. After all, what has the human race ever done to improve its conditions that is ultimately ‘sustainable’? In response to old material problems new technological solutions have been found, generating new problems, of course, but also new material freedoms. Out of this material liberty emerge new political relationships. Sustainablists cannot conceive of a positive life of global abundance, not because their anxieties about the future relate to ‘scientific reality’, but the political possibilities that are opened up by technological development. It is less ecological security they hanker after, and more a certain sort of political order.


  1. Stephen Ibbitson

    Somebody once said that ‘there is no greater force on earth than vested interest in the guise of moral concern’.

    Back in the early 1990’s when I first encountered ‘environmentalism’ (now sustainablism) being deployed against planning, I changed the ‘moral’ to ‘environmental’.

  2. Ramdial

    The line taken by sustainability supporters in this article isn’t sustainability at all, but hard, uncompromising environmentalism that ignores the necessity and benefits of social and economic progress . Sustainable Development means taking into account economic, social and environmental well-being. You can’t ignore any of the 3 otherwise a solution won’t be viable in the long-term; a balance between wealth, social wellbeing and environmental stewardship can be attained. SD should properly encourage us to live, produce and consume within our means, and support investment in technological and scientific solutions to expand those means and to find solutions to environmental problems–which is what China is investing in, in order to take care of its own environmental damage–something it could not do if it didn’t already have significant economic growth to fund it. Ideas like Industrial Ecology, “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” etc are all highly useful but incomplete solutions on their own.

    The Sustainable Development debate is simplified by some environmentalists and politicians. The reality is more complex, because you have to take in a wider scope and a longer-term view, but makes for harder sloganeering and sound bites.


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