Wartime Thrift

Ashley Thorne

On The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability by Austin Williams

Forget debate—this is war. And this wartime emergency we’re in must change the way we live. As in the summer of 1939:

Neville Chamberlain[…]did not simply invite the population to eat less owing to the inevitable curtailment of food imports, he imposed food rationing; nor did he issue a call to arms, he imposed military conscription. So it is today. The time for debate is past. We need to confront the emergency.

Mayer Hillman, “Your Planet: The Case for Rationing.” The Independent, 19 September 2005.

In his book “The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability, Austin Williams raises a lone voice to oppose the sustainability warriors who speak with such moral imperative. Williams, an architect who teaches in London at the Royal College of Art and the Bartlett School of Architecture, observes that the sustainability canon tries to get people to change by frightening them with the rhetoric of war.

If we are at war, it is an unusual kind of war. Whereas most wars are fought between nations or at least tribes, in this war, the “enemy” is all mankind. Whereas historically we have gone to war to defend or win territory or achieve freedom, the goal of this war is to decrease our territory and limit freedom.

Such doctrines, Williams contends, are the enemies of progress. Not so long ago, most of us looked upon man’s ability to invent, to explore, and to harness natural resources as grounds for hope and pride. Advances in technology brought relief from suffering and from deadening forms of manual labor. But since the rise of the sustainability movement, Williams writes, “Man has gone from being a solution to becoming seen as the problem.”

His book, a rare critical take on sustainability, provides a thoughtful, albeit dire study of sustainability’s war on progress. A main part of his thesis is that as sustainability crowds out alternatives, it “has depressed critical engagement and neutered politics.” As NAS Executive Director Peter Wood has pointed out in “Sustainability’s Third Circle,” the sustainability movement claims a “triple bottom line,” often symbolized as three linked circles: the environmental, economic, and “social justice” aspects of sustainability. Williams likewise recognizes sustainability’s tripod, but, being an architect, switches the metaphor to a more building-friendly “three pillars.” In any case, an entire political spectrum is encompassed by this six-syllable word.

The chapter in Enemies of Progress most pertinent to NAS is “The Indoctrinators: Environmental Educators’ Underhand Tactics,” in which Williams takes a look at how sustainability has become pervasive in school. He writes, “From nursery to university, from science to geography, education has primarily become a route for teaching political environmentalism”—and it’s a curriculum of vacuous value judgments that characterize a “hollowing out” of educational content. Ideological advocacy now trumps a teacher’s duty to impart knowledge and the great ideas: “‘To promote’ has taken over from a school’s core responsibility ‘to teach.’”

Here is thrift indeed. To save not money but an idea, schools serve slimmed down portions of subjects outside the sustainability canon. Intellectual substance is crowded by increasingly large helpings of sustainability fluff.

Williams identifies this as indoctrination, not education, and NAS agrees. We have seen for ourselves how sustainability programs on college campuses reach greedily for students’ loyalty to the cause, and scant the goal of teaching students to think for themselves. Williams, however, broadens the picture by showing how far the sustainability dogma has been absorbed into schooling at the lower grades, and by giving us a picture of the greening of UK education.  

We’re also intrigued by the list of environmental books with “misanthropic messages” Williams cites. One of these, recommended for American schoolchildren by Scholastic Corporation, is Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth. Captain Eco warns, “Your parents and grandparents have made a mess of looking after the earth. They may deny it, but they’re stealing your future from under your noses.”

This repeat-after-me pedagogy suggests that the Sustainatopians are more interested in promoting conformity to their doctrines than open-minded inquiry. Captain Eco’s secret identity apparently is the hypnotic Professor Echo.    

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