Caroline Ford


On her book Natural Interests: The Contest over Environment in Modern France

Cover Interview of February 21, 2017

The wide angle

This book challenges some of the prevailing perspectives in the field of environmental history. First, there is a widely held view that concern about the protection of the natural environment emerged late in France (and in southern Europe as well as other parts of the world, more generally). They have approached the question through an analysis of ecological thought that is almost exclusively grounded in a scientific literature and in Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, and German sources. This book argues that the history of environmentalism should be considered beyond the writings of a small group of savants and naturalists. It draws on a wide range of source materials, which encompasses journalistic commentary, petitions, the writings of government officials, diplomatic negotiations, novels, poetry, paintings, photography and the writings of ordinary men and women who reflected on the natural world around them.

Second, those in France who advocated the protection of the environment and nature did not necessarily embrace the concept of “wilderness” or unpeopled landscapes, which has been central to American environmental thought. Early measures to protect natural landscapes privileged historic, peopled landscapes, like the royal forest of Fontainebleau, and these measures were not articulated in the language or present-day green activism. It is the premise of this book that imposing a rigid and uncompromising definition of environmentalism and a narrow understanding of what constituted an environmental awareness predicated on particular conceptions of nature can blind one to the ways an environmental consciousness emerges historically, comes to be expressed and changes in particular cultural and historical circumstances.

Third, the French case raises interesting questions about the politics of environmental reform. It has generally been associated with the Left in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, supporters of environmental protection in France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were allied to various political groups and a diverse set of associations and individuals. It was during the Second Empire in France (1851-1870), one of the most politically reactionary, authoritarian regimes of the nineteenth century, that some of the major landmarks of environmental legislation were passed, including measures taken to protect sites as natural monuments and the implementation of a vast scheme to reforest the mountainous regions of France in order to curb flooding. Motivations behind initiatives taken to protect the natural world were many, and in some instances they were far from benign, as France’s colonial policies indicate. In the case of Algeria, environmental reform resulted in territorial expropriation and the displacement of indigenous populations who were deemed to be irresponsible stewards of the land. The colonial context reveals environmentalism’s darker sides and indicates that there was no direct, reformist and enlightened historical path for environmentalism from the past into the future. A comparison of environmental reform across time and in the metropolitan and colonial contexts thus suggests that environmental protection took a variety of different (and sometimes competing) forms and that it did not follow a linear path into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.