Natural Interests explores the appearance of an impressive range of environmental initiatives in France and its overseas colonial empire between the late eighteenth and early twentieth century as well as the emergence of a new “environmental consciousness” that underpinned them. These initiatives included flood control, efforts to address climate change, reforestation, the protection of natural landscapes and resources, the “greening” of urban spaces, and the convocation of the world’s first two international congresses devoted to the protection of nature, which took place in Paris in 1923 and 1931 respectively. The book takes up the larger question of why the natural environment became an object of concern in French civil society in a way it had not been in previous centuries and how various actors began to argue that it should be conserved, preserved and protected for future generations. It argues that the driving forces behind environmental protection were anxiety over the pressing dangers of environmental degradation and nostalgia for a vanishing pastoral countryside. What distinguishes this book from other studies is its focus on the pathways and the circulation of ideas and practices between different social groups and historical actors, between metropolitan France and its empire beyond the borders of Europe, and between France and other nations of the world.
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.
I would hope that a reader browsing in a bookstore would first look at the range of subjects explored in the book’s seven chapters and look more closely at one or two chapters that align most with his or her interests in order to get a sense of the wide range of sources and materials on which the book relies. I would also like for the reader to look at some of the illustrations. Chapter 1 contains lithographs from a journal published in the 1820s depicting “Regeneration of the Sweet Bounties of Nature in all Cantons of France” and “Mexicans contemplating the rich productions of Upper Mexico.” Chapter 3 on the disastrous floods of the nineteenth century, culminating in the great flood of 1910, when most of Paris was under water, indicates the range of pictorial representations of flooding, from block prints dating from the 1840s to the first officially commissioned photographs of the 1856 flood by the Prussian photographer E.D. Balthus and postcards of the flooded streets of France’s capital in 1910.
I hope that the book will encourage historians and readers to think about the myriad ways in which the environment has been conceived and imagined through time as well as the different moments in which it has been contested. I also hope that it will inspire historians to use a more varied range of sources in writing about the environment.
Caroline Ford is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, having previously taught at the University of British Columbia and Harvard University. She is the author of two other books, Creating the Nation in Provincial France: Religion and Political Identity in Brittany (Princeton University Press, 1993) and Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France (Cornell University Press, 2005). She is currently working on a new book-length project, “The Paris Housing Crisis and the Environmental Revolution in French Architecture.”