The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000

"This is the best book to read on the impact of environmentalism on modern politics and culture."—Donald Worster, University of Kansas

"There has been very little written about French environmental history outside of the Annales school. The Light-Green Society is an exciting and original examination of the many fronts on which environmentalism has operated in French society, culture, and politics. Bess offers an entirely novel approach to this history."—Gabrielle Hecht, University of Michigan

"This original and engaging book shows how the environmentalist movement has permeated nearly every aspect of political and industrial life in France. The Light-Green Society will shatter common misconceptions of French culture and open up a whole new chapter in the history of environmentalism."—Mark Cioc, University of California, Santa Cruz


An excerpt from
The Light-Green Society
Ecology and Technological Modernity
in France, 1960-2000

by Michael Bess


Chapter Six
What Might It Actually Look Like?
The French Green Utopia: A Guided Tour

The slower you go, the more you discover the wonder of it. But if you really want to know its riches, you have to become its inhabitant. The most beautiful place of all is the one you inhabit, because it's here that time mingles with space to allow us to explore all its enfolded secrets, to discover its protean diversity ceaselessly renewed through the passing seasons and years. This can only happen in a place where our roots have the time to go down into the earth.—Bernard Charbonneau, 1991

Thus far we have traced the historical development of the French green movement, and laid out the broad outlines of the ideology that animated it. In this concluding chapter of Part II, I would like to put some flesh on the bare bones of this intellectual portrait, by imagining what it would be like to visit an actual incarnation of the French green ideology—a utopian society situated in the not-too-distant future, in which green ideas have been given a chance to come to full and systemic fruition.

This utopian sketch is of course my own invention—a composite drawn from the broad range of contemporary French environmentalist ideas. Although I would expect that different aspects of it would elicit objections from a variety of French greens, I have striven, in creating it, to remain faithful to the core principles underlying the greens' major publications and policy statements. If I had to point to a single document as having constituted my most important source and "blueprint," it would be the 1999 electoral platform for Les Verts; but I have also drawn heavily on my own interviews with French environmentalists, and on forty years of their writings along these lines.

In putting together this imagined field trip, I have tried to steer a middle road between "realism" and "optimism"—assuming no major changes in human nature or the laws of physics, but nevertheless postulating a sweeping cultural shift of the sort that the French have actually witnessed from time to time in the course of their long history. Needless to say, the portrait that follows should not be taken too literally. It is a greatly compressed and simplified microcosm of green ideas, projected onto a manageable narrative scale: the result is, unavoidably, a stylized and impressionistic account, designed to capture the "feel" of a certain constellation of philosophical values in concrete embodiment. The real world, if it ever goes dark green, will be a vastly more complicated, contested, striated, and ambiguous place.
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It comes into sight rather abruptly as you pedal your bike, huffing and puffing, over the rise, and at first glance it doesn't seem all that different. You stop by the side of road and take it in.

A French country village at mid-morning on a weekday in June, moss-covered stone roofs and medieval church steeple, surrounded by lush countryside: fields, hedgerows, lanes cutting at different angles, marked by receding lines of ancient chestnut trees and oaks. A narrow water runnel, alongside the road, is gurgling softly, its banks a tangle of watercress and ferns, its clear flow looking very cold.

This is the heart of the French ecological utopia: a village (imaginary, of course) named Vignac, around the year 2020, somewhere along the banks of the Dordogne river, in rural south-central France. But it's not what it appears. It is not a piece of France's past, a quaint vacation-spot for Dutch or British tourists seeking a break from the frenetic pace of London or Rotterdam. This is no backwater: not anymore.

Behind one of the barns of a nearby farmhouse, you see the glint of sunlight on a satellite dish. A tractor is working the field up ahead—silently: it's an electric tractor, powered by a zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell. The only sound it makes comes from the steel cutting blades as they turn up the loam; the only exhaust it leaves behind is an invisible vapor of pure water. You look more closely: there's a man plodding behind the tractor, inspecting the furrows as he walks. And the tractor cab is empty: it's going by itself! The farmer has all his fields mapped on a program that's linked through his computer to a Global Positioning Satellite, accurate down to two centimeters: the computer is running the tractor, adjusting for variations in soil quality and density as the machine advances. The farmer looks up as you ride by, and watches you, but does not wave until you raise your hand in greeting.

You approach Vignac. The first thing you notice is the solar panels on the southwest side of all the roofs; they catch the sunlight in little striations and rainbows. The next thing you notice is the quiet. People moving to and fro, bicycles, a car here and there, one truck—but all electric, all silent. As you come closer you hear a clamor of children playing: it's recess at the elementary school.

A small round blue sign by the road says "Bienvenue à Vignac," and beneath, in smaller letters, "Commune d'Europe."

Down the main street, which is lined with tall elms, you see a fountain splashing in the main square. To the left is a long three-story stone building with a logo on it: Vignac Logiciels, known throughout the world more simply as "VL," one of the leading innovators in the global software industry. The company has more than ten thousand employees, but only three hundred work here in the administrative center. The others all work at home (all over Europe) and "telecommute" by computer for most of their daily business. VL's stock was up 14 percent last year, and all employees, from janitors to managers, receive annual stock options and profit-sharing.

Bicycles. Everywhere. Leaning against trees, parked in racks, small ones, tall ones, high-tech racers, black clunkers that look like they date from the 1940s, funny-looking three-wheeled contraptions with large wicker baskets behind the seat. (The baskets are another local specialty. Renowned for their lightness and durability, they are highly prized all over Europe.) As you make your way down the main street, a young woman on a bike whizzes out from a narrow cross-street and nearly collides with you. RingRing! She sounds off at you with her handlebar bell, and before you can even react, she's gone. You look down: you're standing in a bike lane. Quickly you retreat to the sidewalk, walking your bike along.

The bicycle is the foundation of the transportation system here. If you need to go to the next village, Ceyrac, there's a bus every hour (with a large bike rack in the back). If you need to go farther, the train is best: there's a fast minitrain every two hours to the regional hub, Aurillac. From there you can get TGV connections all over Europe: Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Lyon in about one hour, Paris in four hours, London or Brussels in just under six. But it's expensive: the government keeps prices high, both to discourage unnecessary travel, and to pay for the significant costs of soundproofing and tree-planting along the rail lines. Students are given deep discounts on all rail fares, to encourage them to visit other cities and countries; and each household is allotted a sheaf of discounted (and nontransferable) tickets once a year. A similar set of rules applies to air travel: one trip per person per year on a heavily discounted basis, with extremely high prices after that. Within the quotas, travel is cheap and easy; above the quotas, travel is a luxury that few allow themselves.

Same goes for cars. That's why there are so few on the streets here. What with the purchase tax and the energy tax and the road tax and the luxury tax, a private car lies beyond the reach of most citizens. But this does not mean that people can't move around as they wish. Apart from the dense and efficient network of public transport, there are more flexible alternatives: cheap electric taxis in the big cities, and public loan cars in smaller towns and villages. The loan cars work very simply: you punch your address into a computer and order a car. A few minutes later someone drives up to your door with a publicly owned car—usually a mid-priced, sturdy, zero-emissions Peugeot, Citroën, or Renault. The delivery-person has his bike on a rack on the back; he scans your credit card and rides off toward the car depot. You get in and drive wherever you wish, paying a low tariff based on distance and time. Insurance is included in the price. (The tariff is heavily subsidized for trips up to 100 kilometers, using funds the government gets from the energy tax, road tax, and luxury tax.) When you're done with the car, you swipe your card on the dashboard reader, lock the doors, and walk away. The car automatically radios the dispatcher that it's ready for pick-up.

The only time this loan-car system comes under stress is during bad weather, when many would prefer to ride a car than a bike. But here the public transport system rises to the occasion: a special fleet of extra buses and minivans (all electric, of course) comes into service during these periods, passing down the streets every three minutes and servicing the entire town. Local public transport is swift, dependable, and completely free. So even during foul weather the demand for loan-cars remains manageable.

Now you come into the town square, still walking your bike. Trees. Steep sloping rooftops on the old surrounding buildings. A café, le Bar Sport, its tables spilling out onto the smooth cobbles of the square. Beautiful fountain, reflecting the sunlight. RingRing! An old lady barreling along on a three-wheeler swerves wildly to avoid you, then curses in local dialect as she continues off across the square. You look down: bike lane again. Meekly you make your way to one side. This is going to take some getting used to.

The stately neoclassical building across the square says "Mairie" on the front: Town Hall. People are going in and out, some in a hurry, talking on cell phones, others more leisurely, gesticulating in little groups. There's a bronze sculpture to one side of the building, a modernist design with lots of hoops and circles of different sizes. You go closer to have a look. The hoops are arranged concentrically, their angles offset like a model of the solar system's planetary orbits. Inside each metal ring you see an engraved word: "Citoyen" ("citizen") on the small central hoop, then "Vignac" on the next largest, then "Auvergne," "France," "Europe," and "Terre" on the successively larger circles. France abolished its Senate ten years ago, replacing it with a Chamber of Regions; represented in this new political body are eighteen territorial units that hark back to the time of Louis XIV, bearing names like Bretagne, Normandie, Languedoc, Auvergne, Gascogne, Savoie. The smaller départements, dating to French Revolutionary days, had come to be seen as artificial entities, bearing little relation to the historic and linguistic identity of France's regional cultures; they were dissolved, and their powers absorbed by the newly consolidated and invigorated regional governments. Many former functions of the central state, such as social welfare, health care, and aménagement du territoire, are now handled directly at the regional level as well.

If you were to ask a local resident where she feels the most allegiance, she might reply, "I am from the Auvergne, and I am a European." If pressed, she will acknowledge that she is very much French as well, but she will quickly add that her Frenchness is not as important as it used to be. What matters most now is the distinctiveness of her native region, the Auvergne, with its mountains and rivers, ancient traditions and vibrant contemporary cultural life. And of course her Europeanness, the sense of belonging to a unique heritage of literatures, values, and habits shared in common with other peoples of the continent's western reaches—the Italians, Spaniards, Dutch, Germans—even the English! "In some ways," she might tell you, "I have more in common with a Lombard woman, or a man from Salzburg, than I do with many Parisians—for the issues that confront us here in our daily lives are those of a rural and mountainous region, far removed from the concerns of those flatland city-dwellers."

But the people of Vignac—they call themselves les Vignacois—would laugh at the thought of being called "provincial." There is no such thing any more as "center" and "periphery"—at least not in the sense these terms used to mean. A man from Vignac gets up in the morning, skims through several electronic news sheets transmitted from editorial rooms in the regional capital of Clermont-Ferrand, from Paris or Frankfurt, from Los Angeles or Tokyo. He goes to work by computer, transacting business from continent to continent, speaking the universal language of English. He listens to music beamed in from Mombasa or New Orleans, St. Petersburg or Buenos Aires. He follows with interest the political developments in Indonesia, Sicily, or Chile. And then he comes back to the present horizon, here in Vignac, meeting a couple friends in the neighborhood café to discuss the upcoming mayoral election.

On the front of the Town Hall, carved into the marble pediment, you see the familiar slogan of the French Revolution: Liberté, √égalité, Fraternité. But underneath, in characters mimicking the same neoclassical style, there is a new trio of words: Responsabilité, Identité, Solidarité. You're just beginning to ponder these terms when a brouhaha erupts from behind the café: people arguing, angrily yelling. Sounds serious. You make your way over. Clusters of men and women, arms waving. They keep pointing at the ground: then you smile. It's a game of boules. One wiry old man in a beret appears to be claiming his boule is closest to the tiny target ball. A short-haired young woman taps her head: "Ça va pas, non?" ("You crazy or something?"). A paunchy fellow with a huge handlebar moustache tries to intervene, but they brush him aside. The wiry fellow gets out his string and re-measures. Tense silence. Smugly he holds up the string. The woman heads back to the throwing line, grumbling. She turns and takes aim. The others look on, intense. Her body swings, the boule flies, a long slow arc, landing with a metallic Tchac! right on the wiry man's boule, sending it flying and taking its place. Grins all round, a scowl from the wiry man. The woman tries unsuccessfully not to look triumphant.

What strikes you suddenly is the composition of these boules players. They're not the usual assembly of crusty village old-timers. These are young people and old, men and women. There's also a young Arab-looking man among them—Algerian perhaps. What you're seeing here is the result of the twenty-five-hour work week: people with time on their hands, time to fish, to paint, to read (and write) books, to play boules on a sunny weekday morning. With more people spending less time at their jobs, unemployment has come down to 2 percent nationwide, and is almost nil here in Vignac. The vast majority of workers declare themselves well satisfied with this new arrangement of their labor time, happy to trade a decline in income for the time to live richer lives. Those who prefer to work longer (and earn more) are free to do so, taking on extra jobs as they see fit. But statisticians have shown that, although the number of hours worked by each citizen has gone down 37 percent from the old forty-hour week, most people are still taking home about 80 percent of their former full-time pay. The reason for the discrepancy lies in two factors: the increased productivity of a well-rested and highly motivated workforce, and the fact that declining unemployment has allowed the government to reduce payroll taxes, which in turn has allowed businesses to pass on the tax savings to employees in the form of proportionately higher salaries.

As you turn away from the boules game, you spy a buffet counter inside the café. The strenuous ride into town has made you hungry: you lean your bike against a tree and head inside. Amazing display of foods, a cornucopia of fresh vegetables and salads and terrines and patés and wizened little salamis. To one side an entire section with nothing but cheeses: round, square, dry, creamy, peppery, ash-covered, goat, sheep, cow, bright white fromage frais, yellowed fusty-looking Rocquefort. Long fresh-smelling baguettes sticking out of baskets like floral arrangements. Small carafes of the house white, chilled and sweating. The barman beckons you to help yourself, which you gladly do, taking a full tray out to the breezeway tables under a flowering canopy of wisteria. Once you get started you find the food even more delicious than it looked.

Yet this is not surprising either, because the quality of food has become not just a question of lifestyles here in the Auvergne, but a hot political issue as well. The French have long complained about the creeping advance of "la mal-bouffe américaine" ("lousy American-style eats"), but it was only in recent years that they finally mustered the political will to break away from the underlying agro-economic system that had come to dominate their country during the trente glorieuses. When the change came, it was swift and drastic. The French government imposed hefty tariffs on agricultural goods imported from abroad. Then it slapped a stiff "ecological tax" on domestic agribusiness, forcing the large food producers to pay high prices for the fertilizers and chemicals they spread on their fields. The proceeds from the ecological tax went to subsidize small farmers who produced high-quality farm goods in a manner consistent with ecological sustainability. A new "transportation tax" forced food distributors to rethink the way they shipped products to market: they now had a strong incentive to encourage the local consumption of locally produced farm goods.

The result, over time, was nothing short of revolutionary. Many young persons, observing the small farmers' growing prosperity, eagerly made the move out of cities and back onto the land. The desolate legacy of the exode rural gradually reversed itself, as remote ghost towns slowly came back to life, the schools filling back up with children, the post office opening again, the café, the bakery, entire local economies resurrected. As the French came to re-inhabit their ancient provinces, they gradually rediscovered the meaning of the word terroir— that ineffable word that conveys so many things at once: a plot of farmed land, a particular micro-climate in a vineyard, the space between two crumbling stone walls tucked away in the corner of a valley, the impression of a particular stand of poplars along a ridge, a place with a history all its own, flavored by the inflections of the local patois, the names of forgotten ancestors, the comings and goings since Roman times, a familiar nuance in the taste of the water, a unique spot in one's childhood memories. All this (and more) in one term: terroir.

Implicit here was a slow, time-worn process, spontaneous yet cumulative, of putting down genuine local roots: to ride your bike down a lane and see the cows whose milk your children drank at breakfast; to buy a chunk of cheese and know that the person who made it went to grammar school with your mother; to drink a glass of wine and think of walks in nearby vineyards with your sweetheart twenty years ago, vineyards where the very vines that made this wine were already growing. All these things, which had once seemed like vanished characteristics of a bygone era, turned out to be perfectly compatible with technological modernity: but only with a particular kind of modernity, shaped and nurtured by a concrete set of political and economic choices.

The transformation did not come without a price, of course. France had to break with its free-market partners in the European Union and GATT over the imposition of agricultural tariffs. The politicians in Paris had to endure howls of protest from the powerful lobbies of agribusiness. As in the time of General de Gaulle, the French were once again accused of selfishly wrecking the delicate structures of international commerce. But in the end, it was not as hard as one might have thought. An astonishingly large number of Germans, Italians, or Danes—and many Americans as well—actually regarded the French move away from agribusiness as a sensible and even courageous act. There were many who felt that they, too, had precious terroirs worth protecting, in the countrysides of Bavaria, Tuscany, or California. As time went by (and after the French government agreed to compensate its trade partners for the lost agricultural exports), many other nations gradually followed suit with similar policies of their own. Eventually a new international system of agriculture began to emerge, a system in which market forces still operated, but in which social and ecological priorities played a far greater role in shaping policy.

You get up from your table, a little giddy from the wine. A man in overalls is approaching down the sidewalk on a rusty old clunker of a bike. Down the side street you see a young woman coming fast with an infant in the basket on her handlebars. They can't see each other. Looks like a sure-thing collision: you start to yell out but it's too late: they both swerve, he to the right, she to the left, and somehow miss each other. RingRing! RingRing! (Angrily, from both of them.) And they're gone.

After a strong espresso at the bar, you head back out to the square to get your bike. Time for another ride into the countryside: a visit to Vignac's famous wind farm. Down a side street, past the old church, out the medieval gates into the fields. The plots are small and multicolored, showing the signs of intensive farming: beets, carrots, lettuce, corn, kale, potatoes, mustard, lavender, cabbage. Some other kind of purple vegetable you can't identify. Suddenly an electric motorbike veers around the bend ahead of you, going much too fast: two farm kids in overalls, their hair flopping in the wind, zoom past you on their way into town. You pedal harder, half indignant at their "cheating" with electric horsepower, half wishing you had one of those mopeds yourself. Especially as you round the turn and see the steep switchbacks of the hill up ahead. Along the crest, through the trees, you can already make out the white shapes of wind turbines.

France has begun phasing out nuclear power altogether, with the goal of reducing it to zero by the year 2050. In order to do this, it has had to continue relying heavily on imported oil and natural gas (as well as domestic coal) for heating homes and generating electricity; these fossil fuels still make up a whopping 60 percent of French energy consumption today, in 2020. Try as they might, the French have only been able to bring about a ten percent decline in their nation's total energy use since the year 2000; their continuing efforts at conservation and efficiency are aimed at further reductions of 25 percent by 2050, when the last nuclear plant finally shuts down. At that point, if their projections hold good, France's "energy pie" will look something like this: 45 percent renewable energy sources (solar, wind, hydroelectric, tidal, geothermal, biomass); 25 percent natural gas; 10 percent coal; 20 percent imported oil. In total, they will be consuming roughly one-third less energy each year than they had been in 2000.

This result disappoints many ecological activists, who had hoped to convert France into a "100 percent renewable-energy economy" by the mid-century. Most of them, however, had never actually sat down to do the numbers: renewable energy sources, despite their continuing technological advances, devour vast quantities of precious space. For example, to generate the same amount of electricity as a single mid-sized nuclear power plant, contemporary solar receptors would have to cover a swath of land one kilometer wide and 100 kilometers long! By the year 2100, therefore, as Third World energy consumption continues to grow, and world fossil fuel reserves start tapering off, the French will face a difficult choice: either to force upon themselves a truly draconian reduction of their energy consumption, or to bite the bullet and return to some type of nuclear combustion. Unless, of course, the scientific deus ex machina intervenes in the meantime, offering some revolutionary new technology for clean energy.

Machine/Symbol: The Wind Turbine

But what a strange new world the renewable energies are already creating! You come up the hill, panting from the climb, and stand in awe before the Vignac wind farm in all its vastness. All along the crest, to the hazy edge of sight, and along the neighboring ridges, and halfway down the Vallée de la Haspe below (chosen for its strong prevailing wind patterns), a dense white forest of tall fibreglass towers, their huge three-bladed rotors placidly turning in the breeze. The whole landscape seems to be crawling, everywhere at once, with a surreal, slow-motion, palpitation of white. A weird low rumbling Whoosh fills the sky: the sound of 1,700 rotors catching the valley's airstream. The sound does not seem to affect the flocks of cows that graze in the grasses below the towering shapes. This is one of the largest wind farms in France, apart from those in the Pyrenees and in the huge Atlantic and Channel offshore installations. It produces about the same output per year as a nuclear power plant or a gas-fired electric station.

The world's first known windmills were developed in Persia around 200 B.C. for grinding grain. By the mid-fourteenth century the Dutch had become the world's leaders in the technology, using their famous four-bladed design to power pumps for moving water in the fields. The first wind-powered electric generator was built in 1891 by a Danish inventor named Poul de Cour, one of the pioneers of modern aerodynamics. In the late twentieth century the technology took another leap forward, after the 1973 oil shock rendered alternative energy sources more attractive. By the 1990s the Danes had taken a commanding lead, capturing fully 50 percent of the world's wind-energy market—a market that grew during that decade at the remarkable rate of 50 to 60 percent every year. Indeed, by the year 2000 fully 14 percent of Denmark's electricity was wind-generated.

Here at Vignac in 2020, the French have tacitly acknowledged the continuing commercial and technical leadership of the Danes, having adopted one of the largest Danish models for the turbines along the ridges and in the valley below. The machine, which looks appealingly simple on the outside, is actually a highly sophisticated piece of technology. Each tower is 71 meters tall, with rotors 63 meters in diameter (this puts each of the three giant blades at about 31 meters, or 101 feet, in length). The rotor revolves at between 30 and 40 rpm, turning a geared shaft that powers a generator, producing 1,500 kilowatts of electricity. A computer in the nacelle behind the rotor gathers data several times per second from wind sensors, micro-aligning the rotor assembly to keep it facing straight into the wind, continually adjusting the pitch of the blades to maximize their efficiency. At the same time the computer also monitors the quality of the electricity output, adjusting various generator functions to keep the electric flow clean and smooth.

The three-bladed turbine is not as efficient as other designs with more blades, but it has the advantage of being able to withstand the extreme weather conditions that it will encounter during its twenty years (120,000 hours) of continuous operation. (By comparison, an average automobile's useful lifespan is 5,000 hours.) The blades themselves are the end-result of many years of aerodynamic research. They curve slightly along a complex gradient to maximize their "bite" on the air all along their length; their back edges are shaped so as to minimize turbulence and noise; their tips have hydraulic vanes that instantly adjust to shifting gusts and wind conditions.

This is, in a sense, the ultimate ecological machine. It is safe, clean, quiet, reliable, and powerful. It uses a plentiful resource that will not run out. Over its lifetime it will generate 80 times more energy than it takes to build, maintain, operate, dismantle, and recycle it. It produces a kilowatt of electricity for about the same cost as a coal-fired power plant fitted with smoke-scrubbing technology—but with zero emissions, negligible heat, and zero dependence on foreign fossil fuel suppliers. Compared to other alternative energy sources, it uses the least amount of land for each unit of electricity produced: about 400 times less than solar panels, about 40,000 times less than biofuel (wood, vegetable oils, and the like). Wind turbines, moreover, do not have to be huge and imposing like these at Vignac: they come in all shapes and sizes, adaptable to all manner of needs and applications. They are ideal for many parts of the Third World, where decentralized energy production is essential to meet the needs of remote and far-flung settlements. Finally, they create jobs—both in manufacturing them and in maintaining them over the long years of their service life.

One turbine can do many things. In one year it will produce about 5 million kilowatt-hours of electrical energy—enough to meet the needs of 2,200 households. Its energy can be used directly to power electrical devices, or in chemical plants to separate hydrogen out of water by electrolysis. The hydrogen can then be used in fuel cells to power cars, trucks, or ships. Hydrogen fuel cells can also power large regional electric generators on days when there is no wind, thus keeping the electric grid flowing even when the wind farms are becalmed. The only drawback of wind energy, compared to nuclear or fossil fuel energy, lies implicit in the sheer expanse of the wind farm here at Vignac: even though it is far more efficient than solar or biofuel energy, it still requires the creation of these "fibreglass forests" covering entire mountainsides and ridges.

This, indeed, can be seen as one of the underlying ironies of an environmentally oriented society: the shift to clean, renewable energy requires the creation of vast tracts of highly artificialized land (and sea) for the extraction of energy from the natural rhythms of the earth. To walk through a wind farm, among the grazing cows and shiny white towers, under the dizzying movement of a sky filled everywhere with gyrating blades, is to walk through a bizarrely futuristic landscape, something out of science fiction, far removed indeed from the ideals of any "return to nature." And yet, when you mention this to several people in Vignac, in the café later in the day, they shrug it off: "What's the alternative?" they ask. "Besides, if you want a real forest, we have a beautiful one just two kilometers away, on the other side of the river between here and Ceyrac."

The more philosophically minded among them reflect aloud about humankind's ability to reshape the world and to adapt to the "new nature" it has created. But it's the barman, following the conversation while he rinses glasses behind the counter, who cheerfully interrupts and sums it up most concisely: "We're like the cows: we get used to it!"
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Back down to the village, to visit the recycling plant—one of the most sophisticated in Europe, financed by a grant from the deep coffers of Vignac Logiciels. On the way, you see a man walking along the roadside, carrying a shotgun and a couple rabbits slung over his shoulder. Hunting, in this intensively green society? You pull over to talk to him. It turns out he's the vice-mayor, a representative of the small right-wing party known as "Chasse, Pêche, Nature, et Traditions" ("Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Traditions"). You ask to see his morning's catch, and he proudly shows you his two young hares, holding their limp heads up by the ears. Trying not to look at the bloody holes in their sides, you cast about for a question: "Is game plentiful around here?" He frowns and shakes his head. "They make it a nightmare for us," he complains. "They" means the regional government. Waving his hand in the direction of the neighboring valley, he explains that wolves and lynxes have been reintroduced into the forest of Verdolles, over the past few years, in the hope of re-establishing the full diversity of the region's ecosystem. Problem is, the new predators don't stay put within the wildlife preserves; they come out into the fields at night and catch rabbits, hedgehogs, pheasants, quail, you name it. Sometimes they wreak havoc in the local farmyards—and when a farmer shoots one of them, he gets slapped with a 5,000-Euro fine! The vice-mayor goes on for quite some time, getting worked up: the complicated seasonal restrictions, the hunting permits with their exorbitant surtax (which pays for game wardens to monitor the woodlands), the proliferating number of "protected species," the outrageous penalties for even small violations.

As politely as you can, you interrupt him, explaining that you have an appointment in the village (not technically true, but this fellow is looking like he's ready to go on for another forty-five minutes). You take off down the steep road, enjoying the wind and the turns.

Last time you were going this fast on your bike was three days ago, in Paris. Coming down the hill from Montmartre. It seems like ages. You had bought a Derain poster at the Musée d'Orsay that morning, and it fell off, in its cardboard tube, as you came down the bumpy street from the Place Pigalle. You braked as fast as you could, and a man picked it up and brought it to you. With a smile.

The Parisians still had a reputation for being rude, like New Yorkers—yet it really wasn't that way anymore. Paris had changed. With the twenty-five-hour work week, Parisians had enough time on their hands now to let go of the daily rush a bit. Not too much: just enough to smile and pick up a fallen package for someone.

Paris was smaller now. The population had peaked in 2003, at ten million (eight million in the suburbs, two in the central city); now it was down to five-and-a-half million (still two million in the central city). But the whole layout had changed—not dramatically, as in the time of Baron Haussmann, but subtly, profoundly. Today Paris was jokingly described by its residents as "a confederation of villages." Each historic district had its own local government with wide-ranging powers, its own public library and community cultural center, its own open-air markets, pedestrian zones, parks, and tree-lined squares where cafés overflowed onto the sidewalks. Bicycles everywhere, baby carriages, people milling about. And so few cars! The free electric buses and trams, free (and fast) métropolitaine, ubiquitous bike paths—coupled with the whopping Vehicle Tax that effectively tripled the cost of owning a car—had produced their effect in the space of less than five years. Seventy percent of the city's automobile owners gave up their vehicles, or kept them in free underground garages outside the city limits. The sudden absence of noise, along the Seine near Notre Dame, on a summer's evening, was downright disorienting—especially to the Parisians themselves. That background roar of traffic was simply gone, like lifting a veil of auditory grime. In its place, punctuating the quiet, one could hear human voices, the occasional bicycle bell, a dog barking, teenagers skateboarding, the sad whistle of a passing bateau-mouche, the church bells tolling Vespers in Saint-Sulpice—even birds singing! Paris was definitely still Paris: the food, the night life, the music, shops, students, artists' exhibitions, bickering intellectuals. But for someone who had been visiting (and loving) this city over many decades, it was as if the clock had suddenly turned back to the Belle Epoque. Paris had become more "itself" than ever.

Which is not to say that the Parisians—and the French more broadly—still did not find plenty of things to complain about. They groused about high taxes and sclerotic government bureaucracies. They expressed disgust at the machinations, and periodic revelations of corruption, among politicians. They worried about street crime and drug abuse, which continued to pose serious problems, especially in the suburbs of major cities. Some accused the government of having gone much too far with this "Green Adventure," while others bitterly denounced it for not having gone far enough.

What was striking, though, was the difference in tone, compared with the France of a few decades past. One sensed a mood of hope, of cautious optimism, that had not existed before: people seemed to feel that their society was on the move, in ways that they could actually have a chance of influencing and shaping. Of all the changes that had come over this nation, this was certainly one of the most significant: the renewed sense of civic involvement, the belief that even the most intractable social and economic problems could be worked on, with a real possibility of making headway.

Your bike bumps over the cobblestones of Vignac's medieval streets as you coast back through the ancient stone gate and head for the village center. In the main square, you pause by the fountain to catch your breath and splash some cool water on your face and neck. A busload of Japanese tourists is unloading on the other side of the square, under the trees. They immediately begin standing in little rows and threesomes to take each other's pictures.

Three Arab women in Muslim veils are sitting on a shady bench near the café, their children playing a variant of hopscotch on the sidewalk. From behind their veils you hear them chatting and laughing with each other. One turns to her daughter and calls out in what must be Arabic. The daughter answers in French.

You ask a passing man how to get to the recycling plant. He explains: it's on the other side of the Dordogne river, about ten minutes' ride beyond the bridge. You thank him, then sit down again, feeling lazy. You look on as the man (a white European) continues across the square and approaches the Arab women. He stands in front of them, and they begin conversing animatedly. The children stop playing and come listen. He gesticulates, telling some kind of a story. Finally he finishes with a grand sweep of his arm, and they all burst out laughing. The women move aside, and he sits down on the bench beside them.

To heck with the recycling plant. You decide to stay here, in the sunshine by the splashing fountain, and watch the locals.

You've seen quite a few people in Vignac who look like immigrants from former French colonies. There were two grey-haired black men in the bar, wearing business suits, and several Arabs in a group of youths who walked by earlier. For all its remoteness, the Auvergne has been a leader in the national policy of "Undoing Colonialism." The policy operates at many levels: a long-term program to facilitate the assimilation of immigrants into French economic and social institutions, while encouraging them to retain their distinctive cultural traditions; a new multicultural orientation in French schools, emphasizing "respect for difference" as a core value; and a dramatic escalation of aid to developing countries, orchestrated through the European Union and United Nations. The change hasn't come easily, for certain aspects of immigrant culture—attitudes toward women, for example—provide endless sources of friction and debate. But the overall policy is there, nonetheless, setting the terms for this slow, sometimes painful, sometimes astonishingly beautiful, encounter between "Frenchness" and the other cultures of the world.

A majority of French citizens now believes that "sustainable development"—while it certainly begins at home—will fail unless it takes hold globally. Hence they have accepted to tax themselves heavily, devoting fully 10 percent of GDP every year to the promotion of ecological balance and social justice throughout the world. The goal is fourfold: to reduce world population to two billion by the year 2200; to eradicate poverty and illiteracy; to adopt clean technology and agricultural practices in all nations; to move toward a "steady-state" global economy—an economy of continuing technological and commercial innovation, but of stable equilibrium in its impact on the biosphere. This arduous agenda, long derided as utopian among mainstream economists, has now received official endorsement at all levels of government; more importantly, it has apparently hit home among ordinary citizens. "Small is Beautiful"—the slogan that seemed revolutionary when E. F. Schumacher coined it in the 1970s—has become a commonplace in the mentalities of today: smaller cities and towns, smaller farms, smaller circles of daily social life—but all linked together in loose, flexible, far-flung networks. The fact that "Small" can only be coherently sought on a global scale, in a systematic effort spanning complex chains of cause and effect that reverberate throughout the planet—this has become one of the founding paradoxes of contemporary political economy.

The Arab women and the man get up from their bench, calling the children. They amble off together. The square is quiet in the afternoon light.

For no apparent reason you feel an impulse to go down by the river. You get on your bike and pedal across the square, picking up speed, letting the breeze flutter through your shirt as you enter the tree-lined main street.

One of the Japanese tourists, aiming a camera at his friends, suddenly backs out from between two elms and steps into the bike lane just ahead of you.

No time to think. You swerve hard, almost grazing the back of his feet.

Glancing over your shoulder, you glimpse his startled smile. RingRing!

The wind rushing on your face.

Life is good.
>>>
Our brief tour of Vignac is over. But we can find implicit here, in this imaginary village with its wind turbines and bicycles, some of the tough choices that faced real French citizens during the second half of the twentieth century. Vignac, in one respect, clearly represents "the road not taken." And yet this is not entirely accurate: for certain important features of this village had indeed begun to take shape, albeit in a partial and inchoate way, in the real history of France between 1960 and 2000.

The green activists and theorists of the 1970s—Gorz, Dumont, Illich, Charbonneau—were true revolutionaries. Although they eschewed violent methods of social change, they nonetheless advocated a clean break from "productivism," a total metamorphosis of industrial civilization. Yet in the end their hopes were frustrated by the remarkable staying-power of mass consumerism—the resilient ideology of the trente glorieuses, the eager millions happily bowing to the god of "More." Most French citizens, to be sure, found certain aspects of the greens' ideas highly appealing: they earnestly agreed that the human impact on nature needed urgent attention. Yet when the chips were down, they balked at the prospect of actually giving up their own cars, elaborate appliances, spacious homes, foreign vacations, and other pleasant appurtenances of modernity's cornucopia.

So they hedged. On the one hand, the French sincerely pushed for the widespread implementation of environmentalist practices, sometimes even making considerable sacrifices and extending their efforts well beyond the superficial level. On the other hand, they stubbornly refused to go all the way into a systematic application of green changes like those that characterized Vignac: if the costs or drawbacks seemed too drastic, they recoiled, falling back on older and more familiar patterns of behavior. The result was an enormously complex tangle of ad hoc solutions, arising each day in a thousand workplaces, homes, and public institutions: here a half-measure, there a full-blown green experiment; here a superficial and palliative effort, there a well-organized and amply funded environmentalist program.

By the year 2000, the cumulative effect of all these ad hoc changes had brought into being a social system that could no longer be dismissed, as some embittered greens tended to do, with the disdainful epithet of "écologie-spectacle," a meaningless "ecology show." It amounted to much more than that, for the whole ethos of the society had been affected: patterns of consumption, manufacturing, earning a living, leisure, travel, education. True, the full-scale revolutionary transformation had failed to materialize: Vignac remained but a dream. Yet it was also undeniable that France had become a substantially different place, a place in which the "green factor" now played a part—whether superficial or profound—virtually everywhere.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 141-57 of The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 by Michael Bess, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.


Michael Bess
The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000
©2003, 392 pages, 4 halftones, 4 line drawings
Cloth $48.00 ISBN: 0-226-04417-3
Paper $18.00 ISBN: 0-226-04418-1

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Light-Green Society.


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