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The Light-Green Society

Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000

The accelerating interpenetration of nature and culture is the hallmark of the new "light-green" social order that has emerged in postwar France, argues Michael Bess in this penetrating new history. On one hand, a preoccupation with natural qualities and equilibrium has increasingly infused France’s economic and cultural life. On the other, human activities have laid an ever more potent and pervasive touch on the environment, whether through the intrusion of agriculture, industry, and urban growth, or through the much subtler and more well-intentioned efforts of ecological management.

The Light-Green Society limns sharply these trends over the last fifty years. The rise of environmentalism in the 1960s stemmed from a fervent desire to "save" wild nature-nature conceived as a qualitatively distinct domain, wholly separate from human designs and endeavors. And yet, Bess shows, after forty years of environmentalist agitation, much of it remarkably successful in achieving its aims, the old conception of nature as a "separate sphere" has become largely untenable. In the light-green society, where ecology and technological modernity continually flow together, a new hybrid vision of intermingled nature-culture has increasingly taken its place.

Read an excerpt.

387 pages | 4 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2003

Biological Sciences: Ecology

Culture Studies

Earth Sciences: Environment

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: European History, History of Ideas

Sociology: Social Change, Social Movements, Political Sociology


"This is a very readable academic work. The author places happenings in France in a broader context of environmentalism in general. . . . Even those with a cursory knowledge of modern French history will find this not to be a huge handicap."

Christine Taft | E-Streams

"Bess’s well-researched, elegantly written book should help put France back on the environmentalists’ map. Bess documents how the French have made strides in improving environmental quality. . . . More interestingly, he argues that their humanistic traditions provide conceptual resources for an attractive, generally applicable model of responsible environmental management. . . . Future historians will want to turn to Bess’s fine account of France’s environmental choices to understand what went wrong--or right."

Kerry H. Whiteside | Environmental Values

"[Bess] provides a novel paradigm through which historians can consider the evolution of environmental policies in France and other industrial countries. . . . One of the few English-language histories on the French environmental movement. As such, it is a must read."

W. Brian Newsome | Canadian Journal of History

"This is an exciting and original examination of the knotty history of environmentalism and how it has permeated every aspect of French political and cultural life. . . . Bess’s style is engaging and conversational. This is a tour de force of environmental history. . . . An outstanding scholarly contribution to the relationship between technology, culture, and the green environment."

Rosemary Wakeman | Technology & Society

"Through its hitorical subject and methodology, The Light-Green Society demonstrates how nature and technology are critical to understanding the politics, culture, and society of modern France."

Sara B. Pritchard | French Politics, Culture & Society

"Bess’s philosophical training gives this perennial interrogation a rather Pascalian turn, offering a none-too threatening wager--this light-green France may well represent the shape of things to come."

Pierre Claude Reynard | Journal of Social History

"A much-needed environmental history of France during the late twentieth century, this book covers the growth of the country’s environmentalist organizations, as well as their effects on French consumers and policy-makers. . . . The best kind of social history."

Edwar Ousselin | French Review

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part I - The Postwar Acceleration
1. Nukes, Concordes, and Anxiety
The French "Special Relationship" with High Technology
Ambivalent Modernity
Europe’s Nuclear Macho? Perceptions of France as a Relatively "Ungreen" Nation
The Postwar Boom: Continuity vs. Discontinuity
Technological Darwinism
The Great Renewal
Machine/Symbol: The Concorde
The Role of Nuclear Technology within the National Discourse of Anxiety
French Perceptions of the Rainbow Warrior Affair
2. Endangered Species: The French Peasant
The Rural Future: A Key Issue for the French Greens
Machine/Symbol: Le Cheval Vapeur (Farm tractor, or "Steam-Horse")
The Cultural Backlash: In Search of a New Rural Balance
Territorial Balancing
French Uniqueness, French Ordinariness
Part II - The Rise of Ecology
3. The Prehistory fo Ecological Awareness
Environmentalism and Ecology: Working Definitions
Nineteenth-Century Precursors in France: From "Acclimatation" to Conservation
From Unity to Beauty: The Early Twentieth Century
1945-1960: Warnings Unheeded
4. The Unexpected Trajectory of Environmentalist Success
1960-1974: Taking it to a New Level
1974-1981: Eco-Quixote vs. Electricité de France
Machine/Symbol: The Nuclear Reactor
1981-1989: Entering the Political Fray
1989-present: "Tous Verts!"—"We are all environmentalists!"
5. Nuances of Dark Green
The Intellectual Horizons of French Environmentalism
A Revolution against the Industrial Revolution
The Two Main Currents of French Green Thought
Social Environmentalism: Four Interlocking Agendas
What Is Distinctive about the French Green Visions?
6. What Might It Actually Look Like?
The French Green Utopia: A Guided Tour
Machine/Symbol: The Wind Turbine
Part III - A Society Goes Light-Green
7. The Dual Nature of Light-Green
Nature Penetrating into Society—Machine/Symbol: The Train à Grande Vitesse
Society Penetrating into Nature—Machine/Symbol: Brittany’s Pointe du Raz
8. Greening the Mainstream Consumer
Ironic Twists of a Partial Revolution
Surface Change and Deep Change
Back to Nature
Eco-consumerism: The Overflowing Cornucopia of "Less is More"
Eco-labels and "Eco-Friendliness"
9. The Environmentalization of the State
Anti-statism, More Government
The Layer Cake of Green Governance: Six Levels, Three Modes
Key State Actors, Key Legal Turning-Points
10. Industrialists as Ecologists
Factories and Big Business: New Constraints, New Strategies
ISO-14000 and Eco-Audit: The Case of an Industrial Pioneer
The New Eco-Professions: Expansion in the Tertiary Sector
11. Elusive Sustainability
A Territorial Balance Sheet
The State of the French Territory: An Ecocentric Perspective
The Anthropocentric Perspective: Is the Light-Green Society Sustainable as a Habitat for Humans?
Part IV - The Future of Nature in a Light-Green World: Long-Term Global Implications
12. The Light-Green Horizon
Broader Implications of the French Story
Humans and Nature on a Shrinking Earth
13. Artificialization and Its Discontents
The Rising Tide of Artifice
Machine/Symbol: Biotechnologies
La Gestion du Vivant: The "Management of All Living Things"
14. The Enduring Mirage of Wilderness
Philosophies of Nature for a Technologically Intensive Age
If Not the Dualism of Nature and Culture, then What?
The Case for Hybridity: A World of Intertwinings
The Case for Dualism: Wilderness as the Irreducible Other
From Wilderness to Wildness: A Paradoxical Synthesis
15. The Shifting Landscape of Tame and Wild
Nature Penetrating into Society: Emerging Connectedness
Society Penetrating into Nature: Ambiguous Control
16. A Cosmic Wilderness?
Cousteau’s Grandchildren Swim the Rings of Saturn
The Age of Ecology Arrives (But it is not what anyone expected)
A Planet of Paysage?


Society for French Historical Studies: David H. Pinkney Prize
Honorable Mention

American Society for Environmental History: George Perkins Marsh Prize for Environmental History

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