restricted access Public Order and Privilege: Eighteenth-Century French Roots of Environmental Regulation
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Technology and Culture 43.1 (2002) 1-28



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Public Order and Privilege
Eighteenth-Century French Roots of Environmental Regulation

Pierre Claude Reynard


Mine owners have long had to defend the legitimacy of their often very disturbing activities. In 1731, François Blumenstein, the well-connected owner of a vast concession and operator of several lead mines in the French Lyonnais, tried to persuade his irate neighbors that local crops were being harmed by a drought rather than by the effluent streaming out of his works. Stretching a seemingly logical idea, he argued that if the water used to wash lead ore were toxic, all local springs would also be contaminated, because underground streams had much greater contact with the same ore. Carried away by his enthusiasm, he asserted that mine tailings were virgin land, requiring only proper care to yield bountiful crops in a few years! 1

Behind Blumenstein's fanciful claims stood a bitter contest, familiar to the eighteenth century, over the effect of mining ventures and other enterprises on local environments. In a densely settled country where the condition of land and water was a matter of survival for most people, the development of manufacturing and extractive industries multiplied the occasions for disputes. This article turns to the records of such confrontations to shed light on the origins of environmental regulation of economic activity. In so doing, it seeks to partly bridge the gap that exists between our understanding of the history of environmental thought and attitudes, rooted in classical, medieval, and early modern intellectual legacies, and our knowledge of the emergence, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of what came to be known as environmentalism or ecological consciousness, [End Page 1] a philosophy resting on an appreciation of the intrinsic value of nature that eventually underwrote significant advances toward the protection of the environment. We will consider first the historiographical context, and then the Napoleonic decree that can be seen as the first national attempt at curbing the excesses of industrial pollution, before turning to the stage set in the opening lines of this introduction, where entrepreneurs, their neighbors, and Old Regime authorities confronted each other over many, often acute, instances of pollution. Our analysis of the mechanisms developed to manage these conflicts will be structured around early modern conceptions of public order, privilege, and expertise.

Environmental History: A Field in Formation

Environmental history remains a young field of inquiry, marked by important discontinuities in interests and practices. For instance, the evident failure of Europeans to prevent or even contain the degradation of many natural habitats during the first century of industrialization has led to a sharp distinction between the emergence of effective environmental regulation after this traumatic period and an indifferent or even reckless past. 2 Scholarly inquiries into the origins of the mechanisms intended to mitigate the damages associated with many industries assert that, prior to the nineteenth century, damages were contained mostly by the limited scale of mining and manufacturing activities, and that, until well into the twentieth [End Page 2] century, the parties to such affairs were hardly concerned with the integrity of the natural environment but simply sought redress for injuries to people and properties. It has also been convincingly argued that the rise of laissez-faire policies favorable to entrepreneurial initiatives could only deter critics of new production processes. Furthermore, it appears that scientific and technological advances enhanced this bias. Science could rarely identify pollution sources positively; rather, it was more successfully used to demonstrate the multiplicity of possible offenders, thus precluding legal action. At the same time, a growing familiarity with technological advances further harmed the interests of complainants by holding out the promise of at least a partial remedy--but rarely delivering. 3

This polarized vision of the environmental history of the last millennium has also been supported by investigations into the origins of ecological thought. Although fond of long perspectives and continuities, historians of ideas are unlikely to offer precise links between the very different periods that they study. Those who investigate the legacies of...


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