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  • Natural Interests: The Contest over Environment in Modern France by Caroline Ford
  • Cindy Ermus
Natural Interests: The Contest over Environment in Modern France, by Caroline Ford. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2016. x, 281 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

Contrary to widely held views, French interests in the protection of the natural environment emerged much earlier than the second half of the twentieth century. This is one of the central arguments in Caroline Ford's recent study on the development of French environmentalism. Previous studies have argued that concerns for the environment emerged relatively late in France — after WWII — and that the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries represented what Michael Bess has termed the "prehistory of ecological awareness," rather than a pivotal period in its own right. Ford observes that this view, based on a narrower definition of environmentalism, fails to take into account the wealth of historical sources that point to significant environmental initiatives, and to the emergence of what she calls an "environmental consciousness," between the late eighteenth century and the 1930s. By tracing the development of ideas, models, and anxieties about nature and the environment in this time, and applying a broader definition of environmentalism not limited by modern-day interpretations of green activism or by rigid understandings of nature or environmental awareness, Ford makes a successful case for placing the beginnings of French environmentalism, as such, in the eighteenth century. [End Page 349]

In the first chapter of Natural Interests, Ford traces the earlier origins of French concern for the fate of the environment to the work of Francçois-Antoine Rauch. Known by some as the "founding father of French ecological thought" (12), he is nevertheless largely neglected in the literature on environmental history and the history of science. Yet his thoughts on environmental degradation and climate fluctuations brought on by frequent floods, deforestation, and imperial expansion would gain currency over the nineteenth century, and serve as the subjects of public debate and discussion.

The focus in the opening of chapter two remains in the late eighteenth century as Ford explores the undoing of Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Forest Ordinance of 1669 — the first to codify forest law in France — and the introduction of new legislation to protect French forests during and after the French Revolution. From there, Ford looks at the work of contemporary thinkers and commentators, including Jean-Baptiste Rougier de la Bergerie, Alexandre Moreau de Jonnès, and Antoine-Ceésar Becquerel, to trace the growth of ideas concerning the links between deforestation and other issues, such as climate change, public health, and flooding in nineteenth-century France.

Chapter three sees a logical transition to the subject of environmental catastrophe. Specifically, it considers shifting understandings of disasters, especially floods, over the course of the nineteenth century in France. Of particular interest to this reviewer was her discussion on the increasing involvement of the state in flood prevention and management, especially after the great flood of 1856 under Emperor Napoleon III. At this time, certain new mechanisms were in place, such as the telegraph and a more extensive system of railways, which facilitated a more rapid response on the part of the state to the constant disastrous floods that plagued France between 1740 and 1910. These developments also led to increased public concern over the causes of these disastrous events, and how they could best be prevented from happening.

The next four chapters look at the development of nature and landscape protection initiatives in France and its colonies from the nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. Chapter four considers how the concept of patrimoine, or heritage, influenced new calls for the preservation of "natural monuments" that characterized France's aesthetic and historic landscapes. Artists and writers of the Romantic movement, including painters of the Barbizon school, seemed to lead the way in calls to safeguard such natural treasures as the forest of Fontainebleau. These appeals proved significant as they lead to later legislation for the protection of natural sites. Chapter five looks at the internationalization of these initiatives, and the consequent creation of national parks and reserves beyond France, in other parts of Europe and the European colonies. Of note in this chapter is...


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