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

Cover of The Light-Green SocietyMy second book was The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (U. of Chicago Press, 2003), which won the George Perkins Marsh prize of the American Society for Environmental History (2004) and an Honorable Mention from the Pinkney Prize committee of the Society for French Historical Studies (2004).

For an excerpt from the book click here.

For book reviews of The Light Green Society please scroll further down this page.

This book assesses the growing impact of ecological ideas on the totality of French society and culture: the economy, the state, the habits and expectations of consumers, the changing perceptions of humanity’s place within nature.  The story of French environmentalism, I argue, can be plausibly read in two sharply divergent ways — as a narrative of success, in which green ideas gradually came to permeate the mainstream culture and economy of this nation; and as a narrative of defeat, in which virtually all the more radical aspects of the original green vision were trimmed down or jettisoned by a tenaciously consumerist population whose attachment to technological modernity ran deep.  Hence the term “light-green,” designed to connote the profound ambivalence that has characterized this new type of social order.

Although in some respects the case of France is unique, I argue that the emergence of the light-green society in this nation also followed a more general pattern, readily discernible in most industrialized democracies throughout the world.  The central feature of this new social order consisted in a blurring of the age-old boundary between the “social” and the “natural.”  On one side, a preoccupation with natural qualities and natural equilibrium increasingly infused the nation’s economic and cultural life: from eco-friendly appliances to organic vegetables, from green tourism to anti-pollution laws.  On the other side, human activities laid an ever more potent and pervasive touch on the land — whether through the heavy-handed intrusions of agriculture, industry, and urban growth, or through the much subtler and more well-intentioned efforts of “ecological management,” an increasingly widespread mode of intervention in the territory as the decades went by.  Nature blurring into society, society blurring into nature: this accelerating interpenetration became the hallmark of the light-green social order.  A paradox, indeed: 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, 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 The Light-Green Society, Chapter Six
For a splendid web site offering resources on environmentalism, see Saving the


Reviews of The Light-Green Society

I have placed in bold font the reviews that I reproduce in full text in the document below.

– Jean-François Mouhot, in Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 66 (2011), 291-292.

– Caroline Ford, in Journal of Modern History 79 (March 2007): 112-133 [book discussed on pp. 130-132].

– Pierre-Claude Reynard, in Journal of Social History 39:2 (Winter 2005), 545-47.

– W. Brian Newsome, in Canadian Journal of History 40: 2 (Aug. 2005), 357.

– Sara Pritchard, in French Politics, Culture, and Society 23:1 (Spring 2005), 148.

– By Richard Kuisel, in American Historical Review 110:1 (Feb 2005), 237.

– Kerry Whiteside, in Environmental Values 14:1 (Feb 2005), 138-39.

– Edward Ousselin, in The French Review 78.3 (Feb. 2005): 601-2.

Rosemary Wakeman, in Technology and Culture 46:1 (Jan 2005), 217-18.

– David Gueranger, in H-Net (2004).

– Peder Anker, in Isis 95:4 (2004), 743.

– Florian Charvolin, in Développement Durable & Territoires (Oct. 20, 2004).

– G.W. McDonogh, in Choice 41:11/12 (Jul/Aug 2004), 2113.

Angela G. Mertig, in Environmental History 9:3 (July 2004), 545-46.

– Christine Taft, in E-Streams 7:5 (May 2004), 3245.

Text of reviews follows:

1. Review by Rosemary Wakeman, in Technology and Culture 46:1 (Jan 2005), 217-18.

Dr. Wakeman is associate professor of history and director of the Urban Studies Program at Fordham University-Lincoln Center, New York.

The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000. By Michael Bess. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xi+369. $48/$18.

The Light-Green Society has already received well-deserved accolades, including the American Society for Environmental History’s 2003 George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history. With good reason. 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. France is a complicated country, and so is its environmental movement. Michael Bess argues that in the second half of the twentieth century it produced a distinctive kind of social order, which he terms “light-green society.” This is meant “to connote not only moderation, compromise, and half-measures, but also the profound ambiguity that has characterized the reception of ecological ideas among the French citizenry” (p. 3). The historical narrative suggests both success and defeat. The more radical aspects of the green vision were jettisoned by a tenaciously consumerist population. Yet in a moderate version, practically every facet of French society eventually accepted an ecological tint; “everyone eagerly donned the green mantle” (p. 4).

The first three sections of the book follow the evolution of French attitudes toward technology and environmentalism. Some of Bess’s anecdotes are fascinating-the French government’s sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior near New Zealand, for example, and the media impact of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. More important, Bess skillfully evaluates the late twentieth-century conditions in which French environmentalism was nurtured and operated. He weaves together France’s special relationship with high technology, its reaction to modernization and the collapse of the peasant way of life, and its distinctively intellectual approach toward ecology. This contextualization of the green movement includes a groundbreaking analysis of perceptions about landscape, nature, and wilderness. Bess imagines a French green Utopia that consists of a traditional village replete with wind turbines and bicycles, boules games in the town square, and markets heaped with locally grown organic foods. It is an arresting image, with important social and cultural implications that belie the scientific neutrality in which environmentalism often wraps itself. Part nostalgia for a world lost, part an alternative vision of the future, French environmentalism, Bess argues, mediated the rapid transformations of the trente glorieuses and eventually fashioned a moderate “age of ecology” (p. 291) that most people adapted to everyday culture and consumerism.

In the final chapters, The Light-Green Society turns into an essay on nature and culture in the postmodern age. In this broader context, France becomes the model for the acceptance of ambiguity and compromise in human awareness about the environment. Thinking in terms of the global longue durée, Bess poses four philosophical questions. The first two have to do with the meaning and scope of the “artificial” or “tame” versus the “wild” or “wilderness” and whether the concept of pristine nature has become an anachronism. A third question considers the role of human agency in shaping the relationship between nature and artifice. 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. Lastly, Bess asks whether we will eventually encounter another “natural environment” in the cosmos that will function as an extension of the terrestrial wilderness.

Bess’s style is engaging and conversational. This is a tour de force of environmental history. It carries us forward, especially in our thinking about European attitudes toward both ecology and technological modernity. Europe, after all, has also been at the forefront of the movement for sustainability-that is, an integrated approach to ecology, economy, and community. As Bess describes it, this is a humanized paysage that is “closer to the shape of things to come” (p. 294). For these reasons, this study of French environmentalism is an outstanding scholarly contribution to the relationship between technology, culture, and the green movement.


Fordham University

2. Review by Richard Kuisel, in American Historical Review 110:1 (Feb 2005), 237.

Michael Bess combines a splendid history of the greening of France with a meditation on the advent of the global light-green society. This is a persuasive and provocative study, but it is not a conventional history. Bess laces his story with unabashed advocacy for the Greens and personal speculation. He presents his historical interpretation, which is based on extensive research, in the form of a colorful, sometimes humorous narrative. If Bess grounds his study in the environmental history of France and the Green movement since the 1960s, he launches it into the atmosphere by addressing the philosophical problems posed by our new awareness of ecology. 1

What is a light-green society, and why did France adopt it? The French, in Bess’s view, are distinctive in their attachment to traditional rural society and in their obsession with attaining national autonomy through technological progress, which has made them ambivalent about environmental concerns. Thus, even if the French have introduced thousands of incremental changes in their lives and transformed their thinking about nature and society, they have, in his estimation, only grown a light-green, rather than a deep-green, society. The “green turn” failed to subvert mass consumerism, halt the harmful practices of agribusiness, curb the use of the automobile, end dependence on nuclear energy, or shrink the state. The French have tried to have it both ways, to be modern and ecologically sound; the consequence has been the creation of a light-green society. In general, the author expresses mixed feelings about this achievement. Bess admires the greening of French attitudes and practices over the past forty years, yet he concludes that “in the early 2000s [France] is still borrowing from the future in order to live richly in the present” (p. 232). 2

Perhaps Bess should be more satisfied than he seems to be about the progress France has made. After all, he believes that the basic environmentalist message has been widely adopted. He may be disappointed because he has raised the bar too high. His picture of what a dark-green France would be like in 2020 and the sacrifices it would entail moves this reviewer to think he may ask for too much. 3

There is a minor problem with the contention that the French are unique. To prove this point, the study would have had to adopt a comparative perspective. How were, for example, les Verts different from the Greens in West Germany? And if, at the end of his study, Bess speaks of a global light-green society, then just how unique is France? 4

What is the essence of this new global light-green society? For Bess, it is a revolution in how we think about society and nature. We now understand that nature has invaded society, just as humans increasingly control nature; and this realization has changed everything: what people eat, how they move around, where they vacation, which products they buy, and even their political agendas. Today we accept the intermingling of the human and the natural. 5

In the final chapters, Bess abandons France and history to raise philosophical issues raised by environmentalism. He asks what is the intrinsic value of the wilderness? How should we conceive of the proper relationship between society and the wild? Will intervening to save nature unwittingly destroy it? And is the global light-green society sustainable? He also reflects on the paradoxes of our new age of ecology. For example, environmentalists wanted to reject consumer culture, but they expanded it by adding a plethora of green products. 6

In his conclusion, Bess places France in a global context. He believes France may be “closer to the shape of things to come” than other nations (p. 294). The French, he believes, can instruct others about how we should think about nature. Nature should not be equated with pristine wilderness: nature is, the French know, a partially transformed countryside, a semi-humanized and tamed landscape. For a generation or more, the French have been looking for a new global mission. At times they seem to think it is to act as the rivals of the United States or as the opponents of globalization. Perhaps Bess has identified their true mission: the new form of French rayonnement should be to champion ecology. 7

Richard Kuisel

Georgetown University

3. Review by Angela G. Mertig, in Environmental History 9:3 (July 2004), 545-46.

In this exceptionally well-written book, Bess shows how changes in France and French environmentalism have both paralleled and diverged from changes in other industrialized democracies in the past four decades. In Part I, Bess lays out the groundwork for the overarching theme of the book: that contemporary France has been beset by a conflict between a strong attachment to age-old traditions and the powerful lure of high technology and modernization. These countervailing forces have resulted in profound change in the social order: the development of a “light-green” society. While the French path to this new social order incorporated unique elements, Bess argues that this form of society has manifested itself around the world, particularly in industrialized democracies. 1

Part II chronicles the history of environmentalism in France from marginal roots prior to 1960 to growth as a grassroots movement in the 1960s to wide scale integration into French society in the 1990s. Despite being perceived as an “anti-green” society, Bess shows that France has had a strong green presence and green ideology has played a central role in its modernization. Although the history of French environmentalism diverges in some respects from that of other industrialized democracies (e.g., losing the fight against nuclear power), its history also parallels the growth of environmentalism elsewhere (e.g., gaining strength during the social turmoil of the 1960s). 2

Part III elaborates upon characteristics of France as a light-green society. Such a society, Bess argues, is characterized by a “two-way blurring of the boundary between the ‘social’ and the ‘natural'” (p. 161). Society has been incorporated into nature and vice versa. Bess documents the greening of consumerism, the state and even industrialists within France. While environmentalists promoted more profound changes, what they achieved was much more modest—although they didn’t “win,” neither did they completely “lose.” 3

The final part of the book is a philosophical deliberation on the implications of light-green societies beyond the specifics of contemporary France. The proliferation of human impacts and control throughout the world has obscured the dualistic notion of a nature apart from society. If nature is no longer separate from us, what is it we are attempting to preserve? Bess sees this growing hybridization of nature (society blended with nature) as actually opening up greater avenues in our relationship with the natural world. Rather than dismissing those elements of nature that have been affected by humans, he argues that we need to see nature on a continuum, from the most pristine (with minimal human influence) to the least pristine. While we will always value the most pristine areas for the transcendence they provide beyond the social world, we also should value the “nature” that exists in less pristine forms. 4

Bess has done an excellent job documenting contemporary French environmental history, situating it within a broader perspective, and delving into its philosophical implications. This book would make an excellent addition to any environmental historian’s library and would be useful in upper-division and graduate courses in environmental history, environmental sociology, and social movements. 5

4. Review by Florian Charvolin, in Développement Durable & Territoires (Oct. 20, 2004).

Michael Bess. The light-green society. Ecology and Technological modernity in France, 1960-2000. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003, 369 p.

Par Florian Charvolin

Florian Charvolin est chargé de recherche au CRESAL de Saint-Etienne.

[20 octobre 2004]

On trouvera essentiellement deux genres d’information dans cet ouvrage très complet, et probablement le plus complet sur ce que d’aucuns appellent les trois dimensions de l’écologie: celle des écologistes dits “ écolos ” par leur style de vie, celle des écologues scientifiques, et celle des écologistes politiques.

Un premier niveau est celui de la synthèse extrêmement précise de l’histoire de la question écologiste depuis la seconde guerre mondiale. L’auteur n’a pas ménagé ses efforts pour réunir toute la littérature disponible -et sa bibliographie est probablement la plus complète sur le sujet de tous les livres en anglais ou en français déjà parus- et interviewer directement les acteurs lorsque les références manquaient. Ce livre présente ainsi le mérite de remonter bien avant 1970 et l’essor des mouvements contestataires, de retour à la terre ou bien celui des associations naturalistes qui fournirent ensemble, mais en ordre dispersé, le creuset du mouvement social français de défense de l’environnement. On est convié à un voyage vers les racines du mouvement dont il dispute aux auteurs français la primeur de nous présenter les figures-clés.

Un second niveau est celui de l’analyse. Le livre est construit sur la base de nombreux chapitres (16), un par dossier pourrait-on dire, allant de ce qu’il y a de plus typique dans le cas français à sa comparaison avec d’autres mouvements internationaux ou des considérations philosophiques sur la signification de la question environnementale pour l’avenir des sociétés modernes. C’est ainsi que dans la quatrième et dernière partie, on ne trouvera pas de faits mais plutôt des comparaisons de systèmes philosophiques, français et essentiellement anglo-saxons pour mieux appréhender ce qu’est l’ordre socio-naturel ou la notion de sauvage par exemple.

Cet ouvrage est inspiré par une question, celle de l’impact de la société moderne sur la nature. Mais il est loin d’aborder le problème d’un point de vue strictement physique, contrairement à ce que la couverture -une photo satellite de la France- laisse entendre. Cette question de l’impact doit être abordée à travers ses concepts, ceux de sauvage, de nature, d’artifice, etc. qui ont tous leur moment historique et dont l’importance est à chaque fois rapportée à une époque donnée. L’auteur mêle assez heureusement la chronologie des 40 dernières années, avec son actualité politique, sociale et environnementale, aux systèmes de pensée fournis par les livres dont la publication émaille ces quatre dernières décennies. Il flirte ainsi avec l’histoire des mentalités ou des mythes fondateurs de la société française.

Le livre commence avec deux “figures”: celle de l’histoire des progrès de la haute technologie et celle de la fin des paysans. Bess s’intéresse au caractère publiquement iconique de ces deux exemples. Ils influencent de manière tenace l’imaginaire français. C’est tout à l’honneur d’un point de vue américain sur la société française que de remettre en perspective les évolutions du pays, selon ses axes de développement majeurs. La première partie est intitulée “l’accélération de l’après-guerre” et replace toutes les évolutions futures dans le cadre de ce double phénomène qu’est l’arrivée du boom économique et social des trente glorieuses, engendrant un changement des modes de vie, et le déclin du monde paysan considéré comme un symptôme de notre relation à la nature.

Comment ne pas voir en cela la dichotomie entre environnement et protection de la nature qui sera sanctionnée par le ministère du même nom en 1971, et plus généralement par la durée insistante des factions du mouvement écologiste des années 1970-80. L’auteur en tire une ligne de réflexion pour tout l’ouvrage, celle de l’ambivalence de la révolution verte qui est moderniste tout en étant traditionaliste, managériale tout en étant réactionnaire, etc. d’où la notion de société “vert léger” du titre.

La deuxième partie est plus linéaire et relate l’histoire du triptyque -écologistes par mode de vie (les écolos), écologues scientifiques et écologistes politiques- depuis le XIXe siècle jusqu’à nos jours. On y lit la synthèse de bribes d’histoires publiées auparavant de manière morcelée. Cette perspective permet de tirer les fils centenaires de la conscience de l’environnement et de replacer l’émergence de la question au point de sa diffraction, lorsque certaines communautés vont retourner à la terre, d’autres vont militer politiquement et d’autres enfin vont chercher dans l’amateurisme scientifique le mode d’action qui leur convient. Ce creuset de la question écologique est la décennie des années 1960. Avant, l’ouvrage a une démarche archéologique alors qu’après il peut aborder l’écologie comme mouvement de pensée. Cette partition entre d’un côté l’action, dans les années 1960, et d’un autre côté la réflexion comme bilan de cette montée en puissance, permet de ne pas confondre des influences, comme celles de Mai 68 (quasiment inexistantes sur les naturalistes et les milieux technocratiques), ou des ouvrages comme ceux de Jacques Ellul.

La troisième partie est un tour d’horizon de ce qu’on pourrait appeler le verdissement des structures de fonctionnement de la société française. Michael Bess, y développe son art des icônes en mettant en parallèle le TGV et la pointe du Raz, comme deux exemples inverses de la nature pénétrant la société et vice-versa. Ensuite il passe en revue les trois composantes majeures de “l’écologisation” de la société française, à savoir le mouvement social, l’Etat, et l’industrie, non sans dresser un tableau mitigé, ambivalent, pour reprendre le fil rouge de l’ouvrage, de l’effectivité des actions menées. On accordera à ce tableau de chercher à montrer l’impact concret des actions menées, tant en terme quantitatif qu’en terme qualitatif. De ce point de vue, l’impact majeur sur la société française est celui du changement de pratique industrielle. En fin de partie, un chapitre conclusif dresse en effet le constat des grands équilibres de la question écologique (l’air, l’eau, la faune et la flore) et explique en quoi à l’orée du XXIe siècle, la question n’est plus seulement la protection de la nature mais son évaluation et sa gestion.

Ce point ouvre alors sur la quatrième partie qui est la plus pauvre en données factuelles mais la plus riche en analyse. Michael Bess y distingue la démarche managériale de gestion de l’environnement qui correspond assez bien à la “société légèrement verte”, de la solution plus restreinte et coercitive. Cette solution managériale est replongée dans un contexte international et la France fait office ici d’exemple particulièrement typique d’une évolution des sociétés développées, bien qu’évidemment chacune ait ses particularités. Cela autorise Michael Bess à s’interroger sur le caractère consolidé des évolutions des sociétés industrielles, et son impact de masse sur la biosphère. L’homme, force géologique majeure comme le disait Vernadsky, est-il en passe de présider à sa perte? Après un recadrage de cette pression anthropique sur la planète, l’auteur en profite pour aborder certains thèmes de l’écologie profonde, non sans y insuffler une bonne dose de précaution. L’alternative semble être entre un modèle qui expose combien tous les écosystèmes sont désormais anthropisés, ce qui annule la notion de sauvage (wilderness), et diminue la valeur morale de nos actions, alors que l’autre modèle expose combien l’hybridation artifice-nature n’est pas un jeu contre la nature mais sert à faire aussi rentrer sur la scène publique les non-humains dont la représentation a trop longtemps été cantonnée à la voix des scientifiques. Ce dernier choix présente l’avantage d’aller de pair avec une politique de précaution, qui cherche à trouver les “bonnes” associations nature-artifice pour la “bonne” société. L’auteur penche alors pour la substitution de la notion de “wildness” à celle de “wilderness”, selon laquelle il existe des degrés de naturalité (wildness) et non pas un clivage entre nature immaculée et nature anthropisée (wilderness). Toute la question étant de savoir que faire de ces entités de plus en plus interconnectées que sont désormais les sujets de sociétés, scientifico-techniques.

Un chapitre conclusif tente de tracer une tendance vers le futur en déplaçant le point de vue depuis la terre vers les étoiles. Comment va-t-on gérer l’espace ? Cette prudence écologique qui fleurit sur terre n’est-elle déclenchée que par la conviction que nous vivons dans un monde fini, auquel cas l’espace ne répondrait pas à cette limitation et on pourrait y pénétrer sans précaution? Ou bien est-ce que la prudence écologique est un acquis des mentalités qui se diffusera jusque dans la gestion des programmes spatiaux ? Bess ne manque pas de souligner combien la conquête de l’espace est une reproduction iconique de la conquête de la terre. Où se logera la responsabilité pour cette “nouvelle frontière”?