Bernard Charbonneau, the little-known pioneer of French ecology

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Unsung genius or false prophet? In the era of climate change, the sixth mass extinction, ecological transition and the greenwashingIt becomes urgent to read, or reread, an author known only to specialists, and even more unjustly ignored than his friend. Jacques Ellul.

The former head of the newspaper's "environment" section The Worldthe late Roger Cans (1945-2018), had not been mistaken in his A short history of the ecology movement in France The first intellectuals to be concerned about nature in France lived in Bordeaux in the 1930s.
Leaders of a third trend within the personalist movementThis is a "Gascon", halfway between the "Spirit" and "New Order" movements, Bernard Charbonneau and Jacques Ellul published in 1935 a four-handed text entitled "Guidelines for a Personalist Manifesto".

It contains the seeds of all their future work but, above all, it is the first modern Western proposal for a voluntary limitation of economic growth.

"Interviews with Jacques Ellul," a film by Serge Steyer. (Campus Protestant, 2019).

Denunciation of the productivist logic

At the age of about twenty, they dreamed of a revolution conducted both "against misery and against wealth" in the framework of an "ascetic city". For "man is dying of an exalted desire for material enjoyment and for some people not to have this enjoyment".

Aiming first and foremost at advertising "inflation", this duo targets the whole productivist logic against the current of preoccupations of the time. Their great intuition is that, beyond their ideological differences, all regimes are in pursuit of the absolutely most efficient means, regardless of any other consideration.
The main factor is no longer the property of the means of production or the political body, since it is now modern technology which, with the help of the State, extends its empire over all human activities, including the most intimate ones.

Charbonneau calls "the Great Moult", the radical change in the human species brought about by the rise of science and technology. He did not discover ecology in books, but by seeing the civilization of the car arrive under his windows (see his book The Hommauto(1967).

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Deliberately following in the footsteps of his fellow geographer Élisée Reclus, he published in 1937, "The Sense of Nature, a revolutionary force". Diffused in a confidential way in the personalist circles of the South-West, this long article analyzing in particular the place of nature in the contemporary literature and the failure of the naturist movements prefigures the style of the author of the Garden of Babylonpublished in 1969.

The feeling of nature

Within personalism, Charbonneau wanted to make the "feeling of nature" what class consciousness had been for socialism. In his own words, "the synthesis between an indefinite progress of freedom and an endless growth of comfort is a utopia.

The war ruined his hopes for change and he had to wait for the greenrush of the 1970s to give voice, in the columns of The Open Mouth, Combat nature, Reform and Faith & Life.

His twenty or so books are available in bookstores or are currently being republished. In it he castigates the standardization of tastes and the misdeeds of an agro-industry, causing the triple eradication of peasants, landscapes and tasty foods.
He underlines the paradox of mass tourism, which corresponds to a genuine desire of free man to escape from the urban hell, but which not only plunders the spaces discovered by the pioneers, but brings with it what the tourist wanted to escape: promiscuity, concrete and regulations :

"The crowd flees from the crowd, the civilized from the civilized. Thus nature disappears, destroyed by the very feeling that made it discovered, as much as by the rise of industry. Because there are machines, on his machine man flees from the machine. »

In front of the emergency, hurry slowly

Since the 1960s, he had been in the habit of repeating that one could not pursue infinite development in a finite world. "Summoned to think in a house that is beginning to burn down," he wrote as early as 1977 in Faith & Life. An image taken over by Jacques Chirac at the 2002 Earth Summit.

Faced with an ecological emergency, we must hurry slowly or risk an accident. For his message is above all that technical progress threatens freedom more than nature, or, more precisely, that, by threatening nature, it prevents man from experiencing his freedom in practice. Growth leads to a dead end; Charbonneau was one of the first, if not the first, to tell us this in France.

Today, his profoundly humanistic ecological thought, tenderly ironic and resolutely joyful, constitutes a perfect antidote to collapsological prophecy.

Patrick Chastenet, Professor of political science, Bordeaux University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license, UP' Magazine's editorial partner. Read theoriginal paper.

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