Book Club

The Chair read for you Abondance et liberté : Une histoire environnementale des idées politiques from Pierre Charbonnier

Published on 26 May 2020

Five years after the Paris Agreement, the implementation of appropriate responses to the environmental disaster still seems far away. Several authors attempt to explain why in the various fields of humanities. Philosopher Pierre Charbonnier has chosen to approach the problem from the angle of political thought.  With his book Abondance et Liberté 1 (Abundance and Freedom), he takes us on an ambitious journey through the centuries. The subtitle of the book, An Environmental History of Political Ideas, is important to understand its purpose: rather than analyzing the emergence of ecological thinking, it is to examine how the environment fits into modern western political thinking.

In that respect, starting with the 17th century, the author explores the relationship to nature of the different schools of thought. It is precisely from this period that a “liberal pact” was built, combining abundance and freedom, which would define modernity: a society of emancipated individuals became inseparable from material abundance. This observation is rooted in Modern ideals, the liberal order of the 18th century and especially the industrial revolution that followed.

In the course of these transformations, the industrial apparatus will allow societies to break free from the limits of the organic economy through intensive (through productivity) but also extensive (through access to resources) growth. The book also focuses on specific thinkers who anticipated relationships with nature that now seem to be topical: Jevons evokes the depletion of resources and the rebound effect generated by its more economical use; the ecological conditions (large spaces) that may have been important in the American success according to Tocqueville. The reflection on the missed rendezvous of 19th century socialism and ecology is also at the heart of this historical path: the social stakes of the exploitation and transformation of nature prevented a questioning of the relationship between environment and society.

Finally, this book opens with the current questioning of the abundance-freedom couple in the light of climate change: which new political horizon should emerge in the 21st century to respond to the upheavals of the Anthropocene? Pierre Charbonnier defends a politicisation of ecology, at a time when social justice issues are inseparable from environmental issues, as the yellow vest movement has shown. Abondance et Liberté is therefore a dense and demanding study, but indispensable for anyone wishing to understand the relationship between political ideas and the environment forged by four centuries of thoughts and transformations.

Etienne Lorang, Research fellow «Circular Economy, recycling and CO2 emissions»

1 Pierre Charbonnier, « Abondance et liberté : Une histoire environnementale des idées politiques », La Découverte, 2020