Is There a National Paradigm to Sustainable Development?

in Environment and Society

Diemer, Arnaud, and Christel Marquat, eds. 2014. Éducation au développement durable: Enjeux et controverses. Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium: De Boeck Supérieur. 495 pp.

Figuière, Catherine, Bruno Boidin, and Arnaud Diemer. 2014. Économie politique du développement durable. Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium: De Boeck Supérieur. 267 pp.

Kalaora, Bernard, and Chloé Vlassopoulos. 2013. Pour une sociologie de l’environnement: Environnement, société et politique. Seyssel, France: Champ Vallon. 301 pp.

This review essay aims to question the specific, national approaches to environmental studies and sustainable development according to a given dominant paradigm, in a given country, in a certain era. Comparing theoretical approaches according to countries can be a challenging exercise and constitute as such an endless quest, considering the fact that consensus is not even achievable within a single country’s academic community. Nevertheless, observing and comparing how environmental issues are conceived, conceptualized, addressed, and prioritized from one country to another should be one of sociologists’ main duties whenever they have an interest in urban and rural oppositions, social debates, or environmentalism and governance in general. Some cross-cultural comparisons already exist, but they often include only (or mainly) Anglo-Saxon nations, which limits the conclusions; comparing culturally (and linguistically) different countries can highlight contrasts, diverging trends, and oppositions between different conceptions of society, governance, and the environment. In order to begin, this article highlights three scholarly books about sociology of the environment and sustainable development written by authors from France and published either in France or in Belgium. Despite their quality, none of these books are available in English.

Bernard Kalaora and Chloé Vlassopoulos have published many books individually; their common effort, Pour une sociologie de l’environnement: Environnement, société et politique, is possibly the first synthesis concerning environmentalism in France from a sociological perspective. Right from the first pages, Kalaora and Vlassopoulos locate the basic trends in French social thought regarding environmental issues, highlighting the main theoretical influences, mostly Durkheim and Marx, plus the critical writings by many intellectuels such as Sartre. Each chapter articulates environmental studies within social sciences and, accordingly, from a sociological point of view. After revisiting how environmentalism evolved in France during the twentieth century, the second chapter questions the main issues in the French tradition: how can a country surrounded by an ocean and a sea seem so limited in terms of environmental efforts? The omnipresence of nuclear power in France is only a symptom of a larger problem that goes beyond the sentiment of pride related to nuclear autonomy. Among many obstacles, both authors agree in their diagnostic that the institutional resistance against interdisciplinarity (as an approach) and the persistently strict disciplinary limits (biology, geography, economics, etc.) are inherent in environmental issues. These disciplinary limitations nevertheless frame how education and research are conceived in France; many scholars and researchers feel they cannot work as legitimate experts in more than one field. These schemes are even present in how new jobs in academia are described; candidates who have more than one field of competence are often rejected because they are not perceived as a “global expert” in one domain.

The latter half of the book focuses on policies, and again, some cases from the past two decades are studied. Central questions are raised, for example, “Has Sustainable Development been appropriated as a liberal ideology within certain contexts?” (245). Further on, comparisons with other countries, notably Germany, the United States, and Canada, are always insightful. The last pages concentrate on themes such as globalization, social movements, and alternative networks.

This is not to say there is no sociological reflection related to the environment in France; on the contrary, many basic thinkers such as Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and Denise Jodelet (plus many others) are praised and quoted here. But the book’s severe conclusion reaffirms the fact that most French sociologists (and many decision makers) still seem to be blinded whenever facing environmental issues (283). Another strength of Pour une sociologie de l’environnement is the vast knowledge of Kalaora and Vlassopoulos, not only about the French situation but also about the American and German traditions (Ulrich Beck) in terms of sociology of the environment; therefore, comparisons between paradigms and traditions are always instructive within the broader spectrum of the sociology of science.

In a joint effort, Catherine Figuière, Bruno Boidin, and Arnaud Diemer have written a hefty book titled Économie politique du développement durable (an equivalent of the title could be The Political Economy of Sustainable Development). They aptly propose a much-needed reconsideration of political economy, asking whether it would be possible for political economists to fairly achieve (and understand) sustainable development despite the constant temptation of an excessive exploitation of our limited resources. Right from the start, political economy is solidly defined with seven components: holism, a hypothetico-deductive method, a normative approach, awareness of the dynamics of power, a contextualized analysis, and an openness for interdisciplinarity for research related to sustainable development (xvi). These seven basic elements constitute the bulk of this book’s methodological framework.

In his concise preface, Franck-Dominique Vivien argues that ecodevelopment and sustainable development were first political notions adapted from politics and diplomacy from 1972 to 1987, and as a consequence, sustainability can now be understood in many contradicting ways; it is often reconsidered, redefined, or reconceived—thus, the reference to political economy as a strategy for a reconciliation of diverging views about how to stop pollution and advocate sustainability (vii). The various conceptions of sustainable development are described, compared, and criticized here; these opposed trends are even linked to specific countries according to their respective traditions, policies, and governance (50).

Économie politique du développement durable comprises eight chapters. The opening chapter revisits the Brundtland Report, as compared to ecodevelopment and sustainable development, from a twenty-first-century perspective (3). This balanced and thought-provoking text highlights, using many quotes and various sources, how this founding document was (rightly or wrongly) understood, adopted, adapted, and sometimes reappropriated through the years in order to legitimate more consumption and, ultimately, more pollution and spilling of resources. This explains why the following chapters try to refocus first on ecology and social responsibility rather than economy, production, and profits. Authors provide a variety of national and international perspectives, including a few cases located in the Southern Hemisphere.

Undoubtedly, Figuière, Boidin, and Diemer have written a strong, nuanced, and inspiring book that should be read by progressive, open-minded economists and by all defenders of the environment. The three authors sometimes get us into some inner debates within French academia (for example, against another scholar, Olivier Godard), but non-European readers will be able to situate and transpose with other names the opposed points of view described here. Among many original concepts, their conception of an “industrial ecology” could possibly be contested; but potential readers and observers have (at least) to be aware of this alternative model (see chap. 6). As in so many textbooks, the last chapter reaffirms the importance of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity for sustainable development, referring to the founding works of Swiss epistemologist Jean Piaget and French sociologist Edgar Morin (see his cycle of seven books titled La Méthode), which is often quoted here (239).

Undoubtedly, this Économie politique du développement durable is vivid, innovative, rigorous, instructive, and always clear. Tables and graphs abound. Most bibliographical references refer to non-English books and articles, which will seem like a welcome renewal for many academics. Only a few minor factual errors remain, for example, when wrongly attributing the formula “penser global, agir localement” (think globally, act locally) to René Dubos (1901–1982), while in fact this idea initially came from French philosopher Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) (51). But this is a minor quibble. Perhaps students at the master’s level who can read French would particularly appreciate this balanced book, because the authors have elaborated a working framework for the political economy of sustainable development that never forgets critical thinking (248). Even scholars in political economy might appreciate this unorthodox approach.

Arnaud Diemer and Christel Marquat have coedited an impressive book titled Éducation au développement durable: Enjeux et controverses (the English title might be Sustainable Development Education), published in Belgium by an important academic publisher, De Boeck Supérieur, in the book series Pédagogies en développement. Coedited by Arnaud Diemer and Christel Marquat, this impressive handbook includes 24 commissioned chapters, all in French, written by French-speaking scholars about education and sustainability. Similar companions are already available for English-speaking academics from British publishers like Routledge, Wiley, and Sage; this rich collection of thematic chapters relies mostly on concepts, issues, and interdisciplinary approaches that are salient in France and Europe but lesser known in the United States. Even the sources mentioned in the bibliographic references are mostly non-English. The selected topics range from social alternatives to agroecology (293) but also social representations of the environment and other domains related to nature and spaces.

Right from the first pages, Arnaud Diemer and Christel Marquat situate the issues of sustainable development education in a variety of alternative ideas, methodologies, and paradigms such as complexity, interdisciplinarity, and education to values (106). Their demonstrations are often based on thinkers such as Bruno Latour but also Edgar Morin, a very influential philosopher in Europe and Latin America, but not very well known in the United States (19). Fundamental links with other related disciplines such as history, rural studies, citizenship education, ethics, epistemology, heritage studies, and even risk education are introduced (349). Contrary to many publications in sustainable development education “as made in the USA,” these texts refer to numerous reports published by international institutions like the Commission of the European Communities, the Untied Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and other subcommissions like the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge (COMEST) for data, references, and ways of reasoning. This rich book is obviously made for innovative teachers and scholars in teacher education; the coeditors insist on the importance of encouraging a dynamic trend in education that leads to motivation for change and civic action among pupils and students (25).

Subdivided into three parts, Éducation au développement durable investigates theories, methodologies, and various practical approaches and issues related to Europe and the Southern Hemisphere. What makes this vivid book special is its focus on a variety of ongoing debates and perspectives that will seem uncommon in North America, for example, François Hartog’s concept of “presentism” (76), understood as the obsession for the present and the “new” (new technologies, etc.), as opposed to the consideration and fair integration of the past (history, heritage, traditions) in all ongoing issues and debates. Other examples of emerging concepts discussed here are small-scale farming (“agriculture paysane”), agroecology, sustainable culture, and the creating process of heritage (“Patrimonialisation”).

Taken together, these 24 contributions are instructive, timely, and rigorous. They bring some new strategies for educating in new, different ways. And contrary to most handbooks in English, there is no index at the end of this volume. However, scholars will need a strong fluency in French in order to follow these demonstrations, as these dense texts are not meant to be mere introductions to their specific subfield. Otherwise, Éducation au développement durable is a unique tool for educators in sustainable development education. And in fact, De Boeck Supérieur is undoubtedly the most respected publisher in Belgium.

This review essay aimed to initiate a reflection on how environmental studies and sociology of the environment are conceived and conducted in non-Anglophone countries, specifically France. Obviously, this is only a glimpse into other people’s environmental studies in different contexts that rely on different theoretical and methodological backgrounds. We can see there are other issues and uncommon solutions proposed. These authors remain critical whenever pointing to “the system” or dominant forces from institutions, governments, and even French academia. Their reliance on institutional reports is notable. Of course, this same exercise could be made in many other linguistic (and therefore cultural) contexts. But social scientists should be aware of these cultural differences and must keep in mind this comparative effort whenever studying how other scholars are doing environmental studies, even in the most noble ways. Being able to consider and compare publications from other countries with a different background represents an excellent asset and remains a good starting point for this immense project.

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Contributor Notes

YVES LABERGE teaches at the University of Ottawa and has a PhD in sociology. His published work ranges from sociology and globalization, Canadian studies, social theory, to environmental studies. He has published more than 180 entries in some 20 encyclopedias for various publishers (Routledge, SAGE, Facts on File, Oxford University Press). He is part of the research team on Education for Sustainable Development, Québec-France (EIEDD-ANR-16-FRQSC-0003-03) and of the research center Centre de recherche en éducation et formation relatives à l’environnement et à l’écocitoyenneté (Centr’ERE). E-mail: