Historicizing the Anthropocene: A Peek at Paris

Historians love questions of dating and chronology, and there are two questions about dating the Anthropocene. First, stratigraphy and other sciences have been searching for physical evidence for when measurable, large-scale, human-driven environmental change began. Common landmarks include the Neolithic, industrial, and nuclear eras. Second is the question of when humans became aware of large-scale anthropogenic environmental change, a question for cultural and intellectual history. In his Epochs of Nature (1778), the Comte de Buffon wrote “The entire face of the Earth today bears the imprint of human power,” so we know that this awareness dates at least to the 1700s.1

My own research deals with urban environmental history, and I am completing a book manuscript entitled The Fragility of Urban Modernity: Space, Technology, and Nature in Paris, 1870-1914. The study traces political conflicts over Paris’s geographic, technological, and ecological transformation. The twin historical processes of industrialization and urbanization often led nineteenth-century Europeans to reflect on human-made environments. The larger and more crowded cities of the industrial era seemed clear evidence that the human-built world was distinct from “nature.” Hydrological engineer and professor Georges Bechmann (1848-1927), who served as Paris’s Chief Water Engineer from 1889 to 1905, theorized that cities produced what he called “artificial conditions of life.” Dense populations outstripped the carrying capacity of air, land, and water, and “more and more grave causes of insalubrity appeared, in the face of which nature did not delay in showing itself powerless. Thus it was necessary to come to its aid with ever more perfected and more complex means….” Nature was “powerless” against human-made environmental change—and yet, our task was to “come to its aid” with more environmental engineering.2 There are shades here of what Tom Neeson recently discussed on this blog as “novel ecosystems” and further, of the idea of the “good Anthropocene.” Bechmann frankly accepted that humans could, would, and should modify environments–pointing to the theme of niche construction discussed frequently on this blog. In his role as Chief Water Engineer, he oversaw work on Paris’s water supply, sewage treatment, river pollution, and typhoid reduction, equipping the city to serve almost 3,000,000 people packed into only 30 square miles.

One major project Bechmann worked on was removing a polluted river, the Bièvre, from Paris’s landscape. The river entered south Paris and crossed the Left Bank to meet the Seine near today’s Austerlitz bridge. Since the medieval era, its banks were home to heavily polluting industries—facilities producing beer, dye, flour, glue, leather, paint, paper, starch, and textiles. In the 1840s, engineers from Paris’s departmental (i.e. provincial) government began to call for “improving” the river, by controlling its flow with channelization, reservoirs, barrages, and pumps. In 1868, the river’s entire output in central Paris was steered away from the Seine and into a sewer, ending its role as a tributary. From that point until 1912, departmental engineers worked gradually to encase the remaining river in a tunnel, transforming it itself into a sewer, erasing it from the landscape, and ending its accessibility as a source of water.

The river’s frightful water quality was the source of endless discussion, sometimes in lurid terms. One can see the scum and foam today in historic photographic postcards.

Bievre, Vieux Paris, private collection of author

Bièvre, Vieux Paris, private collection of author

In 1854, Alfred Delvau wrote, “a water gooey, black, red, impossible, I know […] it’s an open sewer….” In 1896, Georges Lenotre was repulsed by this “flux of ordure…[,] debased, abject, muddied, prostituted.” In 1898, George Cain called it “hideous to see. Tinted in all tones: yellow, green, red, it carries unclean detritus and rolls at our feet, gluey, as if immobile, without reflections under the grey sky, nauseating, the color of congealed blood….” A 1907 municipal report called it fossé: cesspit or grave. Using a familiar Victorian idiom of disgust, some Parisians argued that the river was so compromised that it could only be removed. Its carrying capacity for disposing of human-produced waste had been surpassed and it was time for environmental engineers to step in.3

City councilor Adrien Mithouard, however, used equally strong language to protest the river’s “death.” As he wrote, “the engineers” ruined the river, creating a “whirlpool of death” which ended the river in “a death against nature.” This followed from his view of engineers as “the natural enemies of waters and forests.” Mithouard echoed those in today’s debate on the Anthropocene who have used the term “thanatocene” to stress how much death and destruction flow from human-made environmental change. Business owners and workers protested the river’s end because they still used it. Although its pollution was a tragedy of the commons, even the altered water was a commons that industrialists along its banks were willing to fight for—a free source of water for industrial uses and a free dump on site. Two businessmen named Cauvain and Cerf were among the last holdouts as the departmental authorities sought expropriation settlements from those who lived or worked along the riverbanks.4

Bièvre, Coin Pittoresque, private collection of author

Bièvre, Coin Pittoresque, private collection of author

In sum, for both those who cheered the Bièvre’s end and those who protested it, the river was the object of serious reflection on the costs and catastrophes, but also the benefits, of human-made environmental change—both polluting the river to begin with, and later burying it. While Bechmann argued that “artificial life” was necessary in the new era of the large metropolis, Mithouard found it unnatural, “against nature.” It is clear that Mithouard held fast to the distinction between nature and society, while Bechmann was more comfortable collapsing them into an ecological whole.

Paris’s debate on human environmental impacts continued during the catastrophic flooding of January, 1910, which did millions of francs in infrastructural damage, shutting down the city for weeks and compromising it for months. The flood gave rise to a heated debate over whether water infrastructure (especially sewer tunnels) and the engineers who maintained it had made flooding worse. The flooding sewers created a potable water shortage by breaking fresh water lines inside of them; they also collapsed roadways above. One angry handbill distributed after the flood read “The city of Paris brought you the flood with its sewers!” Others suggested that engineers had “aggravated” flooding, and worsened its consequences. This debate was a precursor to today’s debates about whether human activity is making disasters more severe, and blurring the lines between “natural” and anthropogenic catastrophes.5

Workers repairing streets ruined by the flood, from Bibliothèque nationale de France

Workers repairing streets ruined by the flood, from Bibliothèque nationale de France

One of the main things that interests environmental historians about the Anthropocene is the way that it collapses natural history and human history into a single frame.6 Although environmental historians have pursued this idea since the 1970s, long before the term Anthropocene arrived in 2000, the growing popularity and urgency of ecological thinking, environmental awareness, and the planetary scale of environmental change have created conditions in which to push this insight further. One way to do this is by encouraging scholarly approaches in the “environmental humanities.” French historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz call for “new environmental humanities that adventure beyond the great separation between environment and society,” so as to “rethink our visions of the world and our ways of inhabiting the Earth together.”7 This is a tall order, but it speaks to the broad, hopeful vision of a new interdisciplinary field in formation. Environmental historians can contribute, as my case study of Paris tries to do, by historicizing both material relations between humans and their environment and past ways of thinking about environment and society.

  1. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (New York/London: Verso, 2016), 4. 
  2. Georges Bechmann, Salubrité urbaine, distributions d’eau, assainissement (Paris: Baudry, 1888), 3-4, available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=_twrAQAAIAAJ&vq=artificielle&source=gbs_navlinks_s
  3. Conseil Municipal de Paris, 6e Commission, Rapport no. 37 (1907), 3; Alfred Delvau, Au bord de la Bièvre (Paris: 1854), 19; Georges Lenotre, “La Bièvre,” Le Monde Illustré, year 40, no. 2028 (8 Feb. 1896): 108–10; Georges Cain, “Autour de la Bièvre” in Nouvelles promenades dans Paris (Paris: Flammarion, 1898), 59–85, on 68. 
  4.  Adrien Mithouard, La perdition de la Bièvre (Paris: Bibliothèque de l’Occident, 1906), 25-32; “Thanatocene” from Timothy Le Cain, “Against the Anthropocene. A Neo-Materialist Perspective” International Journal of History, Culture, and Modernity 3 (2015): 1-28, at 28, https://www.history-culture-modernity.org/articles/10.18352/hcm.474/; and Bonneiul and Fressoz, Shock of the Anthropocene; Cauvin and Cerf from Archives de Paris VO3 807. 
  5.  Ernst Judet, “À L’Eau! À L’Eau!”L’Éclair, July 31, 1911; Henry De Larègle, “Les résponsabilités,”Le Soleil, Feb. 11, 1910; Jeffrey Jackson,Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), handbill quote 99. 
  6.  Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry Vol. 35, No. 2 (Winter 2009), 197-222; Timothy Le Cain, “Against the Anthropocene“; Bonneiul and Fressoz, Shock of the Anthropocene. 
  7.  Bonneiul and Fressoz, Shock of the Anthropocene, 33 and xii respectively. 

One thought on “Historicizing the Anthropocene: A Peek at Paris

  1. Thank you for this post, which I find not only interesting, but also grounded and precise (qualities that contributions from some other posters would benefit from, to be frank). Often, urban history is not included in environmental studies, so this is a helpful correction to that tendency. Very much looking forward to the publication of your book.

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