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Industrial Pollution and Risk: the great French shift, 1750-1850


At the end of the 18th century et the beginning of the 19th century, France was in the midst of an industrialisation that threw into question the relationship between citizens and their environment. The development of polluting and hazardous activities was a challenge for the Ancien Regime society particularly concerned with public health and the rules of neighbourly conduct, and this led to a transformation in law and institutions. My paper brings to light this revolution, taking into account the range of social and political actors involved, including the state, the town, industrials, jurists, scientists, and public opinion. It details the complex processes that were to give factories and manufacturing plants, particularly in the chemical sector, the possibility of establishing themselves into cities. In particular, the study of the new forms of pollution Parisians were exposed to during this period provides an all-encompassing history of this industrial capital, not as the saga of entrepreneurs but rather through the city’s slow and difficult adaptation to the risks of industry and technology. As part of the new approach of modern manufacturing, where nuisances are considered a part of progress, Paris became the laboratory for testing the legitimacy of pollution, ushering in an alliance between the state, science, and industry, in an entirely new kind of political project.

This demonstration follows a chronological structure putting forward the idea of a major shift in environmental policy, where chemistry was a leading force for changes. The preventive regulation and practices under the Ancien Regime were replaced by a more modernising political agenda by 1770 onwards, driven by the pressing demand from industrials to alleviate the “environmental” constraints on their sites of production. The development of industry and the emergence of new factories and manufacturing plants, particularly in the chemical sector, rendered the traditional regulatory practices outdated. This pressure on the local regulations unfavourable to industrial development increased during the Revolution when the responsibility for redefining environmental regulation was awarded to scientists, chemists for the most part. After fifteen years of revolution, members of the Academy – all chemists, among them Chaptal - were called upon to advise as to the health dangers of polluting industries. Their report in 1804 favoured industry and minimised these nuisances. In 1810, after many debates, trials and controversies, the state laid down the decree on harmful industries – a legislative framework that protected industrial interests rather than a so-called “environmental law”. The Paris Health Council, an authority of the Minister and the Prefect, was won over to industrial progress and suggested addressing problems of pollution through technical improvement, whilst simultaneously proclaiming most industries to be harmless : the technological progress of these industries, based on chemical knowledge, had to resolve the various nuisances that it produced.

Thomas Le Roux is a researcher at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) and he is currently appointed at the Maison Française d'Oxford. His works deals with the impact of early industrialisation on the environment from 1700 to 1850. After having done his PhD dissertation (University of Sorbonne, Paris) on industrial nuisances in Paris (end 18th c, early 19th c.), he works on a comparison between Paris and London, as well as occupational health and industrial accidents. He is running a collective research program in the history of industrial accidents in France and Great Britain (17th-19th c.). He is also running a research seminar in Environmental history in Oxford, involving French and British colleagues. His publications include Le laboratoire des pollutions industrielles. Paris, 1770-1830, Paris, Albin Michel, 2011.

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