Sustainable development before the industrial age

In 1227 Narbonne banned dragging fishing nets for fear that the place would become empty and desolate of all fish. The measure seems current, but it aims less to preserve biodiversity than the economy, a sign that the sustainability of past societies deserves reflection in its own right.

While several recent works have chosen to approach environmental history through the prism of disasters, this collection takes the question from its opposite extreme: that of sustainability and the conservation of certain resources by past societies, a time when even these terms do not exist. , since they really emerge from XVIIIe century.

It shows that the practices that we would associate today with sustainable development existed well before the current proliferation of environmental discourses. They aimed to maintain the economic balance of societies where environmental constraints were a reality familiar to everyone, including consumers and political elites.

Towards an environmental history of Europe

The story of Europe's environmental history is now well known. After a certain demographic and economic decline in VIe At VIIIe century, the period which runs from IXe At XIIIe century is marked by a strong recovery, that even the terrible economic situation of XIVe century (famines, wars and plague) did not stop it in the medium term. The population is starting to increase again, even faster than the agricultural capacities of the continent, generating major crises in the XVIIe century, just as the foundations of a colonial economy and a more dominant capitalism were taking shape. We are therefore far from a story of linear progress.

Until the 1960s, it was precisely at XVIIe century that we readily located the birth of conservation techniques, associated with the development of agronomy, but also that of the modern state, citing as an example the Colbertist management of forests which finds parallels in England and Germany. The development of older conservation techniques is an achievement of the 1970s and 1980s. The work edited by Dowling and Keyser is part of the ongoing writing of this environmental history, chronologically less linear and spatially more fragmented, on the scale of a continent where the sources are numerous enough to carry out this work, at least from the XIIIe century.

Protecting resources: techniques and laws

The number of measures identified in normative sources leaves little doubt as to the omnipresence of this concern for conservation. While Narbonne, XIIIe century, dragging nets were banned, Cannes only allowed four vessels to fish with lamparo, that is to say the night torch, and in certain towns of Tuscany it is for bird hunting that the net is prohibited… The list is long, but from article after article some common threads emerge. Rather than prohibiting, we regulate using licensing systems. For example to limit the number of fishermen and hunters, while generating tax revenue. In addition, laws are often formulated taking into account the calendar: the harvest cycle which has a direct impact on the prices and availability of foodstuffs, or that of the reproduction of species, which the authorities know well. Thus the town of Tulln requires fishermen to register months in advance to trap the precious bluga sturgeons which swim up the Danube during spawning.

Finally, we do not hesitate to regulate the markets. Fucecchio, at the end of the Middle Ages, game taken on the territory of the municipality could no longer be sold to neighboring towns, which was a response to the threatening growth of Florence, which would risk draining surrounding resources while driving up prices . at the same time, on Lake Constance, certain towns ensured that fish imported and sold locally could not be caught with less strict standards than those applied by the local fishing guild. Indeed, not only would competition be unfair, but shared lake stocks would also be reduced in the long term. The economy therefore does not get along so badly with ecology when we know the constraints of neighboring ecosystems.

A political history before the state level

At the heart of several articles, we find the question of the scale of management. In societies from the feudal era, where the state is only under construction, the authors show the extent to which individuals and authorities alike are aware of the risks posed by overfishing, overgrazing or unregulated harvesting of wood. They note the consequences on the scale of a finage or a lordship and, if we prefer to think in terms of time, of a season or a human life.

Protective measures are therefore not taken in the name of biodiversity or social equality. Even at the heart of the commons, these territories managed by village communities which have given rise to numerous myths as well as a long historiographical controversy, the shared management of resources is the subject of constant negotiations and arbitrations. The permanent threat of small fines and exclusions, for example, remains necessary to enforce the rules, while village roosters often succeed in making their interests triumph. It is difficult, once the archives are preserved, to envisage an environmental history which is not also a political history of the distribution of resources, whatever the scale.

But between the XVe and the XVIIe century, different rhythms depending on the region, these balances are transformed by the affirmation of states. In Sweden, to take a little-known case, the affirmation of royal power goes hand in hand with the development of the concept of King's Vein. In each watercourse, a third of the flow, ideally the deepest, must be left free of any construction (fishery, fishpond, mill with water retention, etc.) to allow free movement of ships and migratory fish, including salmon. This concept, defended until XVIIIe century, partly models the current landscape of the country.

Ecology at the heart of the economy

The collection is very convincing when it comes to showing that environmental protection before the industrial era was directly dictated by economic and social concerns. This echoes abundant rhetoric around the idea of ​​the common or public good. As late as 1566, a treaty between Constance and Mainau regulated fishing for spawn and young fish in the interest of the poor man. In this, the gap with our time is perhaps more ideological than real: where we oppose ecology and economics, the men of the past and their institutions knew that the two formed one whole.

However, we would like to hear clearer thinking about the way in which changes at scale, in political management as well as in economic supply, also transform conservation issues. The affirmation of states returns as a decisive phenomenon several times, and historians will also think of previous phases of European history: the dissolution of the Roman market, the formation of large estates in the early Middle Ages, the division into small lordships during the feudal era, etc. It would certainly be useful to compare more systematically the forms of conservation as they evolve (or fail) in these moments of transition. And all the more so since our major current problem is precisely the move to a new scale, this time global.

From a more strictly historical point of view, we would also like to go beyond this materialist vision, long imposed on medieval societies. Yes, medieval people see their environment in terms of yield: an oak tree that can feed thirty pigs is a tree to be preserved, a park where deer can be seen through the branches is a promise of abundant hunting. But this practical aspect does not prevent the existence of aesthetic or moral standards. When the masters of Water and Forests discover XVIIe century of woods cut into coppices with open canopy, where herds are led to graze, we know that they indicate resources ruined by negligent peasants, sometimes ignoring long-term conservation techniques which have only recently been rediscovered. We know much less, however, what the individuals who previously inhabited these spaces thought. The hypothesis formulated by Lynn White, according to which Western Christianity would have led to an attitude of predation towards nature, has now been qualified. It remains to explore the entire range of visions that have coexisted, without dividing the cultural from the economic.