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Does punitive ecology make sense?

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Since the Citizen’s Climate Convention made its 150 proposals last summer, the expression “punitive ecology” has been used extensively, both by the press and by certain political figures. Its use is anything but random, and is not new.

Where does this expression come from? How long has it been popular? Who uses it? Which political parties and which media ? We had seen in an order of magnitude that the ecology was a subject very little treated in the media. It turns out that it is also very badly treated.

After defining the terms and issues, we will see that these terms are always used by the same people, for very specific purposes.

What does “punitive ecology” mean?

Let’s separate the two terms.

First of all, ecology. Its scientific definition (study of the environments where living beings live, as well as the relations of these beings with the environment) differs slightly from the current usage: “doctrine aiming at a better balance between man and his natural environment as well as the protection of the latter”. It’s pretty clear and unequivocal.

On the other hand, there is a confusion between punishment and sanction. Punishment is the expression of a power relationship in which the dominant party exercises its power over the dominated. Punishment is exercised within the framework of personal power and may seem arbitrary because it depends on the goodwill of the individual in a position of superiority. Punishment, on the other hand, has a restorative dimension, justified by rules known by all and accepted in advance:

Punishments are often experienced as unfair by the punished because:

  • they are not based on clear and shared rules,
  • they do not apply in the same way to everyone,
  • they may be disproportionate to the fault.

In our society, any form of law, regulation or norm is a deprivation of freedom. If you break these rules, you will be penalized. Without going into the details of what is a positive or negative freedom (subject of a future article), or whether a punishment is just, we can nevertheless agree that rules are indispensable to society. If tomorrow everything was allowed, we could kill our neighbor because she makes too much noise on Sunday morning. I don’t think that would be right.

Reminder of the issues

Since punishments are often perceived as unfair, it is interesting to recall what are the climate issues of the next decades. The National Low Carbon Strategy calls for France to achieve carbon neutrality. This is also provided for in the Paris Agreement, which is the global authority.

To achieve this goal, we must reduce our emissions by at least 7.6% each year for the next 9 years. What is 100% certain is that without changing the rules and our behavior, we will not succeed (hence the need for an ambitious climate law). What is a little less certain is that green growth will allow us to achieve this. In any case, it will not be easy:

Why do all this? Because without change, we are heading towards a world of (at least) +3 degrees of warming by 2100 and even if it is limited to 2 degrees, it is already a disaster:

What ultimately risks being punitive is primarily inaction. If we do nothing, the consequences will be catastrophic. We know that there are physical limits that must not be exceeded to avoid ecological disasters, so why would imposing limits be “a punishment”? However, banning or reducing certain activities would make sense, despite what reassurance seekers and status quo advocates like Olivier Babeau think:

Olivier babeau who shines again with his 19th century spirit.
Source :

Punitive ecology and moral

To be clearer: climate consequences will have serious repercussions on our freedoms, and these violent consequences will not happen in the same way as chosen constraints. This is what Magali Reghezza, a member of the High Council for the Climate, reminds us: “The problem is not whether humanity will adapt, but what efforts will be required and who will pay.

This story of global warming is therefore also a story of morality. You can deny the science, fly back and forth to Bali every two weeks without thinking about the consequences. You may as well not care: it is not forbidden. On the other hand, it is indisputable that the current rules are not sufficient to meet our climate commitments: change is therefore needed.

Does changing the rules work?

There are several precedents in history that have shown that regulation can be very effective. Consider, for example, the damage to the Earth’s protective ozone layer, which sparked unprecedented global concern and action. Since it was agreed in 1987 to phase out ozone-depleting substances, 196 countries have ratified the Montreal Protocol. This shows that when there is an imminent danger, we are able to mobilize on a global scale.

Another example is past laws on the sale of cigarettes. Were they effective? From a historical perspective, when we look at the numbers, there is no doubt about it:

Source :

Was it punitive to make it harder to get cigarettes? Prohibit the advertising of cigarette sales (Evin law in France)? A recently published study reports 100,000 premature deaths in France per year. Would making a law to lower this number be punitive ecology?

Driving on the highway at 110km/h: symbol of punitive ecology

It’s been almost a year since the CCC proposals were made, and when they were released, one of the two measures that stood out was highway speed. The insults and other harsh comments were very harsh. Why ? In addition to the press which played a great role (we will come back to this), if the members of the CCC were trained and were able to become aware of the stakes, it is not the case of the rest of the French population, which unfortunately is little or not at all informed.

In addition, some calculations and associated orders of magnitude for each measure were missing. I had presented this order of magnitude in response:

110km/h law: punitive ecology?
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Once trained, the French are able to propose and act. It is not perfect, but it is at least more ambitious than what has been proposed by our politicians for 40 years! Moreover, some elected officials have criticized the lack of democracy of this Convention, but to accept or refuse measures in a democracy, the French should be able to make informed choices. Otherwise, we will end up with laws that are not up to the challenge, like the climate law planned by the Macron government. I had appreciated a comment on Linkedin by Maxence Cordiez, which I share again:

If even an effort as small as reducing the speed limit from 130 km/h to 110 km/h on the highway is unthinkable, then let’s face it, the fight against climate change is lost… We won’t have our cake and eat it too. Either we decide to act for the climate (and the preservation of our living environment in a more general way) and it will be necessary to go much further than a simple limitation of the speed on highway to 110 km/h. Either we decide not to restrain ourselves, but let’s say it clearly and not pretend to care about the current young generations (not to mention future generations).

Punitive for whom?

As we have seen, the current rules are very insufficient to meet our climate objectives. At least on this point, even the government agrees with the scientists. Despite this, let’s identify 3 types of people who might think of new laws as punitive:

  • French people not trained in climate issues. If you don’t understand the problem, how can you accept solutions that look like they will infringe on your freedoms?
  • The most affluent households: they have the largest carbon footprint and pollute the most (by far). Certainly, if you are used to flying across the oceans several times a year, the possibility of having air travel quotas is going to seem very hard. I have rarely seen a person with the median French salary (1800€) wondering if they were going to Dubai for 3 days for fun.
Punitive ecology for whom?
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  • The less well-off households: the carbon tax on petroleum products that had started the yellow vests movement is a typical translation of social injustice. It is a decision of ecological transition but forgets the accompanying measures for the poorest. It is in this sense that ecology can be “punitive”: if it is not thought in a global way, forgetting a part of the population. We must absolutely avoid this.

An ecological transition is therefore also a social transition: without anticipation and planning, it is still the least well-off households that will be subject to the damage (while knowing that there are always winners and losers in any political decision). We see it with every economic crisis, we see it today with Covid, we will see it tomorrow with ecological catastrophes.

Who uses the term punitive ecology?

For several months, I have listed the people who use the expression “punitive ecology”, on several platforms: on television, Youtube, social media (especially Twitter where politicians are active).

Jean Castex, newly appointed Prime Minister last summer, declared:

“At a time when humanity is going through one of the worst crises in decades, at a time when companies are struggling to save their jobs, and at a time when French people fear for their future, is ecology a priority? The answer is clearly yes.

In my mind, the clarity of this answer has probably been delayed by the proponents of a punitive and degrowth ecology, a sanctimonious and even sectarian ecology which, no doubt in perfect good faith, have done a lot of harm and continue to do harm to the cause. “” The ecology I believe in is, finally, an ecology of employment, innovation and growth “

Obviously, you will have spotted several mistakes: wrong definition of degrowth, a belief in green growth (considering the stakes, it is almost impossible that this is possible). Of course, he tells what he is told to tell: Emmanuel Macron has the same belief in green growth and contempt for any other model of society that wants to get out of this prism.

Politicians and editorialists with variable morals

Unsurprisingly, the term is only used by right-wing, far-right, or liberal (even ultra-liberal) politicians. I have not found any trace of a political personality on the left using it, except to respond to a polemic. It was in full swing after the Citizen’s Climate Convention (CCC) issued its report.

The same is true for press titles:

  • Le Figaro: Guillaume Roquette, editorial director of the Figaro Magazine (again…), who evokes the CCC in these terms: “The result is an endless catalog of constraints, obligations, prohibitions, sanctions and taxes of all kinds. Punitive ecology at its best“. The great thing is that in the same article, he manages to say ‘France is not responsible for global warming‘.
  • Contrepoints, a journal that has been hosting climate deniers and reassuranceists for years.
  • Le Point, which talks about ecological clowns and degrowth delusions.
  • L’Opinion: a newspaper where Olivier Auguste (Deputy Editor-in-Chief) does not distinguish between recession and degrowth, and compares lockdown to degrowth. Nothing to add except that it conveys one of the clichés about degrowth that I have already explained here. What else can you expect from a newspaper that counts Emmanuelle Ducros among its troops?

But also:

  • Stéphane Richard, Orange’ CEO, who regrets « the punitive ecology » who « vilifies excessive consumption that would promote cell phones, tabletts and computers. ». According to Stéphane, France is a year and a half behind on 5G, which is terrible. It’s also terrible not to listen to the conclusions of the High Council for Climate for 5G. Between a corporate CEO (who was involved in the Tapie arbitration) who wants to make a profit and the HCC? I would tend to listen to the second one. This is only my opinion.
  • Willy Schraen, president of the Federation of hunters, for whom “punitive ecology is annoying“.
  • Claude Allègre, a notorious climate denier, who has wasted years of fight against global warming by dint of his nonsense in the media. “I am against punitive ecology because it kills ecology. Ecology is modernism, not a return to the caves.” Close to talking about Amish.

Golden award to Valeurs Actuelles :

Only stupidity is stupidity

If you are sensitive to climate issues (and after reading the above lines), you may feel that talking about punitive ecology is quite silly. This is legitimate. But I tend to think that politicians are not as stupid as we like to think. If this expression is repeated, it is anything but a coincidence.

The closer the election dates get, the more likely you are to hear it. First the Regional elections in 2021, and especially the presidential election of 2022. That’s about all that matters to people who talk about punitive ecology. While climate issues must be considered in the long term, our politicians only see the short term.

Therefore, we must be prepared for it. Any criticism of the growth model leads almost systematically to insults and mockery on social media. Any criticism of the current model and you will be called a utopian, a communist, a totalitarian, sometimes even all three at the same time. However, ecology must absolutely go beyond the left/right divide. If there is not one but many ecologies, any policy or economy that is not based on ecology is meaningless.

As it is, it is still an advantage to talk about punitive ecology. As long as the French population is not properly educated and informed about these issues, it will continue to be the business of politicians. This bludgeoning of shocking terms (green Khmers, islamo-leftists) will unfortunately not stop as long as there is an electoral interest.

The last word

If punitive ecology is an expression used indiscriminately, we have seen that it can have several interests. First, power interests: from politicians approaching elections to editorialists playing the status quo, everything is a pretext for not changing anything. Punitive ecology is above all playing the game of ecological inaction. Indeed, to say that a law ‘will never pass because it is too ambitious, or that it abandons the poor’ is a well-known rhetorical classic of people who want nothing to change (see the 12 discourses).

It can be quite legitimate to think that an ecology is punitive if it is not accompanied by social measures. We need to be able to agree collectively on rules that leave as few people as possible behind: without social and ecological justice, there will be no successful ecological transition. All political parties, on the right and on the left, must be able to have a policy in this sense. The transformation of our societies will not be easy, and the least we can do is to start by telling the truth about the situation and stop making the French believe that they will not have to change.

Finally, let’s stop talking about “the problem of social acceptance” every time a new law is proposed. If the population as a whole was properly informed on these subjects, we would not have the ridiculous debates and polemics that erupt every week on every TV set. To speak of punitive ecology or ecology in the singular makes no sense. On the other hand, there are several societal choices before us, and it is high time we collectively started thinking about them.


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Thomas Wagner
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