Pritchard, Confluence

Reviewed by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Isis 102:4 (2011), 809-810.

Sara B. Pritchard. Confluence: The nature of technology and the remaking of the Rhône. 371 pp., illus., bibl., index. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. $45.95 (cloth).

From the Alpine glaciers of Switzerland to the Mediterranean Sea stretches what was once a glorious, untamed river: the Rhône.  Used by humans for trade and irrigation for centuries, it attracted investors in the late nineteenth century as a natural source of hydroelectric power.  Today, it is lined with cooling towers and is the pride of France, the nation most often cited as relying on nuclear power to supply its energy needs.  Over the years, the Rhône has been altered so often that it invites analysis as an “envirotechnical” landscape, where it is hard find sharp distinctions among human activities, nature, and the designed world.

Sara B. Pritchard has crafted a thoughtful book that places the history of the Rhône at the crossroads—or rather, the confluence—of the natural and technological.  These don’t merely intersect. Like rivers, they flow together. The word “confluence” in the book is also about the competing visions and multiple uses of the river.  In addition, confluence calls to mind the interaction of disparate kinds of scholarly literature, particularly the history of technology, science studies, and environmental history.  Pritchard identifies her work as a contribution to the small but growing specialty, “envirotech.” She frames her analysis with precision and care, and her introduction has as much to do with scholarly methodology as with the river itself.  The main body of Confluence includes persuasive historical discussion of the political forces that have transformed the Rhône.

The centerpiece of the book is the organization that took the lead in managing the river, the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR).   Pritchard takes the reader through many stages in the CNR’s institutional history, pointing out the competing notions of the river’s value to the region and the French state.  In the 1930s, the CNR instituted the “Rhône formula,” a particular approach to redesigning the landscape to balance the needs of hydroelectricity, navigation, and agriculture. The large-scale regional development from hydroelectric power inspired schemes elsewhere.  For example, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly called one leading French planner the “father of the Tennessee Valley Authority” (40).

The meatiest chapters of the book treat the CNR’s interactions with the French nuclear agency, the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA), and the CNR’s dealings with local resistance.  We see the enormous pressure generated by France’s 1970s decision to focus on nuclear power in the midst of a massive energy crisis. Pritchard pays little attention to the earlier nuclear push in the aftermath of the Suez crisis of 1956.  It is clear from her story, however, that by the late 1950s, CEA bureaucrats wielded their power and had their way with the Rhône planners.  The nuclear facility at Donzère-Mondragon was not just a nuclear plant, she reveals, but rather a highly contested artificial landscape of electricity generation, dams, diverted water, and contamination.  The CEA and Electricité de France effectively “nuclearized” the river, despite CNR’s earlier emphasis on hydroelectric power.  From the perspective of engineers looking to build nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment facilities, the hard work of remaking of the Rhône had already been done, and the new finely crafted, simplified, managed landscape suited the nuclear world perfectly.  As Pritchard points out, cooling towers and radioactive isotopes were integrated into the ecosystem—a true envirotechnical landscape.

Who resisted these changes? One basic problem with building all those diversion canals was that the soil dried up.  It was not just that the water table lowered and the wells went dry, but also the ground began to crack and homes developed fissures.  Locals wrote to the CNR wondering if anyone planned to help them.  Pritchard’s excellent chapter on the CNR’s handling of this problem could be required reading for any class on science, technology, and society.  It has all the elements that are repeated time and again in France and elsewhere—denial of causation and liability, powerless residents, extremely powerful state mandates that trump local politics, and an unsatisfying resolution of the problem.  Pritchard shows well the double-speak of the CNR.  Its lawyers shrugged their shoulders about the unfortunate consequences of “natural” drought, while to different audiences CNR officials wondered how much farther the water table would drop due to their activities.

In Pritchard’s telling, the refashioning of the Rhône illustrates numerous other tensions in French history, including regional vs. national identity, environmental awareness vs. technophilia, and grandeur vs. gigantisme.   Like the United States, Britain, and others, France created a high-level agency for the natural environment in the early 1970s (the Ministry of the Environment), compelling the French to grapple with the Rhône’s nature and politics. The result was no great change—and in fact the energy crisis of the same era simply reinforced the power of nuclear advocates in the region.  Pritchard’s work is consonant with Michael Bess’s characterization of postwar France as a “light-green society,” savvy to the arguments but only tepidly willing to act.  Rather than fundamentally contest the remaking of the Rhône, Pritchard argues, environmentalists reconciled their goals with the envirotechnical systems already in place.  This is likely to continue, given the French reliance on nuclear energy.  There has been some renewed interest lately in restoring the Rhône to its pre-development state.  But efforts to find a primordial Rhône may be doomed.  Sara B. Pritchard’s admirable book has demonstrated how fully, and how long, nature and technology have flowed together as one.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

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