Translation: Marie Rennard & Gilles d'Aymery
Edited by Jan Baughman
[Ed note: Georges Pompidou, the second president of France's Fifth Republic, is widely acknowledged as the best president France ever had in the past sixty years, with the exception of the Général de Gaulle. While de Gaulle epitomized the grandeur of France, her historical culture and exceptionalism, her independence vis-à-vis the USSR and the USA, her socioeconomic reconstruction, and decolonization, Pompidou, with his prudent pragmatism, deep insights, and immense culture, led France to modernity (of those days), presiding on an historically unprecedented period of economic growth and cultural revival.
This speech, given at the Chicago French Alliance during a 1970 trip in the USA, is essentially devoted to the environment. Forty-one years later, that speech is viewed as quite prophetic, even though it came from a man who mistakenly promoted policies in favor of the use of automobiles, which led to the destruction of public transportation in French rural areas.
The original French text can be read on the Web site of the Association Georges Pompidou.]
(Swans - July 18, 2011) With her eight million inhabitants, $46 billion GDP, an annual household income of $14,000, a steel production superiot to that of France, Chicago needs no praise. The reality of her factories speaks for her, as well as the beauty of her skyscrapers evoking the names of the greatest architects such as Mies van der Rohe. Thanks to the spirit of enterprise and the energy of her citizens, your city is playing an eminent role in the adventure of modern America and of the modern world. No other place is more emblematic of the extraordinary progress achieved by the USA in the technical and industrial fields.
But, the rhythm of this evolution created by man at the end of the 20th century poses unexpected problems. Surprised by the transformations of his environment, though he is directly responsible for them, he wonders if he can still master those scientific and technological discoveries from which he expected happiness, and like the sorcerer's apprentice, he is finally in danger of dying because of the forces he unleashed.
The domination of man over nature has become so complete that it entails the risk of the destruction of nature itself. It is striking to notice that at a time when so-called consumer products are increasingly amassed and spreading the resources most essential to life, like air and water, are beginning to be lacking. Nature appears less and less to us like the dreadful power that men were struggling to master at the dawn of this century, but like a precious and fragile structure that must be protected so that the earth remains habitable for humankind.
This is mostly the consequence of urban development that has reached alarming proportions and worries all responsible leaders. Here in Chicago, you are particularly attentive.
In the crowded megalopolis, man is overburdened by servitudes and constraints of any kind that go far beyond the benefits brought by rising standards of living and individual or collective means at his disposal. It is paradoxical to notice for example that the development of the automobile, from which everyone expects an increase in freedom of mobility, leads in the last analysis to the traffic gridlock. The time is not far when walking will look like the surest and fastest means of transportation in our big cities, assuming that sidewalks still exist. Already, similar problems are beginning to be found in the air space.
Without doubt, more serious than traffic jams -- though they are a cause of considerable physical and nervous fatigue for people, particularly workers -- more serious are the moral consequences of living conditions in our modern cities. I am thinking, for example, of the rise in criminality, in particular juvenile delinquency. Is the city, symbol and center of any human civilization, in the midst of self-destruction, secreting a new Barbary? Strange question, but one that cannot not be asked, which you are asking with an anxiety that we understand well, we, Europeans, whose past is made up of the decline of the antique hercynian forest for the benefit of the city, and who now must face giving back its place to the forest. Here are some of the challenges of modern society, to use President Nixon's expression, of which we are starting to become conscious and that we must confront. In order to do it, we must as always define the difficulties and look for solutions that fit each case. However, faced with what hopefully is only a phenomenon of growth, we see how slow the adjustment of our institutions is in comparison to the meteoric development of technologies. The organization of society is not adapting to the huge growth and demographic displacement that give rise to these phenomena of "congestion" well known by sociologists. Here, there is much to be studied and reformed for the heads of states and big cities.
But it is a fact that each resolved problem creates new ones, generally more difficult, and that man is led to question the belief in a linear progress according to which each success of a discovery adds to the preceding ones in a continual chain leading to happiness.
Thus, just as scientists are achieving their most spectacular victories, and the most exalting for the human spirit, the first elements of a trial of science are emerging. More than hard science, which development cannot be halted and orientations controlled, it is the resulting technology whose applications can be directed in order to better adapt them to man and his need for happiness. We have to create and spread a kind of "moral of the environment," imposing to the state, to the collectivities, and to individuals, the respect of some elementary rules without which the world would become stifling.
It is not a coincidence that the United States, a country at the vanguard of economic expansion and technical progress, is also the country that shows the greatest interest in the problems of said "conservation." The protection of the natural environment must from now on be one of our primary concerns.
It follows that the role of public policymakers cannot but expand because it is up to them to pass the laws and decree the interdictions. But the implementation of these laws cannot be left to the discretion of civil servants or technicians alone. In a realm in which the daily life of people directly depends, it becomes necessary, more than anywhere else, that citizens take control and participate effectively in the organization of their existence.
Let me add that the solution will benefit from being studied in an international framework and within the cooperation of all nations, in particular all the industrial nations that are concerned with the dangers that threaten them and that they are anxious to avoid. You know that President Nixon has taken initiatives in that direction. Also, France and the United States, in their recent agreements to develop scientific and technological cooperation, have justly prioritized the top problems that require common action -- urbanism, the fight against pollution, and the organization of transportation. Through this development of a cooperation that, of course, implies no exclusivity, our two countries will offer an example that I wish will be followed.
I have already on several occasions during this trip evoked the extraordinary epic of your astronauts who voyaged to the conquest of the moon. Among the many TV images on that occasion, none has struck me as much as that of the Earth, seen for the first time from the interplanetary space. Surrounded with vapors, adorned with impressionist colors, the Earth looked like a small lost island in the midst of immensity, but we know that it is bequeathed with the fragile and perhaps unique privilege that is life. What vision better than this one, strange yet familiar, could provide us the consciousness of our terrestrial universe's precariousness and the duties of solidarity implied in the protection of the home to humankind.
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Original French text: http://www.georges-pompidou.org/Documentation/Discours/1970_02_Chicago.html
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About the Author
Georges Pompidou (1911-1974) was an intellectual, a professor, a financier, and a politician. He served as prime minister of France under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle for six years before becoming the president of France in 1969. He died while in office in April 1974. He is acknowledged as the second-best president France has ever had in the past 60 years.