Dumont, René (1904–2001)

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DUMONT, RENÉ (1904–2001)


French agronomist; Third World activist and ecologist.

René Dumont was born into a staunchly republican family in the northern French city of Cambrai. His mother was a mathematician and school director and his father an agricultural engineer and publisher of the first French agricultural dictionary, Larousse agricole (1921). His close contact with the wounded soldiers who were treated in his mother's high school during World War I directed his political views toward an unshakable pacifism and a radical form of socialism. Although his admiration for the Soviet Union waned during the early 1920s, his overall left-wing orientation remained unchallenged during the rest of his life.

After graduating as an agronomical engineer from the Institut National Agronomique National and specializing at the Institut National D'Agronomique Coloniale at Nogent, Dumont became a colonial administrator in Indochina, where he inspected and studied the cultivation of rice in the Tonkin estuary (on which he wrote his first book, Laculturederiz dans le delta du Tonkin [Rice culture in the Tonkin delta], 1935). Between 1933 and 1974, Dumont taught comparative agriculture at the Institut National Agronomique in Paris, where he became a full professor in 1953.

As an agronomist, Dumont combined a thorough empirical knowledge of agricultural techniques and practices (gathered during innumerable travels throughout Europe and the rest of the world) with a sociological approach to farmers' communities. His work was grounded in the belief that the organization of agriculture is inherently a political matter, and this fundamental assumption guided him in his analysis of French agriculture, which occupied him at the start of his academic career.

During World War II, Dumont contributed articles—primarily technical in nature—to La Terre Française (French earth), a Pétainist journal that pleaded for agricultural corporatism, that is, for a nonconflictual cooperation between growers and refiners for the sake of French national interests. Because of this and because his pacifism kept him out of the Resistance, some critics have, mistakenly, depicted Dumont as a fascist.

After World War II, Dumont became an agricultural expert in the team with which the leading public servant Jean Monnet embarked upon the economic modernization of France. A visit to the United States in 1946 (about which he wrote his Les leçons de l'agriculture américaine [The lessons of American agriculture, 1949]) imbued him with a productivist ideology, according to which agricultural growth had to be attained by drastically raising productivity. In line with these productivist tenets, he contributed greatly to the intensification and mechanization of agricultural methods throughout France.

When French decolonization began in the 1950s, Dumont focused his attention on the Third World, where he tried to apply his productivist approach in support of the newly independent states. He sympathized with and was solicited by those new regimes that recognized the importance of agricultural reforms as the starting point of economic and political emancipation. He particularly admired Mao Zedong's China until he was disenchanted by its ideological dogmatism and the priority it gave to industry, beginning with the Great Leap Forward (1958). Similar disillusionments awaited him with the new regimes in the Maghreb countries (in northwest Africa), in sub-Saharan Africa, and in Latin America (particularly Fidel Castro's Cuba). Whereas he relentlessly pointed to the colonial past and the neocolonial practices of the northern countries as the main impediments to the economic and social development of the southern ones, he nonetheless criticized the regimes of the decolonized countries for blindly imitating the model of the developed world. Most notably, he rejected the primacy given to industrial development and to urban elites at the expense of the peasantry. He expressed this provocatively in his book L'Afrique noire est mal partie (1962; The False Start in Africa). Opposing both the capitalist and the communist models, Dumont believed in the self-regulating capacities of small-scale communities reined in by internal democracy and adapting their agrarian and industrial production to local needs.

Also during the 1960s, Dumont began to abandon his belief in productivist agriculture. He had come to the conclusion that further enhancement of agricultural productivity would exhaust the world's fertile soils and render every form of social and economical progress impossible. As a consequence, his main objective became the reduction of consumption rather than the increase of production. With regard to the Third World, this ecological turn strengthened his support for population control, which he had embraced as early as the 1930s. Not only would overpopulation mortgage all chances of economic development, it would also lead to ecological catastrophes. With regard to the developed countries, his ecological awareness was translated into a sustained cry for austerity. If western overconsumption were to be transposed to the Third World, he argued, the world's natural resources would be exhausted within half a century. Hence his continuous struggle for reducing the use of private cars and the consumption of meat, since large parts of the Third World's agricultural production were aimed at feeding the livestock of the developed world. These convictions found their most powerful expression in his L'utopie ou la mort (1973; Utopia or death). Dumont drew heavily from the information in the report published by the Club of Rome in 1972, The Limits to Growth, but he criticized the report for its apolitical character. Dumont never left any room for doubt that ecological activism was, for him, a form of left-wing engagement, since the first victims of environmental damage were the poor peasants of the Third World.

When the formerly diffuse French ecological movement joined together to run a candidate in the presidential elections of 1974, Dumont became their candidate. Although he only won 1.33 percent of the vote, the campaign politicized the European ecological movement. With his direct, nonconformist style and his flair for mediation, Dumont demonstrated that ecology was not an aesthetic issue but a highly political one. After 1974 Dumont engaged sporadically in ecological politics, most notably when heading the Greens' Parisian list in the 1986 legislative elections and when promoting Dominique Voynet's presidential campaign in 1995. He also served as a symbol and spiritual guide to the French ecological movement, accounting for its overall leftist humanism. In a more marginal way, he played a similar role in the anti-globalization movement and was one of the founders of ATTAC-France.

See alsoAgriculture; Colonialism; Decolonization; Globalization; Greens; Monnet, Jean.


Besset, Jean-Paul. René Dumont: Une vie saisie par l'écologie. Paris, 1992.

Dufumier, Marc, ed. Un agronome dans son siècle: Actualité de René Dumont. Paris, 2002.

Whiteside, Kerry H. "René Dumont and the Fate of Political Ecology in France." Contemporary French Civilization 21 (1997): 1–17.

Marnix Beyen