Q&A: The Face of France's Green Movement

Nicolas Hulot is the green face of France. During 2007's presidential campaign, the popular adventure-TV-star-turned-environmental-activist issued his "Ecological Pact," a list of environmental demands that drew more than 700,000 signatures online. He convinced every major candidate to sign on before he would desist from running for office himself. As such, he was a driving force behind France's epic Grenelle environmental roundtable last year, bringing together thousands of experts and yielding a law that makes their recommendations a reality. Hulot sat down with NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll in Boulogne, east of Paris. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Has the green revolution arrived in France?
NICOLAS HULOT: Not yet. It has started. We've gone from recognition to action. [But] the food, energy, financial and ecological crises show there's a crisis of the system. I'm not yet convinced that France—any more than other countries—has understood that it's the system we have to question. In France, we'll go in the right direction in one area, but then encourage other policies that amplify the problem.

Like what?
The recent Economic Modernization Law will multiply box stores, which oblige people to do big return trips and themselves have long supply-circuits. And when the price of oil rose, the first thought was to subsidize it —exactly what we shouldn't be doing anymore.

Do falling oil prices worry you?
Yes. The only virtue of the oil crisis was the clear signal to learn to be less dependent on oil. Now, because prices vary, people behave accordingly, reducing usage only when oil is expensive. That impedes long-term investment and creativity. We need a carbon tax that would rise constantly, above the cost of living. That way everyone knows oil won't drop and there is a predictable, rational rise.

But in a recession, people think about their immediate economic troubles. How do you convince them these things are worthwhile?
It's complicated. We have to say with one voice—west, east, north, and south—that the climate crisis will spare no one. We have no choice but to change our development model. Not for our grandchildren, for our children.

We're in an economic model, at least in Europe, where most of our taxes are placed on work. But it isn't work we want to regulate. We have to liberate work, since the scourge here is unemployment. It's our environmental impact and energy usage that must be regulated. So we must transfer taxation on work to environmental and energy taxation. That's fiscal-pressure neutral, but you're creating a new economy.

So we can't rely on the market to regulate this?
No. It's not a question of dogma. It's a question of physical reality: we're drawing from resources with finite stocks. You don't need a Nobel in economics to understand that when you're drawing from a finite stock, you need regulation between what it can give you and what you can ask from it. Today, we've just shifted from the illusion of abundance to the reality of rarity.

So we need a bit of dirigisme?
We might not like it. But if means are too dispersed, if intentions are unfocused, if there isn't a road map, we won't get there. So we have to mobilize the means, as in a time of major crisis. We need a Marshall Plan.

What would this Marshall Plan look like?
It's a mobilization of means, like for the financial crisis. It's the principle of sorting the necessary from the superfluous. We can find billions in the space of a few weeks for the financial crisis, but not a few hundred million dollars to reduce poverty or to protect ecosystems. So it's a change of priorities. And it's a new global means of governance so that there are common rules at the world level on the environment and everything connected to it—agriculture, commerce. The ecological crisis impacts all the other crises. It aggravates poverty, creates geopolitical tensions, hurts our economies.

How can world leaders better bridge the link between the economy and ecology?
Some economists have courageously said this economic crisis could amplify if we forget the whole economy historically rests on the appropriation of natural resources. If these natural resources disappeared, no economy could resist. So if it doesn't ascribe a value to them, our economy sooner or later will collapse. We need new indicators that take ecological reality into account.

The Grenelle suggested putting a price on biodiversity. Critics decry pricing life.
We need to put a value on the so-called free services we benefit from. If we don't put a value on all that, we don't realize the prejudice. Just as Nicholas Stern priced action and inaction on climate change, we must put a price on protecting biodiversity and the economic prejudice of letting biodiversity go up in smoke. What does it represent economically if tomorrow such and such insect disappears and x number of plants can't be pollinated because of it? What does it represent if fish stocks disappear from oceans?

Concretely, how can the new green economy create jobs and growth and be profitable?
We have to put it another way: If we do nothing, the current economy will collapse. We'll have to develop a circular economy: reducing our use of limited resources, prolonging the lifespan of what we use and manufacture, and recycling to close the material loop. That demands an enormous number of services, so that's jobs. Renovating buildings, manufacturing renewable energies, are new fountains of jobs.

And we'll have to move toward "selective growth"—choosing what is compatible with environmental and energy realities, with the physical reality of the world. Until now in our democracies, we didn't ask any questions. Whatever we wanted to do, we did. Anything we wanted, we could have. Well, that's finished in the 21st century.