Ecological awakening at the grandes écoles

Published on 21 February 2024
Discours de l'X.
While the call by AgroParisTech alumni to “branch off” has left its mark on people, it is one of a number of speeches by young graduates calling for a decentring of the sciences. Read the analysis by Morgan Meyer, CNRS Research Director and sociologist at Mines Paris – PSL.

Ce que nous ont appris les discours de jeunes diplômés

In 2022, a number of speeches made at graduation ceremonies at the grandes écoles made their mark, pointing to “biased” courses, calling on people to “desert”, expressing feelings of “eco-anxiety” and criticising “greenwashing”. The speech by the eight “deserters” from AgroParisTech set the ball rolling on 30 April 2022.

Several speeches followed, including those by Anne-Fleur Goll and Camille Fournier at HEC in June 2022, by a group at ENSAT and several classes at Polytechnique in the same month, and by a group at Mines Paris and Albane Crespel at ESSEC.

Behind their similar formats, are these speeches really all in the same vein, or do they highlight different positions? Placing them in a chronological order will help to highlight the underlying rationale and identify what has set the standard and what divides.

Personalised advocacy

The speeches are all highly personal and explicitly reveal the speakers’ emotions and states of mind, whether positive (enthusiasm, passion, pride, determination) or negative (fear, eco-anxiety, unease, sadness). A number of words came up frequently, such as students’ ‘doubts’ and ‘anxiety’, as well as their ‘commitments’ and ‘responsibilities’.

The speeches all point to a macroscopic entity – the “system”, the “world” – and believe that it needs to be “changed” and “transformed”. The problems identified are broadly the same: climate change, loss of biodiversity, social inequalities, pollution. Taken as a whole, these speeches display the same style: they are personalised, emotional, critical and reflexive pleas about the state of the world, proposing certain avenues for transforming it.

These speeches need to be understood in their historical context, because two of them were landmark events and helped to create momentum. Firstly, there was the speech by Clément Choisne at Centrale Nantes in November 2018, which criticised programmed obsolescence and over-consumption, while calling for greater sobriety and ethics. This speech inspired many students by instituting a new kind of speaking engagement.

The AgroParisTech deserters went on to make a major contribution to popularising this type of discourse, while at the same time establishing a certain grammar: the words “desert” and “bifurcate” are now almost obligatory points of passage in this type of discourse.

Different proposals

There are three levels of criticism. There are speeches that are highly critical (those given at Centrale Nantes, AgroParisTech, ENSAT, Polytechnique and ESSEC). The accusation is radical and unreserved: industry, capitalism, the school and the training of students are directly and jointly criticised. Deserters from AgroParisTech, for example, criticise their training, agro-industry, capitalism, start-ups and terms such as transition, speaking of “devastation” and “destructive jobs”.

Other speeches are more nuanced in their criticism, such as those given at HEC, where the finger is pointed at the ‘system’, while industry and training are only lightly criticised. Finally, the discourse at Mines Paris is relatively positive. Despite some critical remarks (“technical solutionism will not suffice”), it is largely focused on commitment.

Speech by Anne-Fleur Goll (HEC Graduation, 2022) :

The solutions proposed also differ. On the one hand, there are those who believe that we need to get out of the system: that we need to “get away from it” (Centrale Nantes), “branch off” (AgroParisTech, ENSAT), “boycott it” (ENSAT), “undermine the lobbies and companies, stop the agro-industry” (ESSEC). On the other hand, there are those (at HEC and Mines) who take a less disruptive approach, calling instead for changing the system from the ‘inside’, while using a vocabulary focused on responsibility.

Somewhere between these two positions, the speeches given at Polytechnique consider that “everyone” can contribute to change, “by changing the system from within or by deserting it” and do not wish “to advocate one path rather than another”.

Positions on training also differ. For example, the students from Mines Paris thanked their school for having been able to “benefit from high-quality training”, while the deserters from AgroParisTech denounced “training that encourages people overall to participate in the social and ecological devastation underway”. The ENSAT students were more moderate, calling for more interdisciplinarity and the integration of practical knowledge.

A central term: fork in the road

Among the words frequently used, there is one that stands out: “bifurcate”. First of all, it is used in the AgroParisTech speech, in which branching out is a professional and personal choice: “it’s up to you to find your own ways of branching out” concludes the speech.

In the speech by Camille Fournier (HEC), the term is used to address a wider audience: not just young graduates, but also people working in companies. Here the term has a more positive, and less radical, connotation, being juxtaposed with the word ensemble: “Let’s branch out together!” In so doing, Fournier has de-radicalised and desingularised the term.

In the ESSEC speech, bifurquer is used in a very similar sense to deserter. However, the emphasis is on indignation, with a reference to Stéphane Hessel, author of Indignez-Vous!

It was in the ENSAT speech that the term bifurcate was discussed most extensively. A threefold definition was given: doing things differently (taking a different path, changing the world, leaving projects behind), criticising (questioning, interrogating) and creating links. The ENSAT’s discourse thus pluralizes the meaning of the word bifurcate, making it refer to changing, criticizing and creating common ground.

While the term ‘desert’ is used more consistently and singularly throughout the speeches, the term ‘bifurcate’ has a more complex biography. It was publicised and politicised by the AgroParisTech deserters, and then repeatedly referenced, redefined, reinterpreted and criticised.

Between desertion and commitment

In many media, discussions have focused on the critical scope and radicalism of these discourses. However, these discourses cannot be reduced to criticism. Students are demonstrating a dual strategy of attachment and detachment: they are pointing the finger at ecological problems and distancing themselves from the current ‘system’, while at the same time affirming what they hold dear: their professional choices, their values, their ways of seeing the world.

Alongside the criticisms of the existing world, there are also all those positive, committed and open-minded elements that describe a world yet to come. It is this double play between desertion and commitment, between criticism and hope, between the personal and the institutional, that partly explains the rhetorical force of the statements.

Despite the fact that there is a certain amount of questioning of the sciences, there is no formal anti-scientific stance in the speeches. Instead, even the most critical discourses propose a decentring of the sciences. The phrase “technology alone will not save us” is illustrative: it’s not a question of doing without science, but of not letting it work “alone”.

Cérémonie de remise de diplômes 2022 aux Mines de Paris :

We can speak here of the “greening” of science, in two senses of the term. Firstly, there are calls for the issues of ecology and climate change to be given a more central place in the curriculum. Secondly, the ecology – in the sense of Star and Griesemer – of the sciences is important: we need to look at problems in an anti-reductionist way, placing the sciences in their wider ecosystem and putting the spotlight on the relationships between science, society and politics. The greening of science is both a question of educational content and a question of epistemic posture.

The transformation of Polytechnique’s slogan “For the Fatherland, the Sciences and Glory” into “For Humanity, the Living and the Future” exemplifies this change in attitude. Science and the nation are no longer central, but give way to concern for – and care for – the living world.

Can we speak of an ‘ecological awakening’ among engineers and students? The speeches analysed here need to be placed in a broader context, with the launch of associations such as Ingénieur-e-s Engagé-e-s (in 2017) and Les Désert’heureuses (in 2022), and the publication of collective forums, manifestos and books on the subject for the general public.

It’s easy to understand the controversies and debates sparked by these speeches, because they go to the very heart of what it means to be an engineer. On the one hand, there is the vision of the engineer as a modernist figure who controls, who designs solutions and who rejects all forms of sentiment. Remember André Grelon’s analysis of engineers as “united by the same faith in technical objectivity and in the love of good work and scientific progress”. On the other hand, there is a vision of the engineer as an ecologist, who listens and can doubt, who cares and who makes his feelings and attachments explicit.

Morgan Meyer, CNRS Research Director, Sociologist, Mines Paris

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.