Happy Apocalypse

Happy Apocalypse:A History of Technological Risk

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How risk, disasters and pollution were managed and made acceptable during the Industrial Revolution

Being environmentally conscious is not nearly as modern as we imagine. As a mode of thinking it goes back hundreds of years. Yet we typically imagine ourselves among the first to grasp the impact humanity has on the environment. Hence there is a fashion for green confessions and mea culpas.

But the notion of a contemporary ecological awakening leads to political impasse. It erases a long history of environmental destruction. Furthermore, by focusing on our present virtues, it overlooks the struggles from which our perspective arose.

In response, Happy Apocalypse plunges us into the heart of controversies that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries around factories, machines, vaccines and railways. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz demonstrates how risk was conceived, managed, distributed and erased to facilitate industrialization. He explores how clinical expertise around 1800 allowed vaccination to be presented as completely benign, how the polluter-pays principle emerged in the nineteenth century to legitimize the chemical industry, how safety norms were invented to secure industrial capital and how criticisms and objections were silenced or overcome to establish technological modernity.

Societies of the past did not inadvertently alter their environments on a massive scale. Nor did they disregard the consequences of their decisions. They seriously considered them, sometimes with dread. The history recounted in this book is not one of a sudden awakening but a process of modernising environmental disinhibition.


  • Happy Apocalypse offers a compelling, powerful and very timely critique of the claim that we live in a period unprecedentedly marked by an awareness of technological crises and environmental risks. Fressoz shows instead, and in striking detail, how in France and Britain in the decades around 1800, in major fields of concern such as public health, industrial safety and environmental impact, calculations of risk and estimates of safety were both impressively widespread and energetically debated. The book offers a brilliantly original analysis of how industrialists and entrepreneurs, legislators and scientists, public lobbies and private interests, all made sense of the processes that accompanied the establishment of new kinds of capitalist society and their models of welfare, profit and security. Happy Apocalypse will be required reading for anyone concerned with the ways in which current crises of safety and survival can be better understood in their proper historical settings.

    Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge
  • This book is a luminous enquiry into how society was remade to acquiesce in the risks presented by new medical procedures, new forms of lighting and industrial waste. Instead of fables of ignorance, a naïve belief in progress, or ridiculous opposition to the novel Fressoz shows how, in nineteenth-century France in particular, a powerful environmental consciousness was remoulded through complex political and juridical processes to make possible the use of the new. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in how the modern world changes, and a refreshing antidote to the banalities and mendacities which still dominate our discussions of technical and medical change.

    David Edgerton, King's College London
  • Casting light on how humanity sleepwalked its way into the climate crisis, this meticulous study examines how harmful technologies overcame initial public resistance on their way to widespread acceptance in early 19th-century France.

    Publishers Weekly