Cousteau: Time to balance the books
For someone who has spent four decades exploring the oceans and waterways of the world and cataloguing the many ways human beings are abusing them, Jean-Michel Cousteau has a surprisingly sunny outlook.
“Fear is a thing of the ‘60s,” he told an audience in Laxson Auditorium Friday evening (Oct. 5). “I’m eternally optimistic. Humans have always been able to respond to crises.”
Another surprise: He puts his faith in business, or at least the terminology of business. Earth, he says, “is the capital we’ve been given free of charge,” but our mistake is that we’ve been living off more than the interest. We’ve been spending the capital. “It’s a management issue,” he says.
That’s a prosaic way to refer to the greatest crisis of our time, but it’s also one most people can understand. And it’s true: We now are fast approaching a kind of ecological bankruptcy that will force us to reorganize our way of doing business—that, or lose the business altogether, so to speak.
It’s not that Cousteau is worried about nature or Earth’s survival. “Nature will make it, one way or another,” he said during a press conference earlier in the day. “The point here is us. We have to change our way of looking at our presence as a species.”
Cousteau is a slender man in his 60s whose beard and full head of hair have gone white. Indoors, all combed and pressed and tidied up, he looks oddly out of place, not at all like he appears in the films and photos of him aboard his sloop Calypso, with his hair windblown, his eyes squinting into the sun, a smile on his face at the pleasure of being in nature.
He continues carrying on the legacy of his father, Jacques Cousteau, the famed French explorer and filmmaker who did more than perhaps anyone in history to call attention to the harmful impacts humans are having on the oceans.
Based since 1968 in Santa Barbara, and long an American citizen, though one with a distinct French accent, Cousteau is president of the Ocean Futures Society, a nonprofit marine conservation and education association, as well as a filmmaker, researcher and international ambassador for the “water planet,” as he calls Earth.
Too easily we forget that the planet is 72 percent water, he said, and that its highest mountain isn’t Everest, but rather the Big Island of Hawaii. All of this water is interconnected, constantly in movement, passing from ocean to cloud to snow and rain and river and stream and back to ocean again. If we pollute one part of it, we pollute all of it.
Cousteau spoke epigrammatically, offering Zen-like shards of insight and brief accounts of ecological disasters—disappearing coral reefs and rainforests, melting Andean glaciers, the ocean being used as a “garbage can"—interspersed among film clips showing some of the work he and his organization are now doing.
Compared to, say, sharks, which have been around for 200-300 million years, humans are new to Earth, having arrived only about 3 million years ago, which is relatively speaking like yesterday. “We’re the infants making all the mistakes,” he said, almost lightly.
And we’ve been making those mistakes only recently, in the last few thousand years, after abandoning ancient hunting societies in favor of civilization and beginning to disconnect from nature. Only now, as we see the consequences of this disconnection, are we trying to reconnect in meaningful ways.
The communications revolution that is making Earth so small is also enabling us to make the kinds of connections needed to protect it, he said. “We can do it. We can take care of all those issues if we want to.”
We need to begin living in ways that mimic nature, he said. “In nature, there is no waste. Everybody has a job. Everything is interconnected.”
Young people, he said during the press conference, increasingly understand this. “If you talk with young people today, you find out more and more that’s what they’re talking about.
“In the end,” he continued, “good sense will prevail, and it all comes down to the pocketbook.”