IN MEMORY OF A GREAT ENVIRONMENTALIST

Jacques Yves Cousteau at 85

03/01/96


Jacques Yves Cousteau at 85 The Undersea World of a True Environmental Explorer

The highlights of Jacques Cousteau's life are hardly a mystery; every schoolkid knows about his World War II Resistance work, his invention of the aqualung, his pioneering underwater photography, his famous TV program The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1968-1976), his environmental activism and his many awards and prizes. A picture of Cousteau in a wet suit is one of the icons of our time. Less well known, perhaps, is Cousteau's irascible nature, which has led to occasional breaks with his family (he recently filed legal papers against his son Jean-Michel in a dispute over a resort in Fiji), and to devil's advocate positions in interviews like this one. But even when he's comparing young dolphins to "Atilla the Hun," there's solid science in Cousteau's position.

At 85, Cousteau is trim, very alert and smiles constantly, seeing the world in a spirit of amused forebearance. He's enormous fun to be around. If Cousteau is thinking at all of retiring, it's going to have to wait until he's finished the many projects, travels and films he has planned for at least the next five years. And now he's got a new project: replacing Calypso, the former minesweeper that's been carrying him around the world since 1950. Calypso sank in Singapore Harbor in January after being accidently hit by a barge. Calypso II, which uses both conventional diesel power and a revolutionary "Turbosail," should be seaworthy in a year.

E: Where you surprised when, in 1970, there was an explosion of interest in the environment tied to the first Earth Day?

Jacques Cousteau: Yes, it is true that it exploded stronger in the U.S. than elsewhere, but it was not in the United States that it originated. The awareness of our environment came progressively in all countries with different outlets. For example, in Germany it became political very soon. In France it tried to become political and failed. Here it remained in the right place for a long time until it started to fade out.

It's fading out in the United States now, I'm sorry to say. People are still very much interested but seem to be turning their backs on the real problems. The monumental problem for the future is overpopulation. We had hoped that the Cairo Summit would help us find solutions, to send a clear message to people. The biggest obstacle was mixing abortion with overpopulation. These are two things that have nothing to do with each other.

E: You've pointed out that the world population was relatively stable in the millennium between the years 900 and 1900, but now population is predicted to double just within your lifetime.

Not double, quadruple. When I was born the population of the world was 1.3 billion. It is now 5.6 billion. Recently in France we celebrated the 125th anniversary of a woman who's probably the oldest person in the world. When she was born the population of the world was 700 million. During her lifetime, the population has increased eight-fold.

E: Do you think we'll be able to feed this population?

The problem has nothing to do with food. This is always the question people ask, but it is a bad question. The food will be there; they are not going to starve. But what kind of life will they have? How will we have sufficient supplies of potable water? There lurking problems can become monumental. We have only 40 years to find solutions, but that won't include actually reducing the population. The population cannot be reduced until 50 years from now because the majority of people existing today in the third world, where populations have exploded, are less than 16 years old. Even if we reduced the fertility of people now to two kids per family, we would still reach 10 billion in 45 years. It's mathematical; there is nothing we can do.

But we can do one big thing: Open our arms and say to these 10 billion people, "Welcome to this Earth." We have to prepare living space for them. We will have to modify our own way of living so that they can share the joy of living and the dignity of being a human being. It's a monumental task for us now! The world, unfortunately, is not ready for major changes in our lifestyles, which is where the pessimists come in. The optimists, and I am a kind of an optimist, will say, "OK, we'll have a crisis, but we'll come out of that."

E: You were saying in 1976 that the world's oceans were in their "death throes."

No, I never used that word. I said that the oceans were sick but they're not going to die. There is no death possible in the oceans--there will always be life--but they're getting sicker every year. On land, over one million species, eight percent of all the species ever counted, have gone extinct in the last two centuries. It's a serious disaster. But in the sea, the species that have disappeared are counted on the fingers of the hands. Why? Because it is not the same problem. Take for example the herrings of the North Sea. They were considered wiped out by overfishing four years ago. Now the fishing has stopped for a couple of years and now there are more herring than ever before. Why? Because in the sea marine mammals lay hundreds of thousands of eggs every year, like insects. The repopulation is extremely quick. It is almost impossible to exterminate a species in the sea without leaving at least two of them to reproduce.

On land if you wanted to eliminate the elephants, it could easily be done. If you wanted to eliminate rhinos, well, it's even easier. Why? Because they have just one birth every year--if everything goes well--instead of the millions that insects and fish have. So to speak of death in the sea is nonsense. But the sea is vastly overfished and polluted, mismanaged on the coastlines, all this is true. But it's not dead and it won't die.

E: But we do have an almost world-wide fishing crisis, and that's led us to close George's Bank and some of the other famously rich fishing areas.

It's a detail.

E: You think fishing will come back strongly?

It could come back. Five years after stopping fishing it's back to what it was.

E: You're saying that the ocean is more resilient than the land?

Much more, much more.

E: Let's get back to something you mentioned earlier, which is that environmentalism as a movement is on the retreat. You mentioned France and the U.S. Why do you think that this is happening now that it's clear that what environmentalists have been saying is true?

It's difficult to analyze because there is no real reason. Environmentalism has created jobs, has been proven to bring in new business. Thirty years ago it was considered an obstacle to the European way of life, but now it is a part of the European way of life. So we have a problem understanding why if it's a plus, it is no more encouraged or developed. It's difficult to understand. What the Republicans are trying to do is a disaster. But I don't think the politicians are really making decisions on their own--they don't control the economic situation. The economy is governing the world much more than President Clinton or President Chirac.

E: So you think that environmental forces are inexorable, that they won't be stopped simply by changes in government?

What we have to do is separate the environmental movement from an exaggerated sentimentalism. "Oh, poor little animal." I'll give you an example. "Baby seals, they are slaughtered, it is awful." Yes, it is awful but we have suppressed their predators so the scientists in Canada have to decide how many baby seals to kill to keep the population stable. It is not cruelty, it is a logical decision of scientists.

E: Marine mammals like dolphins and whales, obviously, are higher animals, and people say "Oh, the poor whales," or "Oh, the poor dolphins," as much as they say "Oh, the poor seals." A lot of evidence suggests that dolphins and whales are capable of what you might call human-like empathy. Do you think there is strong evidence for that? Can they care about each other and have a strong self-identity?

My cats are capable of human empathy. (Laughs.)

E: But do you think dolphins have more of it?

I'm not sure.

E: Have you seen examples of it?

I read examples in mythology. But in fact, when we try to film the dolphins in the water, they fly away. It's very difficult to try to approach a gang of dolphins in freedom. Some dolphins that have been captured have been trained to be adorable pets, but that has nothing to do with their natural empathy.

E: In their natural state they wouldn't be like that?

They live their lives. The young dolphins, when they are one or two or three years old, become terrible savages. They form gangs...it's like Atilla the Hun when they arrive somewhere. "Oh, poor little dolphin." They become Atilla.

E: Well, I guess in the American mind they are associated with Flipper.

Not just in America, the world.

E: Well, what is it that makes us like dolphins so much then?

Because they have a built-in smile that has nothing to do with smiling.

E: It doesn't seem like the environmental movement and the animal rights movement get along very well. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on animal rights. Do you think animals have rights?

They have a right to live when they are not killed for us to eat. A pig, for example, is a wonderful animal. Very intelligent, almost as intelligent as a dolphin. But we cut their throats while they are still living to get their blood to make sausages and whatever. After that we say, "Oh, the poor little baby seal." We are terrible and cruel. We are a very despotic species, humans.

E: What about the movements against factory-farming conditions and vivisection?

There are vivisection abuses but some of it is unavoidable. We have to test some. What about our search for an AIDS vaccine; are we going to stop that because of vivisection? C'mon.

E: Do you think then that animal testing will lead to a cure for AIDS?

Not necessarily. That is why I said there are abuses. There are abuses that can be stopped. There should be an ethical group deciding when animal research is a must for the human species. When it is not a must, then we must suppress it.

E: Do you believe that should be done on the level of the United Nations?

Yes. It has to be international because it does not have enough impact if one country does it. I am in favor of suppressing cruelty whenever it is feasible, but we've got to survive. And we've got to use science to tell us what to do. That is, if the science is not polluted by industry, which is sometimes true in medical care. Some avenues of medicine are strongly influenced by profit.

E: You were instrumental in developing the inventions that have allowed us to explore the oceans. The aqualung and the submersible submarine are two. You experimented with living under the sea for long periods of time. Is there a future to that, do you think?

No, none. Why would you stop enjoying the sun? It's wet down there. (Laughs.)

E: Well, we were talking about the population increasing so dramatically, maybe we're going to need somewhere to put all of those people.

No, it's complete fantasy. I think we will reach 13 billion people in a half century, level off and go down. And when we reach 13 billion the most difficult problem for us will be to keep enough wild spaces for the animals. We will have to fight to contain the pressure of humans so that a minimum, a feasible minimum, a sufficient minimum, is set aside for wildlife. Otherwise, what would happen?

E: Another aspect of that question is the distribution of wealth. Can you comment on that and the work you are doing in New York with the United Nations?

The UN is preaching the elimination of poverty, balance of income between the generations, yakety, yakety, yak. We give very good recommendations, but they are not decisions because the UN has no power to decide. It is a club of nations leaving the sacrosanct national sovereignty intact. If we had time, these recommendations would finally prevail, but after centuries. Knowing that we have 40 years before we see the population reach that crazy number of 10 billion, we have to find shortcuts.

We have to prepare for what life could become in 40 years. We need to outline what is possible and what is impossible with the non-renewable resources of the Earth. What role will technological improvement play? Taking all this into account, what kind of life can we produce in the best way for 10 billion people? That's a problem that needs to be solved.

E: I know you've done a lot of exploration in Antarctica and we saw a hole in the ozone layer open there. I was wondering how serious you feel the global warming issue is?

It's a very difficult problem to decide, global warming, because arguments are good both ways. It is probably true, the greenhouse effect syndrome. I say probably because we're not so sure. It is a good thing that we take all the measures to limit the greenhouse effect by reducing CO2--that is a good precaution--but let's be realistic. Seventeen-thousand years ago the water level of the sea was 170 meters lower than today. There was no man, no industry, and the greenhouse effect came from volcanic clouds. The cause of the warming up of the earth is not only human it is geophysical. There are decimation periods and their are warming-up periods. We are now in a warming-up period and the level of the sea is increasing four millimeters per year. So I don't know what to say except we should be careful and not add to nature an additional bad factor. But to say we are responsible for the warming up, no.

E: You would tell people not to buy property on the coast though. (Laughs.)

It is only four millimeters per year.

E: But you don't think that pace will increase? Aren't we seeing evidence of that pace increasing?

How do we know? The volcanic effects are probably much stronger than the human effects, and what is going to be spilled out of the volcanoes in the future? We don't know. How many spray cans in an eruption of a volcano?

E: Which area of pollution worries you the most?

I don't make a separation, I worry about the entire system. Our way of managing the Earth is wrong.

Contact: The Cousteau Society, 870 Greenbrier Circle, Suite 402, Chesapeake, VA 23320/ (804)523-9335.

JIM MOTAVALLI is managing editor of E; SUSAN ELAN is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.


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