The Waters of Life
Interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau
by Bill Bruzy
Jean-Michel Cousteau has spent his life exploring the world’s oceans and communicating his love for the natural world. An eloquent speaker, passionate about the environment, Jean-Michel lectures to as many as 100,000 people in a single year communicating that love. While quite realistic about our environmental dilemmas and damage he is optimistic about our human capacity to master this crisis.
Trained as an architect he is a member of the Ordre National des Archetects of France and is a founding member and Vice President of Equipe Cousteau, the Cousteaus Society’s sister company in France. He has also been executive producer of “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and a number of other award winning Cousteau documentaries.
His father, environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, once told him, “people protect the things they love.” Jean-Michel wanted me to mention that this is “The Year of the Ocean” and the slogan is “If you protect the ocean you protect yourself.”
Bill Bruzy You seem positive about our human capacity to meet environmental challenges. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of our difficulties with the environment. What is the source of your optimism?
Jean-Michel Cousteau The basis of my optimism is that if you look at all the things that have happened in the past, in the history of human kind, we have always come out of crisis. I think that one more time we will. The capacity of the brain to resolve issues is infinite.
My father, together with other people, was very instrumental in making us aware of what those problems were. Now that we know what the problems are, it is our job to go to work and find solutions. There are so many people concerned and aware of the issues, what the problems are, that I believe we will find solutions and ultimately manage the environment on which we depend. The knowledge has been acquired and we understand how it works. We didn’t understand how it worked before.
BB There has been so much change in the course of two or three generations. The environment, for almost all of human history, has been bigger than us. Thinking, at least in the western mind, couldn’t conceive of hurting the environment because it was just too huge and powerful.
Now all of a sudden we have to be careful with how we treat the world because we can break it. Our choices are more powerful than the environment. That’s new thinking for human beings.
JMC First of all, man as a species didn’t do too well for the majority of our existence, three million years. We barely made it because we were so ill equipped. Whether it was fur or fangs or claws we didn’t have any of that. So we had to hide and borrow other animals fur to protect ourselves from the cold. We were hiding in caves. It was miserable.
Then suddenly we put the tools together, which were our brains and our hands. With these two tools we started making miracles. That just happened in the past few centuries. Following this we lost track of the environment in which we lived. In the very recent past, in the industrial revolution, we have literally removed ourselves from the environment. We were no longer an intricate part of it.
That’s where the paradox is. We are no longer part of it but we are finding out we depend on it. We depend upon it for the basic fluids of life such as air and water. We’ve taken all of that for granted for a very long time even though the quality of that defines the quality of our lives.
We also have forgotten certain values which are not measured in dollars but are measured in happiness. We have forgotten the world that surrounds us. Do we like to have little birds and butterflies and roses or do we want to be in a concrete jungle with nothing moving? We know very well that the aspiration of most of us is to go to the ocean, go to the mountain, enjoy the rain forest and all these things. So obviously if we eliminate all those things we are going to make our lives miserable. We may be very rich, money wise, but very poor. Happiness is measured by more than just how much money you make.
That’s something we are in the process of rediscovering. I’m writing about that now. One of my main interests is to reestablish a sense of value of time, the quality of time, not by dollars but by what it means to each and every one of us. The preciousness of time!
BB Yes, wonderful. I love hearing that. And it leads me to concerns about our contemporary world. It’s dominated by the thinking and behavior of corporate culture. Specifically, children are deprived of what I guess I would call a more personal world. Day care, television, both parents working, “quality time” as some kind of goal oriented thing on a checklist in the day-timer. These kids live in a depersonalized environment.
What can be done in terms of the next generation? I worry about these kids having a much too impersonal connection to the world around them.
JMC There has been a disconnection, a departure, of the family unit by allowing it to fall apart because of a number of issues. More and more both parents go to work. Also technology has allowed us to bring in cheap equipment in everybody’s home which allows the big entertainment-communications industries to send at random, with no control, a gigantic amount of garbage into everybody’s home
It’s an intrusion of privacy. It’s presenting the ugliest part of the human side. It’s cheap, easy to do. It doesn’t take much time, doesn’t take much talent. That has invaded everyone’s life. We haven’t developed, had the courage, the will, to develop a certain kind of control system where that is kept away. So much so that there is a great deal of confusion in the minds of young people today between reality and fiction.
A lot of them think that what they see on television and those CD-roms, those games, is the real world. It’s the world they think they are going to get into, have to clear a path in. It’s a world where it’s okay to kill each other, do drugs, be a criminal, smoke, drink, and on and on and on.
We don’t do the other things. We don’t say it’s nice to go explore nature, it’s nice to understand the creatures that surround us. It’s interesting to understand how they relate to us and how it works. These plants and animals are making our life exciting. This is where the reality ends up being more intriguing, more exciting, more challenging, than fiction. But it’s difficult to do, it’s hard, it’s more expensive and it needs more talent. We haven’t taken that route. We’ve taken the easy route. As a result the family unit, on one hand, is literally destroyed. We are literally invading children’s brains with garbage. That is the problem.
I am fundamentally convinced human beings are good material at the core. If you help it go in the proper direction it is going to do good things. So I am not so much interested in the ruling class, or the adults. I am more interested in the children, before it’s too late. We can put in their brains all these marvels of the world we live in. We can put these things in where they have been almost systematically avoided in their education and media exposure.
I am also very interested in the generation of grandparents. The grandparents have not been invaded. People sixty and over didn’t have television when they were kids or if they did it was very little and what there was was good. These people have not been brainwashed, brain-polluted. They have a lot of wisdom, a lot of experience, more than the kids of course. They have a great deal of time because they are retired for the most part. They also, some of them, have resources, both money and time. They have something which is absolutely formidable, a gigantic amount of love for their grandchildren.
We can bypass that middle generation completely. That way I believe we could resolve anything.
BB So what can be done? What actions taken?
JMC Well, the grandparents can take the children and show them the real world, the world they have been kept away from. I would add to this big picture another element not often taken into consideration. That is the role of the teacher.
The teacher in my generation anyway, were people we revered, admired, challenged. They were people we had a rapport with and a great deal of respect for. Today teachers are third class citizens. They are to be spat on and teased and joked about. If you raise your voice someone will want to sue you.
The respect for the teacher needs to be restored. The tools they need to do their work need to be provided. We have failed to do that. We have frozen everything decades ago and they don’t have the means to do what they could do best. That’s another part of the equation that needs to be recognized.
BB So were talking about “in-close” to people, the influence of the immediate environment relationally and electronically but what about “out there” on a global scale? For example the United Nations is really the only international political body and the environmental ills are truly global in proportion. The United Nations is all we have. Of course business is international, capital flows through political boundaries but I don’t expect to find much help there. What’s your feeling about the UN’s role in the global environmental concern?
JMC Unless we come up with a better system it’s the only one we have that addresses international issues. So I’m a firm, strong, supporter of the United Nations as a concept. The implementation can always be improved and there is a lot of room for that to happen.
There is a lot of criticism of the United Nations. It’s easy to critique but I haven’t heard of someone coming up with a better idea. If someone comes up with a better idea, great! Let’s look into it. But until then we have to work with what we have. What we have can be improved. We should do that and a lot of people are trying to do that. But the UN is a must, a formidable tool. If we were to not constantly talk about it’s mistakes but focus on the hundreds of thousands of lives the UN has saved perhaps we would see that the UN is not such a bad thing.
Now, let’s look at the world as a whole, the earth. We’re still not in charge of the entire earth. We are in charge of a minority of the earth. Over 72% of the earth’s surface is oceans. There we have no control beyond the economic zone of two hundred miles which goes off each of the nations shorelines.
The great great majority of that ocean is no-man’s-land. No regulation, no United Nations, there is nothing out there telling us how to manage this resource. That is the big problem we have today. The ocean is a universal sewer, the garbage can of the world, still today. We can fish at will with no regulation. We can harvest things beyond the capacity of nature to replace itself. We are gobbling up our capital which we shouldn’t do at a time when our demand is growing.
I wish there was an international body that would regulate the ocean so we could say that man is in charge. We are not in charge today. We are in charge of the land but not he ocean. That’s a catastrophe. We are finding out, particularly on the occasion of the International Year of Ocean, that we don’t know what we’re doing out there. We’d better get hold of ourselves and get organized.
BB I’m concerned about nuclear weapons, nuclear waste. To me it’s the most dangerous of our environmental challenges. We don’t see it wash up on a beach like a fish kill. Plutonium, weapons grade uranium, low-level waste, are really just abstractions for most of us. We don’t even know what’s out there anymore. We have fantasies this stuff is well controlled but with the fall of the Soviets huge quantities of these most lethal compounds on earth are not even accounted for. No one know where they are. Again, no one is really in charge of a lot of this stuff. What’s your thinking about the nuclear problem?
JMC I’m very concerned about this and I think my father had addressed that issue a number of times, often unheard, unlistened to. We are now probably more than ever under the false assumption that since the cold-war is over every thing is fine. It may be worse now than ever. Nobody is really focusing on it because we believe that peace prevails and therefore everything is okay.
What is really frightening is not only don’t we know where all that stuff is and how it’s being stored and controlled and protected we also know a lot of it has disappeared. We know for a fact some really hot stuff is unaccounted for. Who has gotten hold of it? Who is going to play with it and eventually hurt the species, the human species and the rest of the planet?
That’s where we are. There has been no real outcry on the issue in the recent past. Either because of convenience or complaisance but the fact is we are up the creek. It’s probably going to take, and I’m sorry to say this, a major accident or incident, for us to wake up.
BB I know, it’s sad. We are connected whether we notice or not. You’ve talked about our connection through water. Say more about that.
JMC We connect in more than just through water but we do find water everywhere whether it’s salt-water or fresh-water. It’s all the same body of water which keeps circulating, going to the ocean or lakes, evaporating, making clouds and falling again and going right back into the ocean. So there is a constantly ongoing process. So much so that if you start to look at things like the salinity of our blood it is the same as the ocean. We completely depend on that water system.
Not very long ago my dear friend, unfortunately who left us, John Denver, had invited me to Colorado, in Aspen, to be part of a symposium. At the end of my talk I opened it for questions and people said, “well what is a Cousteau doing at this altitude?” I was taken by surprise. But then I had the instant reaction of saying, “but you don’t understand. The ocean is on top of your mountain!” That’s what it’s all about. We all connect through that water system.
BB Have you had experiences of connection? Not only the knowing of the intellect but maybe at sea or in some way have you felt that connection?
JMC I always do. Shortly after my father’s death and funeral, within a week, I had to be in California for an event. There were eighty-some people there and we were all to go in the water. I asked them if I could get in the water before they did so I could have a few moments with my dad.
He’s not wherever people think humans go when they die. As far as I’m concerned he’s down there in the kelp forest, in the ocean. I knelt down in the middle of the kelp and had this incredible feeling of being a complete part of it, part of that environment. I was obviously profoundly effected by my recent loss and the bond I’d always had with my dad. But that’s the place that he made me discover and after almost sixty years I was in complete symbiosis with it.
Bill Bruzy is a writer, counselor, community college teacher and owner/director of the Austin Men’s Center. This interview was previously published in New Texas Magazine.