Monday, May 22, 2017

Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Antarctica

This is an excerpt from a long, unpublished piece I wrote about Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1993 after interviewing him multiple times over the previous four years. With Antarctica now conspicuously imperiled, it may be of particular interest.

... Cousteau took a long time to realize the political potential of his fame, and longer still to decide what to do with it. The antic activism of Greenpeace did not interest him, certainly. Cousteau didn't need to draw attention to himself by hanging banners on warships or dumping sludge on doorsteps. If he walked down the street he could pull a crowd. For years French polls have ranked him the most popular man in the country, and his office claimed it got 80,000 letters asking him to run for president in 1988.

Still, it wasn't until the fight for Antarctica that Cousteau realized just how much power he might have.

As he tells the story he was reading the International Herald Tribune one morning in 1988 when he noticed that several signatories of the Antarctic Treaty had given their initial approval in Wellington, New Zealand, to a convention on mining and drilling in the frozen continent. It would put severe restrictions on prospecting, but by providing a legal framework for claims, it could eventually open the door to exploitation. The United States and France fully supported the convention.

Cousteau knew this place, Antarctica. He and his son Philippe had gone there in 1972 and 1973 and been overwhelmed by its beauty. The stupidity of mining there, of doing anything that put this virgin continent at risk, seemed so manifest that he could not conceive why governments would approve such undertakings. The villains, he concluded, were bureaucrats who put their careers before the good of mankind. "The scribes are governing and not the governments," Cousteau declared. "The prime minister can say to his apparatchiks what he wants, when he is gone they do what they want."

One Tucker Scully, the State Department official who dealt directly with the Antarctic Treaty, became the target of Cousteau's special contempt. And after fifteen years working on the subject, the ever diplomatic Scully initially met the captain's criticisms with polite contempt. "Maybe it's time for new blood," he said in the corridors at a 1989 Paris conference on Antarctica. "But as of now thirteen agencies of the U.S. government concur in the positions we're taking."

Cousteau decided to go to the top. He personally lobbied French President Francois Mitterrand, as well as the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand. And finally Captain Cousteau went to Washington.

The fate of the frozen continent was not exactly a  burning issue on Capitol Hill. A handful of environmental  activists like Susan Sabella of Greenpeace and James Barnes of the Antarctica Project had followed the issue closely, hoping to defeat the Wellington Convention by working with congressional staffers, issuing reports, occasionally testifying before committees and laboring over every word of pending legislation. They were, essentially, creatures of the Hill, and when Cousteau hit town in his turtleneck and leisure suit he looked, to them, like someone from another planet. But there was no question he had an impact. "You have members of congress that go ga-ga. They bring their children out for pictures with him," said Richard Munson, a congressional staffer and environmentalist who wrote a 1989 biography critical of Cousteau. "This is generally a pretty cynical lot," said Munson, "but you see some of them treat him almost with reverence."

Occasionally, weary from a relentless schedule, Cousteau would muddle facts: 30,000 birds affected by a recent oil spill in the Antarctic suddenly became 30,000 birds killed. Cousteau described the Wellington Convention as secretly negotiated, when in fact Barnes had been able to follow its evolution for years. As the captain spoke before members of the House Foreign Affairs committee Sabella and Barnes shifted in their seats, stifling laughs. "I kept wanting to say 'point of information,'" said Barnes when it was over. "He doesn't understand the politics of it at all." But when Cousteau begged off on one question about Antarctica by saying "I am not a prophet," Congressman Wayne Owens of Utah allowed as how "some think you are." Nobody ever said that about Barnes or Sabella.

Cousteau had access no other Antarctic lobbyists ever had. Conservative senators opened their doors to him. Liberals embraced him. At a breakfast in the Rayburn building, a dinner in the Capitol, they listened to him expound not only on the fate of Antarctica, but on the future of the world. "Since I was born, the population of the earth has tripled. And it goes on. Every two years there is another France. Every 10 years, another China." There are, right now, more than 5 billion people in the world.  "It's a heavy, heavy threat. We weigh too much on the planet." Some scientists believe the earth can feed three times its present population. "But is the goal to feed more people and have them lead a miserable life or is it better to have fewer people lead a full life?" he asked. "If you have 12 or 15 billion people there will be no nightingales, no butterflies no et cetera. And you will have only a few animals -- cows, pigs, sheep -- to feed those people. Everything else will be destroyed."

Cousteau began, in fact, to preach his revolution.

"It is during this next hundred years that the future" -- of mankind, of the et cetera --"will be decided." Sure the cost of setting things straight will be high: women in the developing world have to be educated so birth rates will go down, the poor have to be convinced that their future security does not depend on the proliferation of their descendants. Something like a global welfare system needs to be created. "Urgency makes this possible," said Cousteau. "If the doctor tells you you have cancer you enter the hospital, even if you have to borrow money."

People have to get over the idea that consumption and contentment go together. Cousteau reserves special disdain for the notion of "sustained development" dear to most politically savvy environmentalists.  If American-style consumerist prosperity continues to be the model for the world's aspirations, in Cousteau's opinion all is lost. "Seven hundred million Americans, that's all that the earth could support: 700 million Americans, it means nobody else." The positive side of the Third World's underdevelopment is that "more than half the planet's human beings are not yet consumers."

All of which met with polite nods among the photo opportunists of the Hill, and drew particular attention from then-Senator Al Gore. For the future vice president, Cousteau was something special. The baby-boomer politician had grown up with him, just like the rest of us, then became a personal friend. "I first invited him to come and speak to the U.S. Congress twelve years ago, and I have spent a great deal of time with him," said the senator. "I was at his last birthday party in Paris." They may have different accents, but two speak much the same eco-visionary language, rattling off alarming statistics, trying to picture a world that works very differently from anything we've experienced before. At the end of Gore's best-selling book he writes about the effect his son's brush with death had on his views, and the impportance of "inner ecology." "We can believe in that future and work to achieve it and preserve it, or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy. The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance." All this sounds remarkably like Cousteau. 

In the end, on Antarctica, the captain -- and Barnes and Sabella, and Gore, and the rest of the environmentalists -- won. A complete moratorium was declared on prospecting as well as mining for the next half-century, and that was good enough for Cousteau. "It is a victory of good sense, really," he said later. "I have just been a soldier of good sense." But Cousteau, while he still laughs at himself, finds it hard to be humble. "I carry on piling up information and I've done that all my life," he said. "I'm in a position, and I didn't want it, it happened to me, where I know more about the environment than anyone else alive."

There are, of course, many environmentalists who would question this claim. Even Al Gore, who likes to quote authorities as varied as Aristotle, R.D. Laing and Carl Sagan, only mentions Cousteau once in his book, and then only in passing. He doesn't include a single work by the captain in his bibliography. It is as if, after all he has done and learned, all the photo opportunities and homages, in the end Cousteau is not to be taken seriously. His information is too general, his interests range too widely, his talents are too varied for the tastes of a world attuned to specialists. Perhaps there is no place for a Renaissance man in a post-modernist age. Perhaps the power of beauty has waned, or, perhaps, he has lost his sense of it.

Undeterred, the old man of the sea keeps lowering his lance and charging at the apocalypse, pursuing the all-important, all-consuming work that those closest to him are reluctant to disturb. "Utopia or death," he likes to say. The alarm has been sounded. There are only ten years left to save the world, he announced last year. That's nine years, now, and ticking. The message from his organizations is relenetless. Every young member of the Cousteau Society in the United States or l'Equipe Cousteau in France gets a regular dose of Cousteau's philosophy in "The Calypso Log." "All society is organized to exploit those who are not yet born," he tells his child-revolutionaries. "The future of the human species is in danger."

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