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Interview with Jacques-Yves Cousteau

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The French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau is internationally renowned as a marine explorer and defender of the oceans. a pioneer of undersea investigation, he has sailed all over the world on oceanographic expeditions and has also written and produced films about the oceans which have attracted immense audiences. He is now preoccupied with the protection of the environment in an age of rapid economic expansion and population growth. 

Interviewed by Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat


How did you come to be interested in nature and particularly in nature in aquatic surroundings?

—I have always been curious about things. When I was a child I used to go out bird watching at night. I ran into a certain amount of opposition from my parents, who weren’t very keen on curiosity if it exposed me to risks. I first really started to learn about water when I was ten years old. I was in a holiday camp near a lake in the United States. We had to collect garbage from under the children’s diving platform, and to do that I learned how to dive and swim under water. I had no goggles or any other special equipment and bringing the garbage to the surface was quite a job. I spent two or three weeks diving into that lake and eventually I learned how to hold my breath under water. Later, when I was fourteen, I improved my underwater techniques. There was a swimming pool at my school in Alsace, and I used all kinds of contraptions made from tubes and pumps in order to breathe underwater. I wasn’t trying to observe the natural world. I was imitating the James Fenimore Cooper heroes who hid underwater and breathed through hollow reeds when trying to escape from their pursuers. I slowly became convinced thatI wanted to be a sailor, I passed my baccalaureate and then, when I was twenty, I won a place at the French naval academy. Two years later, during a round-the-world voyage on a training ship, the Jeanne d’Arc, I witnessed a scene that had a decisive impact on my life. At Cam Ranh Bay in Indochina, at the hottest time of the day, between noon and two o’clock, I saw people diving from their boats and then surfacing with fish in their hands. They told me that while the fish were having their siesta they were very easy to catch! I thought that this was so extraordinary that I decided to improve my underwater swimming techniques further. 

For the time being, however, I had no opportunity to do so. I was given command of the French naval base at Shanghai, providing supplies for ships which docked at the French concession. It was only later, when I returned to France and thought about the people of Cam Ranh Bay, that I came back to the idea of developing underwater swimming techniques. In the meantime,I had become friendly with Frederic Dumas and Philippe Taillez. We became the Three Musketeers of underwater adventure.

I became obsessed with the problem of breathing underwater. My friends and I tested all the breathing apparatus that existed at that time and found that none of it was satisfactory. 

Then came the war and the occupation. That was when I met Emile Gagnan, an engineer with the Air Liquide company who had developed a motor vehicle powered by carbon dioxide produced from burning wood. The combustible gas reached the engine via a special feeder valve. This system is used in the underwater breathing device with which my name is associated, millions of which have been sold. In my device, which is entirely self-contained, the gas passing through the feeder valve is compressed air. Using this system, Dumas, Taillez and I were able to extend the possibilities of underwater swimming tand start to make films. 

When the war was over, I told officials at the Navy Ministry about this entirely new system we had developed and suggested that a study centre be opened at Toulon. As a result, a centre for underwater study and research was created in the Arsenal at Toulon.

The resources of our planet are infinite…

... there is a limit that should not be exceeded, a habitability threshold that mus not be crossed. 

You didn’t stay there very long.

—No. In 1949 I decided that it was time to apply what we had learned. To do this we needed a ship. Where was the money to come from? I opened my address book. Under the letter A, I saw the name Auniac. He was a charming fellow. I had met him and his wife at the winter sports. Je was the agent of Guinness which, among its other activities, controlled the shipyard at Antibes. After a meeting, Guinness opened credit facilities for 25 million francs and put the manager of the Antibes shipyard at my disposal. 


It sounds like a fairytale.

—Absolutely! With the manager of the Antibes shipyard we went to Malta where we found a converted minesweeper that was being used as a ferry between Malta and Gozo, the little island that is supposed to be the legendary Ogygia of the Odyssey. In fact that’s why the minesweeper’s owner had named his ferry the Calypso. We bought the ship for seven million francs. The Calypso was in perfect condition, but we had to use the rest of my credit to refit her and equip her with oceanographical research instruments. 

Then we began our cruises. The credit from Guinness was used up and I had no more money. I joined the CNRS.* Since the war, France had no oceanographic vessels, and so for a few years we served as a transport and liaison vessel for French oceanographers. 


Then came the great success of your film The Silent World

The Silent World dates from 1956. The first Calypso expeditions, in the Red sea, go back to 1951. We had already made some quite remarkable films, one of which won the Grand Prix at the Paris documentary film festival in 1951. We were making colour films as far back as 1953. Things were very difficult in those early days. Water tends to absorb colours and we had many lighting problems. We did a lot of work on the development of camera techniques, filters, optical and lighting systems, and so on. Gradually we were able to start using video up to professional standards, initially in black and white. 

Around that time I constructed the first French underwater television cameras. Later, at Marseilles, I created the Centre d'Etudes Marines Avancées. It was at Marseilles that we built the first submarine for exploration, specially designed to carry out scientific observations at a depth of 350 metres. Then for the French State, we made an observation submarine capable of going to a depth of 3,000 metres and, for the Americans, a third submarine capable of operating at 600 metres. I also built two one-man pocket submarines which are still in working order today. Finally we began to build a bigger submarine from which divers could emerge. when the hull was finished work had to stop because we had no more money. That's how things stand today, twenty years later. 

In 1945, we carried out a mission for the Darcy Exploration Company. We had a very good contract which enabled us to install the radar and measure the equipment we lacked. We were the people who discovered oil in the Gulf! It was us who made the emirate of Abu Dhabi rich!

The Silent World brought in enough money to finance our work until 1972, virtually without any other source of income. 

Since then we have made many films. In 1962 we also carried out experiments in which men lived and worked underwater at considerable depths. The first of these, known as Conshelf I, was carried out at Marseilles. Then came Conshelf II, in the Red Sea, and finally, Conshelf III off Cap Ferrat. 


How were those experiments carried out?

—We used a spherical vessel within which the atmosphere, consisting of a mixture of oxygen and helium, was maintained at the surrounding water pressure. Six people lived in the sphere for three weeks, and when they emerged it took another week to gradually decompress them. 

With this experiment we became the first people to do what is known as saturation diving. Since then, the offshore oil industry has gone in for this in a big way.

We made nnovations in a wide variety of fields. We developed cameras which we have used as far down as 8,000 metres.

We have taken thousands of photos and made extraordinary films in a number of Atlantic trenches. We were also the first to dive in the Antarctic with a submarine and to carry out systematic exploration there in diving gear. We recently made the first diving equipment using plastic bottles filled to a pressure of 300 bars. 


How did you become interested in environmental problems?

—It was an interest that developed slowly. Right at the start we coined a slogan: “Know, Love, Protect.” That is exactly what happened to me! I began by exploring. When I saw all this beauty under the sea, I fell in love with it. And finally, when I realized to what extent the oceans were threatened, I decided to campaign as vigorously as I could against everything that threatened what I loved. My story forms a cycle. I hope my children can follow the same path. 


What are the main dangers that threaten the Earth today?

—After travelling the world as I have for years on end, and seeing it from helicopters, as a diver, from on board shop… I would sum up my feelings by saying that the resources of our planet are finite, that there is a limit that should not be exceeded, a habitability threshold that must not be crossed. 

We should ask ourselves how many animals and people our planet can continue to support before the quality of life deteriorates, before all Earth’s beauties fade. Fifteen years ago, when I was in the United States, I tried to construct a mathematical model to find out how many people our planet could support with the income, purchasing power, and amenities enjoyed by the average American at that time. The data at my disposal were not very precise and right from the start I knew that the approximation would be of the order of 40 to 50 per cent. At that time, I was friendly with the director of the Oceanographic Laboratory of the University of Southern California, whose researchers served my colleagues and myself as advisers. With the parameters I had at my disposal, I came up with the figures of 700 million. Seven hundred million people enjoying a standard of living comparable to that of the average American! Fifteen years ago our planet was unable to provide an agreeable life for more than 700 million people! World population was then four billion!

I was alarmed by the results of my research and told the laboratory director about it. Do you know what he said? That my results were highly optimistic. He had constructed the same model as I had and had come up with a figure far lower than mine! Since then I have been obsessed by the problem of the habitability of the planet.

World population currently stands at 5.7 billion, a figure that is rising at dizzying speed. Every six months, a population equal to that of France is added to the current figure. And every ten years a population equal to that of China is added to that of our human ant-hill. 

Everyone is convinced that population growth cannot go on in this anarchic, cancerous way. But when the question arises as to what should be done, nobody wants to know. People make out that nothing can be done, that it’s all too complicated, that things are even more difficult because of ingrained habits, religions and whatever. In fact, religion has nothing to do with it. Italy is the world’s most Catholic country and yet it has the world’s lowest birth-rate. Spain, which is also Catholic, is in a similar position. Its birth-rate is dropping vertiginously. In Indonesia, the world’s biggest Islamic country, a birth control campaign in the last ten years has reduced the birth-rate by almost 50 per cent. 

So religion shouldn’t be held responsible. Fear of the future may be, however. In the so-called developing countries there is no insurance for old age. Retirement pensions, if they exist, do not even provide for basic needs. Even when they are young people panic when they think about their old age, especially since they grow old quickly because of poor sanitary and other conditions. To care for them in their old age they need a male child they can rely on. And since they have to take account of their chances of having daughters as well as sons, of mortality rates, and of the possibility that some of their children are not going to be interested in looking after them when they get old, they need to have six offsprings before they can be sure of having a dependable male child. six children to be sure of having three boys. Three boys to be sure of having two who survive. And two living boys to be sure of having one who will look after his parents.  

In addition to the insecurity factor there is the factor of female illiteracy, which is also a result of poverty. In the developing countries education has made great strides but there are still not enough schools. Selection is thus made on the basis of sex. Boys take priority over girls when it comes to enrollment in school. Why? My answer may make you raise your eyebrows, but the fact is that little girls do not go to school because there is no safe drinking water. When there is no drinking water in the vicinity the girls have to go and fetch it from the spring. I have seen adolescent girls fetch drinking water from twenty and sometimes thirty kilometres away, which takes a whole day. by the time they are fourteen or fifteen years old, these girls whose lives are geared to meeting the urgent need for water have never been to school, have never learned anything. How can he use contraception or even know that contraception exists? 

Some people even try to explain excessively high birth-rates by the fact that for hundreds of millions of people love is the only source of happiness. Contraception neither prevents nor reduces happiness. The contraceptive pill is distributed freely in many poor countries and yet the women do not take it. Why? Because they have had no education and are subjected to the will of the men who either do not care about the consequences or want children to look after them in their old age. 

Overpopulation is our planet’s number one problem. Of the 5.7 billion people on Earth, less than 2 billion live in decent conditions. This figure will soon double. Perhaps we shall manage to feed the expected 10 or 12 billion. But that’s just about all we shall be able to do. 


Some people belive that the sea can be a rich source of food…

—That is a ridiculous idea. The sea’s resources are diminishing. There is far too much overfishing already. And even if we manage to keep on harvesting the same quantity of protein from the sea, this quantity is bound to diminish as a proportion of consumer needs. I remember that at the beginning of my career 10 per cent of the protein consumed came from the sea. Today the proportion is of the order of 4 to 5 per cent. Tomorrow, when the population has doubled, it will fall to 2 per cent. Here too, productivity has a ceiling which cannot be exceeded. We are already in the overfishing zone. 


And yet we can increase productivity on land. Why can’t we do the same with the sea?

—The rates of return are not at all the same. In the Antarctic, for example, it takes ten tons of microscopic algae to form a ton of krill--krill are tiny shrimps... and it takes one ton of krill to produce 20kg of whale. This is a transformation factor of 40 to 1. To produce a cow on land, the transformation factor is ten to one. 

What about desertification? Isn’t it true that whereas the desert has been invading agricultural land it may now be retreating.

The information on which this view is based is toor recent and needs to be confirmed. All the same, I am willing to accept that the Sahara was created by human beings and that it may consequently be unmade by them. If the Sahara were to become cultivable its output could be far higher than that of the sea. 


What about pollution?

—Global warming and the increasing rarity of water are far more serious and urgent threats than the chemical pollution we hear so much about. There is less and less water because water is squandered, and this too goes hand in hand with overpopulation. Water is being wasted at a terrific rate. In the West, farmers water their crops in such a way that 90 per cent of the water evaporates. We draw on groundwater and then let it evaporate! This year, in spite of abundant rainfall, France will be facing drought problems. Why? Because in the last three years we have wasted much of the water we have drawn.

The damage caused to the panet is a function of demography but also of levels of development. One American tires the panet far more than twenty Bangladeshis. Damage is also linked to consumption. Our society is geared to increasingly useless consumption. It’s a vicious circle which I compare to a cancer. 


Some snakes, mosquitoes and other animal species pose threats or dangers for humankind. Can they be eliminated like the viruses that cause certain diseases?

—Getting rid of viruses is an admirable idea, but it raises enormous problems. In the first 1,400 years of the Christian era, population numbers were virtually stationary. through epidemics, nature compensated for excess births by excess deaths. 

I talked about this problem with the director of the Egyptian Academy of Sciences. He told me that scientists were appalled to think that by the year 2080 the population of Egypt might reach 250 million.

What should we do to eliminate suffering and disease? It’s a wonderful idea but perhaps not altogether a beneficial one in the long run. If we try to implement it we may jeopardize the future of our species.

It’s terrible to have to say this. World population must be stabilized and to do that we must eliminate 350,000 people per day. This is so horrible to contemplate that we shouldn't even say it. but the general situation in which we are involved is lamentable. 


And yet solutions must exist…

—It’s a question of cost. We need $400 billion a year for fifteen years. To provide people with safe drinking water. To provide schooling for girls and low pensions for the elderly. With $4 billion over fifteen years we can not only reduce demographic pressure but halt population growth.


Is there anything we can do to control industrial pollution?

—Not much. Carbon dioxide is the big problem. We are going to suffocate because of carbon dioxide. As you know, it stimulates breathing, and we shall all end up panting to death if amounts of carbon dioxide continue to increase. This increase is the results of a misguided energy policy. What’s more, we have preferred to invest enormous sums in nuclear energy produced by fission rather than by fusion, which is clean. But nuclear energy produced by fusion makes it possible to have the bomb!

There are other, more “picturesque” forms of pollution. Planet Earth is now surrounded by a girdle of fragments of broken satellites which mov at the speed of a bullet and will eventually prevent any attempts to reach outer space.

To manage nature a certain amount of wisdom is needed. Perhaps one day, taking long-term  factors into account, we shall succeed in managing nature as we now do when we create a pretty garden. But let’s get back to the mosquitoes. For the last ten years I have owned a house in the country. When I first went there, there were swallows, robins and mosquitoes. Today the mosquitoes have gone, but so have the swallows, the grasshoppers and the butterflies. The crops have been sprayed with pesticides from the air, and so the insects have been almost totally wiped out. If we carry on like this, children will never see a swallow, a dragonfly or a butterfly. Well done!


Perhaps you could find a more hopeful note on which to end this conversation?

—Real interest in environmental problems began in 1988 when the American magazine Time featured planet Earth on its cover, and titled it “Planet of the Year” instead of its usual “man of the year”.

In July 1989, the leaders of the seven great industrial nations devoted a third of the time at their annual summit and twenty-three pages of the report to environmental problems. Later a meeting was held at the Hague and there were others too. At long last people were realizing the danger was global and that everyone was threatened. 

This realization on the part of world leaders has been encouraged by powerful pressure from public opinion all over the world. The combination of these two forces, at the top and at the grassroots, should lead to the beginning of a solution. I hope that this is a sufficiently hopeful note on which to conclude!


*The French National Centre for Scientific Research


Interview published in Environment and development: a global commitment, The UNESCO Courier, November 1991