Jacques Cousteau was larger than life. He was a man who lived fully. He was a resistance fighter during the Second World War, the inventor of the Aqua-Lung, a world famous explorer of the oceans, filmmaker, and writer. Captain Cousteau was at home in the water, and he brought the wonder and mystery of the oceans and its creatures into the lives of people everywhere. He took to calling our Earth the “water planet,” acknowledging the extraordinary treasure that makes life possible and makes our planet unique in the known universe.
Captain Cousteau’s vision encompassed the planet and the future. He once wrote, “There are no boundaries in the real Planet Earth. No United States, no Soviet Union, no China, no Taiwan…. Rivers flow unimpeded across the swaths of continents. The persistent tides — the pulse of the sea — do not discriminate; they push against all the varied shores on Earth.” For Captain Cousteau there was only one planet Earth, and only one humanity. He spent a good part of his life fighting to preserve our planet for future generations.
In 1989 the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation presented its Distinguished Peace Leadership Award to Captain Cousteau. On the day that he was scheduled to be in Santa Barbara to receive the award, the Concord which he boarded in Paris was delayed on the runway for hours due to an equipment problem. When Captain Cousteau realized that he would not be able to make his connection in New York to be in Santa Barbara in time for the event, he deboarded. That evening more than 700 members and guests of the Foundation heard Captain Cousteau speak to them from Paris over a speaker telephone at the Red Lion. Many were disappointed by his absence.
When I told Captain Cousteau how much he was missed at the banquet in his honor, he said that he would come to Santa Barbara the following weekend to be with us and receive the Foundation’s award. I remember being surprised when I met Captain Cousteau at the airport by the straightness of his bearing (for a man nearly 80 years old), by his abundant energy (after a long flight), and by the warmth of his manner.
We arranged for Captain Cousteau to speak in the sunken gardens of the Courthouse. A large crowd came out to greet him on a beautiful sunny afternoon.
In his remarks, Captain Cousteau spoke of the dangers of nuclear accidents and expressed anger at the manner in which these accidents were treated by technocrats. “A common denominator,” he said, “in every single nuclear accident — a nuclear plant or on a nuclear submarine — is that before the specialists even know what has happened, they rush to the media saying, ‘There’s no danger to the public.’ They do this before they themselves know what has happened because they are terrified that the public might react violently, either by panic or by revolt.”
He concluded his speech saying that “The problem is to get rid of the arrogance of technocrats. We want to know the truth when an accident occurs. And we want to fight. We want the right of all people to decide on what risks they will or will not take, to protect the quality of life for future generations.”
He received a tremendous outburst of applause, to which he responded, “The time has come when speaking is not enough, applauding is not enough. We have to act. I urge you, every time you have an opportunity, make your opinions known by physical presence. Do it!”
In 1995 I wrote to Captain Cousteau to thank him for his outspoken opposition to French testing in the Pacific. He wrote back setting forth eight points in the antinuclear position taken by the Cousteau Society. These included opposition to “any development of atomic weapons, including any kind of test, either in the air, underground or in specially equipped laboratories.” Another point in Captain Cousteau’s letter called for outlawing “any nuclear activity from any country…as we have outlawed chemical or bacteriological warfare.” He said that nuclear bombs were “criminal,” and that we must all struggle to outlaw them.
Captain Cousteau spoke out for many causes — the Earth, the environment, his beloved oceans, future generations. His Bill of Rights for Future Generations was signed by millions of people throughout the world. The first Article of this document stated, “Future generations have a right to an uncontaminated and undamaged Earth and to its enjoyment as the ground of human history, of culture, and of the social bonds that make each generation and individual a member of one human family.”
Men such as Jacques Cousteau are rare. They are treasures, teaching what is real and important. We were privileged to have Jacques Cousteau among us — as we are privileged to have other great peace leaders among us, including many others who have received the Foundation’s Distinguished Peace Leadership Award. If we fail to listen to these leaders of vision, we will bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the devastating destructiveness that our technologies make possible; and the burden of future generations will be even greater.
The life of Captain Cousteau reminds us that we may all rise to our full stature as human beings, and stand straight and proud of our humanity and of the legacy we leave to the next generation. But we cannot reach this stature by complacency, indifference, or blind obedience to authority or dogma. We must think for ourselves, and believe, as Captain Cousteau did, that a better future is not only necessary but possible — if we are willing to work for it.
*David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.