Cousteau and 100 Years of Oil

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By Wallace J. Nichols, Sarah Kornfeld, Jake Dunagan and Stuart Candy – As seen in Huffington Post June 8th, 2010

Jacques Yves Cousteau spent halcyon days gliding above and beneath the ocean. He lived among the largest mammals and sea drift. He was the master educator and voice for the sea. And so, on this, the 100th anniversary of his birth, it is a sorry state of affairs that we cannot celebrate the legacy of his ocean life, but instead it is the centennial of our own legacy with oil, plastic and associated toxins we must confront. One hundred years ago, 1910, the fossil-fuel-based plastics industry was born, as was Cousteau, and thus began the first plastic century.

Plastic is made from oil and gas, plain and simple, yet we do not think of oil or plastic pollution when we think of Cousteau. We think mostly of how he inspired wonder in us. We wondered at life aboard the Calypso with its salty crew. And, this wonder for the sea has engendered generations of people to become oceanographers, biologists, divers and simple lovers of the sea. But, if we do not make the serious connection — now — between the legacy of Cousteau and our legacy with petroleum we will sully the memory of the man.

Yet, the memory of the ocean was hardly what Cousteau was all about: he was really about the future of the ocean. He was always looking ahead — not behind. He wanted people to have knowledge so that they could have foresight. His great genius was not that he made you want to go swimming today; it was that he inspired you to want to know deeply and explore constantly the ocean in the immediate future, and always.

“If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work,” he said.

Right now, however, we have our thinking backwards; we are watching a reckless and inane “clean up” of the Gulf of Mexico play out in slow motion. What can we imagine he would say right now? Would we listen? Would we nod our heads with a sense of security that the great man was leading us, teaching us, telling us how to get out of this mess? What would he do? Would we join him?

Who knows, but a good guess is that that great lover of the sea, and great pragmatist for the environment might be furious. Enraged. Heartbroken. One can imagine at the same time, the man rallying us to demand substantial legislative changes, responsible action from the oil industry, and a global systemic shift away from oil/plastic/toxins because our very lives depend on it. His line in the sand would be deep and long.

But, he’s not here, is he? Yet, his 100th birthday is right before us. His legacy of an ocean is literally mired in the slick dependence we have on oil. So, let’s make the list that a pragmatic leader like Cousteau might offer.

Let’s do this:

  • Tell someone each day what our Ocean Planet, our one and only blue marble, means to you. Describe how you love it, why you want to see it and hear it. Love is stronger than apathy, and your vision for the future of what you love can impact people. Use all of the media at your disposal to share your oceanophilia, get in on rallies, letter writing and vote for the ocean.
  • Stop pouring toxins, any toxins, into the drains around you, onto your food, into your tank or into your body: you can show BP what responsibility looks like — what you don’t pour down the drain won’t get to the ocean. “Think tank,” you might say. Think about what goes in it and what comes out.
  • Remember that great people leave Earth, but plastic never does. Reject straws, coffee lids, forks, or anything plastic you use once then throw away. First off, they are made of oil and gas and can make you sick. Second, when they end up in the ocean they make the ocean sick. Try as best you can to free your home, school and business of single-use disposable plastics.

The time is now for us, the lovers of the sea. We cannot wait for a great tide to take the oil, and our need for it, away to a magical place. And, we can’t wait for the memory of great people to inspire us to change. We must honor their memory by doing something great ourselves.

Each of us must be Cousteau — we must embody his legacy with a vision for the future: one that includes a world with a healthy, thriving sea. We must embody his memory — a person who wanted a healthy, thriving future for the planet.

Ask yourself, “What would Jacques do?” Act as he would. Because we are all ocean activists now.
Wallace J. Nichols, Sarah Kornfeld, Jake Dunagan, and Stuart Candy, are a hybrid art- science-futures collaboration. Their installation Plastic Century is an interactive installation created for the California Academy of Sciences that explores the relationship between plastic, people, and the environment over the 100 years since the birth of Jacques Cousteau. The installation will be at the California Academy of Sciences June 3rd and June 10th. The Plastic Century Team is currently in residency at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA), in San Francisco.

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