Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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. . . I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . .

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In the ten years before he died, world-famous ocean explorer, filmmaker, and environmental activist, Jacques Cousteau, wrote what would be his last book, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus: Exploring and Conserving Our Natural World (NYC: Bloomsbury; 2007). This book, which is a sort of autobiography, was updated by co-author Susan Schiefelbein, and recently published for the first time in the United States.

I wanted to like this book and indeed, it is valuable, both for its breadth and wisdom as well as for the passion of the writing. However, I was disappointed because the book needed a good editor’s guidance; it was rambling and preachy at times, which I found to be distracting and annoying. I also think that at least a few chapters in the book touched on topics that, properly explored, comprise a sizeable book in and of themselves. But I do not want to entirely discount this book, nor its very important message, in this review because the book does not deserve that. However, I will only briefly mention the main topics in most of the chapters while I focus on what I think is the most important message in this book; the relationships between corporate interests, governmental regulations, the demands of the ever-expanding human population, and the increasingly endangered natural world, especially the world’s oceans, which all of these agents freely exploit without any consideration for future consequences.

Bill McKibben’s foreward, which serves as a general overview of the book, and a long introduction by Susan Schiefelbein that describes the nature her personal relationship with the primary author, provide the reader with an early general “feel” for the rambling nature of the book. The first chapter opens with a discussion of Cousteau’s childhood and his drive to explore the world. He compares his own desire to run after the horizon to the desire of every explorer to seek out and increase their understanding of the world around them. He also describes his invention and subsequent perfection of the Aqualung and the different mixes of gases so humans were able to explore the upper reaches of the Earth’s waters by scuba diving.

Using his personal stories about the risks faced by himself and his colleagues as they developed the Aqualung and utilized bathyscapes to explore the seas, Cousteau launches into a discussion of his philosophy of personal risk by sadly recounting the stories of several colleagues who died while diving. But despite these losses, he notes that some risks are worth taking because some goals are worth achieving — as long as they represent reasonable risks.

Cousteau then refocuses his attention onto unreasonable public risk; risks faced by ordinary citizens due to institutionalized indifference to human life by governments and business in pursuit of short-term monetary profits. He also rants about the so-called “science” of estimating the value of lives lost due to this indifference, where a human life is valued solely based on future earnings not realized by that individual. Unfortunately, because the connection between these many interludes and the book’s main theme are not clearly explained, they served as distracting digressions, rather that as building blocks in Cousteau’s overarching argument.

Fortunately, Cousteau begins to find his footing in chapter four when he explores his main theme; conserving our natural world. He examines the natural world’s grievances against humans; how people have transformed the world’s oceans into a global sewer containing more than 25% of all the billions of pounds of DDT produced since 1943 and how each doubling of the human population results in an concomitant increase in pollution by six times — all of which ends up in the world’s seas.

After a digression consisting of devoting an entire chapter to a deliver well-deserved scolding to religious wingnuts for their thoughtless and zealous destruction of the world because god supposedly commanded them to do so in both the bible and the koran, Cousteau begins his next chapter by introducing the word “saccage” to describe the astonishing transformation of formerly fertile areas to barren wastelands by (who else?) human saccageurs.

All around the planet I’ve seen the same behavior. Wetlands, dried out. Rivers, diverted. Mining and trawling, shooting and spearing, dynamiting, drilling, and dredging. [ … ] Nature’s irreplaceables are being plundered — ransacked, pillaged, looted — by the marauders of our modern age. Perhaps even more than pollution, mechanical destruction — I call it saccage — is severely damaging the sea’s environment. Pollution is often the result of negligence or ignorance. But saccage is a more deliberate aggression. [p. 134].

Cousteau describes the typical human response to the diminishment of a natural resource by blaming one scapegoat after another, for example, instead of blaming themselves for the collapse of the abalone fishery, fishermen blame and then declare war against a variety of other animals; wild seals, sea otters, and then sea urchins — all of which were somehow responsible for the loss of the abalone fishery, even though the abalone got along fine with their marine predators until human overfishing became the fashion. Further, statistics demonstrate that overfishing was the cause of this sharp decline in the abalone fishery.

Chapter Seven, “Catch as Catch Can”, is worth the price of the book alone. In this chapter, the author first reveals the lies that international authorities have knowingly promulgated to camouflage the collapse of major commercial fish stocks; including haddock, herring, halibut, flounder, lobster, salmon, shrimp, cod, shake, sardine, anchovy, pilchard, mackerel, and yellowfin tuna. After establishing the unreliability of these official statistics, Cousteau then cites these numbers anyway because they provide a brief glimpse into the terrible destruction of the world’s marine life by human overfishing — numbers that are frightening enough already, and worse when one realizes that they represent gross understatements. Cousteau reports;

  • Fish does not now — nor can it ever — feed the world. For example, while it takes 15 pounds of grass to produce 1 pound of beef, it takes 1000 pounds of marine plant life (which is relatively rare in the sea), to feed all the sea creatures necessary to produce just one pound of tuna.
  • Cousteau asks; If we really want to feed the world with fish, then why do we throw so much fish away? Officials report that each year, fishermen dispose of 5 million tons of fish — more than 550 tons per hour — by throwing it back into the sea to make room in their hulls for those species that will bring the highest prices. Of course, nearly all of these disposed fishes are already dead or are dying and are eaten by scavengers and therefore cannot survive to give birth to future generations.
  • Cousteau asks; If we really want to feed the world with fish, then why have we fed so much of our fish to livestock? Pigs and chickens eat more than one third of the world catch of fish. The average American eats only twelve pounds of fish per year but another fifty-two pounds of fish per person per year is fed to poultry and swine. This is more than twenty times the amount of fish consumed by the average inhabitant of India just to stay alive.
  • Cousteau asks; If we want to feed the world with fish, then why have industrialized nations depleted the waters of the hungry world? For example, from 1975-1977, the catch of northwestern Africa was sold for nearly $1 billion — three-quarters of that sum went to advanced nations, while hungry Africans remained .. hungry. [pp. 146-177].

Cousteau then discusses a very important subject, science and human values, where he points out that the tremendous imbalance in funding basic science in favor of applied sciences will result in a crippling of new scientific innovations in the future. Even though I strongly agree with his point of view as elsewhere in this book, I am unclear as to how this issue relates to conserving the natural world.

In chapter nine, Cousteau moves on to talk about “the hot peace”: nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. His primary point in this chapter is that governments desire thermonuclear weapons for the prestige (fear?) they provide, and they also continue to increase their reliance upon nuclear energy even though no one has developed safe ways to dispose of nuclear waste. As a result, it will either end up in the hands of terrorists building “dirty” nuclear bombs, in the hands of rogue nations intent upon building nuclear bombs, or it will not end up in that last great global repository of all human garbage; the world’s oceans, where it will end up poisoning all life, including people.

There are two chapters where Cousteau wraps up his argument, one is a whimsical overview of the evolution of life and of Cousteau’s imagined future for the planet. The next and last chapter is a continuation of the previous chapter; an emotional plea to save the world’s vast, but diminishing, biodiversity. This is the chapter where I finally learned how the book got its title. Presumably, most biologists think that the most complex vertebrate is the human, the most complex plant is the orchid, and, according to Cousteau, the most complex invertebrate is the octopus. Unfortunately, he doesn’t state how these organisms are the most complex, nor what importance he assigns to this complexity. An epilogue by Schiefelbein follows, describing how things have worsened in the ten years since Cousteau’s death. Basically, this chapter is essential, but worrying.

This book is 305 pages long, with a selected bibliography at the end. It is partially a memoir, partially an autobiography, and partially a plea to protect the world’s natural places. I recommend it to those who wish to learn more about the many ways that humans are destroying the oceans, and I especially recommend this book to the many fans and admirers of Jacques Cousteau, especially those of you who spent your childhood and early adulthood watching his undersea world specials on television.

Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) was world renowned as an inventor, ocean explorer, filmmaker, educator, and environmental activist. He won three Oscars and the Palme d’Or for his films, was nominated for forty Emmys during the run of his TV series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”, and wrote or coauthored more than seventy five books, including The Silent World, which has sold five million copies in twenty-two languages. As director of the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco and a member of the advisory committee of the IAEA, he was active in the conservation and anti-nuclear-proliferation movements.

Susan Schiefelbein has won the National Magazine Award and the Front Page Award for her cover stories on social issues. A former editor at the Saturday Review, where she first worked with Cousteau, she went on to write the narration for many of his documentary films, including winners of the Peabody and the Ace awards. She lives in Paris.


  1. #1 Larry Ayers
    March 25, 2008

    Insightful review, GrrlScientist! I read this book last month (checked it out from the Hannibal library) and I agree with many of your conclusions. I wonder how much of the content was written by Costeau and how much by Schiefelbein.

    As you said, the book is a mixture of reminiscings and advocacy. With the increasing-evident collapse of fisheries around the world, hopefully this book will raise public awareness of the issue.

    Unfortunately, such books are an example of “preaching to the converted”, unlikely to be read by many who ignore the shifting baselines and think our extractive culture will continue indefinitely.

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