Honolulu’s Moana Surfrider Hotel on Waikiki Beach made a picture-perfect setting for Jacques Cousteau’s speech in 1980. At an outdoor American Bar Association luncheon near the historic century-old banyan tree, Cousteau talked passionately about pollution of the oceans. With the deep blue Pacific as a background, he explained how land-based industrial pollution around the world affects life under the seas.
No one on that occasion 40 years ago could have foreseen that by 2019 America would be closer than it has ever been to resolving our industrial pollution problems with a balance between economic and ecological concerns acceptable to most folks. Or that vast amounts of plastic waste would threaten ocean life everywhere. Or that huge amounts of pollution would be generated by “undeveloped” countries around the world — like China, for example, was undeveloped in 1980.
Cousteau was a world-famous television personality with a delightful French accent. He died in 1997 at the age of 87. People remember his illustrious career as a renowned ocean explorer, developer of the Aqua-Lung and filmmaker. By 1980, Cousteau had gained worldwide respect for his views about pollution’s impact on life under the seas. And his warnings 40 years ago about the ocean environment strike home today, especially to our fishing industry and to fishermen everywhere.
Cousteau explained that all pollutants on land, air, or in the rivers eventually find their way into the oceans of the world. There can be no doubt life under the sea is adversely affected by pollutants of all land-based industries and waste systems. And Cousteau believed environmental safeguards can be economically sound as well as protective of the environment.
Cousteau referred to United Nations reports that predicted by the year 2000 the world’s population would increase from 4.5 billion in 1980 to 6.3 billion. To Cousteau, that 50% increase meant even more pollution.
By the year 2000, the world’s population did increase to an estimated 6.1 billion. And the world experienced more pollution. But only 10 years later, world population had grown to 6.8 billion. And today it’s projected to be almost 7.8 billion by the year 2020. And close to 10 billion by 2050. Increased world population of this magnitude inevitably means a lot more pollution down the road than most folks realize.
During his career, Cousteau experienced thousands of dives in all the world’s oceans, and saw firsthand the damage to undersea life. He described himself as a “man-fish,” using the Aqua-Lung he developed. Because of land-based pollution, the world will lose up to an estimated 1,000 different species of undersea life. And nature takes millions of years to bring back ocean vitality. And to replace fish species and coral reefs damaged or destroyed by pollutants and human misuse.
Reports issued by United States environmental agencies about American industrial pollution troubled Cousteau. The agencies forecast environmental catastrophes around the country by the year 2000 if Congress didn’t take remedial action.
Congress and presidents of both parties, however, did take action. And today we have the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, along with many other legislative efforts to combat pollution of all kinds. And since 1980, the adoption of thousands of federal regulations also helped to substantially decrease industrial pollution in America.
But since 1980, many other countries vastly increased pollution. They were helped by Washington, D.C., politicians of both parties who adopted tax and trade policies to enable China and other undeveloped countries to build wealth and industrial might with American know-how and technology. And American politicians turned a blind eye to a huge increase in world pollution those policies inevitably generated.
Today, the most polluted cities in the world are in China, closely followed by cities in Mongolia, India and Pakistan. China’s cities and other far eastern cities make up most of a 2018 listing of 500 of the most polluted cities in the world. And the list doesn’t include a single American city!
China’s pollution in its cities kills an estimated 1.1 million Chinese every year. It’s true China is beginning to spend money on wind and solar power. But China is the world’s biggest polluter and isn’t doing anywhere near enough to guard against the pollutants that seriously damage so much life under the seas.
It seems to me too many American politicians in the past didn’t fully appreciate that China’s dictatorship form of government is much different than ours. America has frequent elections that determine public policy. China’s priorities about a cleaner environment are made by its leaders’ insatiable personal lust for industrial and world power.
Cousteau emphasized the need for a global view to industrial pollution. He even suggested several principles that all world governments should adhere to. For example, safer ocean transportation and equal use of all oceans.
But it seems to me we’re nowhere near close to worldwide remedies to ocean pollution as envisioned by Cousteau 40 years ago. And we won’t be close for many generations to come. For two very simple reasons. Half the world’s governments are dictatorships that have different priorities than democracies. And dictatorships don’t have the same moral conscience about the environment that America and most democracies have.
Cousteau wondered aloud why mankind is unable to properly manage use of the environment. And why mankind has so much difficulty in finding remedies to pollution problems. His response stirred the crowd: “We need a moral perspective to the problem.” He explained how his love of the sea and his ability to use the Aqua-Lung and explore the ocean depths allowed him to discover many unknown facts about undersea life, including the extent it was being damaged. And it was time at his stage of life to assess the damage and to answer questions raised by his conscience.
Forty years ago, Cousteau had a vision for the future of the world’s oceans free of pollutants. But that vision appears to be shared only by America and most democracies in today’s world. And that’s a crying shame.