Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Consumer Society Is the Enemy

Anyone within range of Western television during the 1960s to the 1980s was likely a fan of Jacques Cousteau’s famous “underwater adventures” launched from the Calypso research vessel, which roamed the seven seas.

Not surprisingly, as an explorer immersed in the natural environment, Cousteau became a radical ecologist in his later life as the costs of industrialization and consumerism began to take their toll. In the summer of 1996 I sat down with the famed oceanographer at the Paris offices of the Cousteau Society.

Nathan Gardels | At 85 years of age, your life has spanned most of this century. During most of that time you have been concerned with exploring the sea and understanding the Earth’s environment. From this point of view, what have been the main developments of the 20th century?

Jacques Cousteau | Mankind has probably done more damage to Earth in the 20th century than in all of previous human history.

Overwhelmingly, the damage has come from two sources—the exploding growth of population combined with the abuse of economics.

Today, there are 5.6 billion people on Earth. In less than 60 years—by 2050—there will be 10 billion. This is the key fact of our time.

The radical increase in consumption that will attend this growth will place near-fatal stress on Earth’s resources. Even though the fertility rate is beginning to drop in some very crowded places such as Indonesia, this only provides hope for the second half of the 21st century. Nothing will change before 2050 because 60 percent of the population in the world today are under 16 years of age. As they have children they will double their presence.

For 50 years, we lived with the fight between communism and capitalism. When communism collapsed the reason was obvious: a planned, centralized system was no match for the market. In the West there was exhiliration over this fact. That is a big mistake.

A liberal economy is fine, but there is a big difference between a liberal economy —or free enterprise that relies on the law of supply and demand—and a market system. The market system, as we are living it today, is doing more damage to the planet than anything else because everything has a price but nothing has value. Since the long term has no price in today’s market, the fate of future generations is not considered in the economic equation.

Because of this formidable confusion between price and value, there is a fundamental unreality about economic life today; it has become an abstraction. The market system is becoming ever more concerned with things that don’t exist than with things that do exist. Financial “derivatives”—essentially speculation on speculation —epitomize the distance of the market from reality. Real value gets lost in the game. Reality doesn’t count anymore.

So not only are we destroying the diversity of species in the rain forest or the sea that took millennia to come into existence, we are selling off the future as well in the name of immediate gain.

The polar ice shelf, to take one example, is melting today as a consequence of global warming. The results from burning fossil fuels at a price that does not include the value of the ice shelf in maintaining a stable temperature and sea level—which is what makes living along the coasts of this water planet—is not a viable proposition.

The list of the planet’s pillage by the short-term calculus is very long: radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation and the black market of fissile material, building on  flood plains, the consequences of projects such as the Aswan Dam on the rhythm of the seasons, the chemical catastrophes of Bhopal and Seveso. Soil erosion and widespread pollution of the seas are even more pernicious forms of environmental degradation.

Money is a wonderful tool of exchange, but it is a terrible danger for the planet. What the market today produces is retail sanity but wholesale madness.

Gardels | Ecological destruction comes not as part of some evil master plan, but as the result of the banal practices of daily life, from driving a car down the freeway to using plastic bags at the supermarket to clearing trees to graze a few cattle. That’s the retail sanity part.

Can these daily habits be altered without a revolutionary change of mind that accepts self-limitation almost as a religious principle?

Cousteau | How can an individual control himself when he is pushed from morning until evening to buy things he doesn’t need?

I did an experiment myself. One day in Paris, in winter, I went out at 7 in the morning and came back home at 7pm. I had a counter. Every time I was solicited by any kind of advertising for something I didn’t need, I clicked it—183 times in all by the end of the day.

How do you control yourself when at every moment you are pounded with the message, “Buy this, and women will fall into your arms”? I excuse the poor guy who buys all that stuff he doesn’t need. How can he resist?

It is the job of society, not of the individual person, to control this destructive consumerism. I am not for some kind of ecological statism. No. But when you are driving in the street and see a red light, you stop. You don’t think the red light is an attempt to curb your freedom. On the contrary, you know it is there to protect you. Why not have the same thing in economics? We don’t.

Responsibility lies with the institutions of society, not in the virtues of the individual.

Gardels | Democracy, the market and the consumer society are all about giving people what they want when they want it—which is now. By definition, the future has no political constituency in such a system and thus no voice.

The failure of communism made us distrust the future. But now that democracy and the market are triumphant, we need to find a way to remember the future. How can we do that?

Cousteau | In the aftermath of the Cold War, we need another kind of revolution, a cultural revolution, a fundamental change in the way of thinking.

That is why our hope rests with the youth—and with education. The survival of this planet depends ultimately on finding a way to incorporate the long-term perspective—the consequences for future generations—into present-day decisions by those who will come to power in business or government.

Today, no one seems to take responsibility for the future. Why? People lack objective information. Governments are subjected to short-term electoral concerns. Businesses are beholden to quarterly examinations of their financial health. The United Nations, which ought to be caring for the future, can only make recommendations, not take effective decisions. And,  unfortunately, the universities, reflecting the ethos of the market, are not producing better citizens but instilling in them a kind of ferocious competition aimed only at success, fortune, more money. Young people today are being pushed into the social trap of the short-term mentality.

Addressing these major weaknesses of our contemporary society seems to me the highest priority. To this end, the Cousteau Society has joined up with UNESCO to create a worldwide network of programs within already established universities —from Belgium to Brazil, from India to China to the United States—that will adopt what we call the “ecotechnie approach.” The main effort here is to promote an interdisciplinary approach to environmental management so that its concerns are reflected in the training for all professions, from business and economics to engineering and natural sciences.

This kind of long march through the institutions to change the mindset of our coming generation is the key thing.

It is also important to reach the youngest generation that is so influenced by the media. Like many others, the Cousteau Society publishes books and videos for children so that thinking about future generations becomes part of their everyday view of the world.  For example, we now publish an illustrated magazine series called Cousteau Junior in French. Ted Turner’s cartoon network has had Captain Planet and so on.

The sole ray of hope we have is the imagination of young people and their awareness of the stress this planet will face as a result of the demographic upheaval of the next 50 years.

Gardels | Because of the bias in our democratic consumer system toward short-term, immediate interests, French President Francois Mitterrand once created a “council of the elders” as one way of giving voice to the long term.

Is that kind of approach useful on a global scale?

Cousteau | Mitterrand set up a commission in 1993 for “defending the rights of future generations,” of which I was chair. I resigned from that post, though, in 1995 when President Jacques Chirac announced the resumption of French nuclear testing.

My view was that defending the future of our descendants can only be done in a climate of tolerance, which is incompatible with the nuclear threat. Maintaining a nuclear capability in the post-Cold War period, when there is no enemy, is nothing more than a competition in arrogance.

As useful as this idea of some wise body—a kind of supreme court that stands above the market—might be, what we really need is not a council of elders but a “council of youngsters.”

The idea of a group of elders is that, in past civilizations, they have linked worlds; the other world was also present in this one. There is also the argument that elders have “experience.” The problem is that experience teaches fear of change. Experience kills imagination. Experience makes people conservative. What we are facing tomorrow requires the force of imagination, not wisdom from yesterday.

Gardels | So, what you are trying to do with your educational efforts is to create a counterculture to the market where enduring value reigns over short-term price, where the rights of future generations are integrated into present decisions?

Cousteau | It is the market that is the counterculture! What we are talking about is building a culture where everything is not subject to the abuse of economics.

Gardels | Most people in the G-7 countries have cars and refrigerators. What happens to the world when 1 billion Chinese become consumers just like us—if only with improved diets of meat and fish, no less goods.

Cousteau | If the Chinese diet improved to the point where they were all eating fish regularly, the ocean would not be able to feed them.

In my lifetime, we have already depleted the sea.

When I began diving, all marine food—shellfish as well as saltwater and freshwater fish—represented one-tenth of the protein consumption in the world. And we were at that time only 1.7 billion people. Today the fishing industry has become very sophisticated and efficient. Schools of fish can be tracked electronically; we know when and where fish are spawning year in and year out. But there are now more than 5 billion people to feed.

The result is that the percentage of all the catch of the world is only 3 percent of protein consumption of humankind. And it will go to 3 percent, then 1 percent and then disappear altogether as we move toward the 10 billion mark. We will have exhausted the production capacity of the sea.

At the moment, virtually all the fish of the world are caught by the West. The fish that used to feed the primitive peoples along the coasts are taken out of their markets and sold to the rich urban consumers of the West. Is that a culture or a counterculture?

That is the truth about fish. So, there is no way that the Chinese can survive thanks to the sea. No way. And, as you indicate, there is no way the atmospheric gases of the planet will be able to remain stable if even half of the Chinese start driving cars.

We talk about China because it is among the places where population growth will be most concentrated. The underlying implication of your question is this: In a world with 10 billion people, will everyone have the same chances? No way. Will there be enough food and energy or living space? There will be severe scarcity in some places, but, yes, I do believe life on the planet can be bearable if we can bring down the inequalities.

I don’t mean “equality.” People are not equal. Some can jump higher than others, but not 20 times higher. In a society, people will understand a 10/1 ratio of difference, but not 2,000/1. They will not forever tolerate a situation, such as we have today, where 60 human beings possess more wealth than all of Africa.

But what about the large animals, the giraffes and elephants? They will be the first to go because there will be no space for them to roam, to eat, to live. There will be too many people competing for the same habitat.

All that will be possible for them is a kind of Noah’s Ark rescue—putting pairs of each in some high-rise zoo.

This, I think, offers an image of the kind of world future generations of humankind may be faced with.

Gardels | Absent the triumph of culture over counterculture, your vision of humankind’s fate then resembles what happened to the people of Easter Island, the subject of one of your films?

Cousteau | Yes. Easter Island is the metaphor for Planet Earth unless we can change course. The lesson of Easter Island was that inequity on top of resource scarcity led to genocide and then to social collapse.

There is no mystery here. Some 50 people arrived on Easter Island in the 7th century and proliferated to more than 70,000 by the 17th century. Over these 10 centuries, they cut down all the trees, the rains washed the soil away, and they couldn’t feed themselves.

The society was divided into the priests, the sculptors of those large idols facing the sea and the peasants. As a result of the scarcity on this small island, the social order broke down and total war broke out against the privileges of the priests and sculptors. Holed up in a fortress on one corner of the island, they were finally overwhelmed by the peasants and destroyed.

Most people were killed—and eaten—because there was so little food. After that, the population fell, and a second culture developed, but didn’t flourish. They understood what happened as a warning from God: Overpopulation had destroyed the environment and the culture and led to genocide.

We can also take the experience of Easter Island as a warning not to commit the same folly at the scale of the planet.