bookrev: The Human, The Orchid and The Octopus by Jacques Cousteau and Susan Schiefelbein

The Human, The Orchid and the OctopusMy son is a well-read, well-informed world traveler at sixteen years old. His blank look when I told him I was reading an advanced copy of a new book by Jacques Cousteau and Susan Schiefelbein is just one of the many reasons I am excited about the long overdue publication of this book. Cousteau died in 1997, and the absence of his influence in the past decade is echoed in my son’s generation’s lack of recognition. From the foreword by Bill McKibben:

For those of us who come of age in the 1960s or ’70s, the picture of Jacques Cousteau is fixed forever in our minds. A slight but wiry man, yellow tank peeking over his shoulder, falling backward off the stern of the good ship Calypso as he prepared for yet another dive down among the rays or the jellyfish or the sea cows or the parrot fish – down, literally, into his world, “the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau.” His voice became just as familiar, with its somehow slightly wistful but still infectious Gallic intonation. “In ze wisdom of ze dolphins lies ze test of human wisdom.”

Always passionate, frequently logical, sometimes preachy, The Human, The Orchid and The Octopus presents Mr. Cousteau’s unique perspective on personal exploration, the environment and our power to influence it. It sits well on my bookshelf next to volume 1 of The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau that my father gave me years ago, a tribute to one of the world’s great explorers and visionaries. The influences of Cousteau and his unique perspective on man’s effect on the environment are felt in the perceived environmental calamity in my own novel, Dusk Before the Dawn.

The 25-page introductory biography of Cousteau, penned by his co-author on this effort (and others), Susan Schiefelbein, is a reminder of the many marks Cousteau left behind, in the world of scuba, exploration, conservation and political maneuvering. It puts into perspective the small amount of time that humans (with the exception of noted free divers of the world) have spent exploring the underwater world (only about sixty-five years have passed since Cousteau’s first 1943 dive with his aqualung).

The first part of the book depicts Cousteau’s drive to explore and his risk taking, his chapters titled “Personal Risk” and “Public Risk”. Part autobiography and part philosophy, these pages put forth Cousteau’s reason for being: his need to understand, to research, to discover, and when and how he took risks both personally and professionally. He compares those to the risks and lack of communication and consideration companies and governments take when undertaking risks on “behalf of” the public they serve or sell to:

Those who plan public risks do not say “Follow me.” They say “Trust me.” Politicians may rarely be in a position to try technologies for themselves. But they are always in a position to demand that risks be full investigated and that the people who face risks be fully informed. Too often decision makers abdicate this fundamental responsibility of risk management. They do not lead us through truly calculated risks for which they have isolated and then eliminated hazards; they instead goad us into a game of Russian roulette, instructing us to pull technical triggers without telling us if there are bullets in the chamber. This is not leadership. This is no democracy. This is technocratic dictatorship; this is market dictatorship.

Ultimately, this book is about conservation and the environment. Based on his years of exploration and hours underwater, no person had more experience in how how changing world has affected the seas and the rest of the earth that Jacques Cousteau. He writes of visiting places where he explored via scuba, then returning many years later to see the coral gone, the sea life receded, the sea floor picked over. In a chapter titles “Saccage” he describes the phenomena:

Saccage begins where life began: In the nurseries of the sea. Life thrives in three parts of the ocean: the surface waters, penetrated by sunlight, where plant life blooms; the bottom, where organic detritus settles and the area in which these two life-nurturing factors combine, the continental shelf….These waters – just one half of 1 percent of the total ocean space – support 90 percent of all marine life….It is precisely on these coastlines where saccageurs wreck their havoc. Construction companies dredge for sand and gravel, scraping away Posidonia and fish hatchlings, shaving the bottom like a bald man’ pate…

In the subsequent chapter “Catch as catch can”, the fishing industries quota and protected waters policies come under Cousteau’s logical and emotional scrutiny. He explains who the boundless supply of fish from the oceans is being illogically and wastefully fished out, with the following facts:

  • “Fish provides on average only 5 percent of all protein humans consume daily”;
  • “While it takes only 15 pounds of grass to produce 1 pound of beef, the ocean must supply some 1,000 pounds of plant life to feed all the creatures that will ultimately feed 1 pound of tuna”;
  • “If we really wanted to feed the world with fish, then why do we throw so much fish away? Officials say that each year fisherman toss some 5 million tons of fish – more than 550 tons an hour – back into the sea to make room on their ships for the catch that will bring them the highest prices”;
  • “If we really wanted to feed the world with fish, then why do we feed so much fish to our livestock? Pigs and chickens eat more than one third of the world catch”;
  • “If we really wanted to feed the hungry world with fish, then why have industrialized nations depleted the waters of the hungry world?”
  • “Fishing does not, nor has it ever, undergirded the economy.”

He provides some recommendations to the failing fisheries strategy towards the end of this chapter.

Cousteau relates his views on nuclear power and his own personal fight against disposal of nuclear waste in the Med in the chapter entitled “The Hot Peace: Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Energy.” Cousteau protested against nuclear energy in France with General DeGaulle, and details not only the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear power but also his arguments against their quick, widespread and sometimes secret deployment.

The last two chapters are Cousteau’s imagination and plea about life, his summation of what he sees man inflicting on the environment and upon himself; he imagines a hoped for “Life in a Billion Years” and describes his sense of wonder and awe at “The Miracle of Life” in the final chapter.

The book is brought up to date in the Epilogue by Ms. Schiefelbein, cataloging some of the events in the ten years since the books writing (the book was published in France shortly after Cousteau’s death).

While the topic of man’s impact on the environment is a tired one, Jacques Cousteau’s unique place in the history of exploration of the world and the sea makes this treatise on conservation required reading.

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3 Responses

  1. Janita Stephens says:

    Very informative & objective review. Makes me want to read the book.

  2. jen says:

    Very informative thx

  3. Jeff Collins says:

    I remember his show. It was great.

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