Los Angeles Times Interview : Jacques Cousteau : A Lifetime Spent Fighting for the Environment

Scott Kraft is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Jacques Cousteau in the oceanographer's Paris office

Jacques Cousteau had risen at 4 a.m. to polish a speech and then spent the day in the editing room, working on yet another documentary. It was after sunset when the 85-year-old French oceanographer emerged, but the night was young.

"The day rarely ends before 11 p.m.," he said. "I have a dinner tonight at 9:30 until I-don't-know-when with the director-general of UNESCO."

After more than six decades of traveling, diving, writing and producing films, Cousteau, as his scheduled suggests, still has plenty of energy left for a good fight. And that is bad news for the French government.

Since June, when President Jacques Chirac decided to resume nuclear-weapons tests in the South Pacific, Cousteau has become a vocal critic, calling the tests "an unavowed menace to future generations." A few days ago, he and other members of a presidential advisory group, the French Council for the Rights of Future Generations, abruptly resigned, en masse, in protest.

Of course, the French government faces worldwide protests. But criticism from the slender, gray-haired Jacques-Yves Cousteau carries great weight here. For years now, opinion polls have ranked him among the most-respected French figures, second only to Abbe Pierre, another octogenarian who is an advocate for the homeless.

Now known worldwide, Cousteau was born to an internationally minded family near Bordeaux. "My father was an international lawyer; my mother was a saint," he says. Some of his fondest early memories were of attending summer camp in Vermont.

Cousteau first made his international mark in 1943, when he invented the aqualung, which allows divers to move freely underwater for long periods. Beginning in 1951, he explored the oceans with Calypso, his research ship, and wrote many books on underwater exploration, including "The Silent World," in 1953, and "The Living Sea," in 1962. He made numerous visits to Los Angeles to learn the filmmaking trade, and three of his documentaries on sea life have won Academy Awards.

He still travels widely and is working on an autobiographical film and, at the same time, a movie on the ecological situation in South Africa. He walks more slowly these days, though he spends long hours in an office filled with diving memorabilia at the Paris headquarters of the Cousteau Society, a private organization.

He has a 58-year-old son from his first marriage, and two teen-age children from his second to Francine, a former airline executive who runs the Cousteau Society's daily affairs. They met while diving in the Gulf of Mexico and have been together 19 years.

Cousteau's battle with the French government isn't his first. In 1960, Cousteau and Prince Ranier of Monaco opposed France's plan to dump radioactive wastes into the Mediterranean Sea, eventually forcing France to abandon the plan.

This season's battle, though, is tougher. Chirac shows no signs of calling off the tests and, so far, he has declined to meet Cousteau and others on the presidential advisory council. But, as Cousteau put it, "He can't avoid us forever."


Question: Let's begin with the hot political issue of the moment. What is your opinion of President Jacques Chirac's decision to resume nuclear tests?

Answer: I would have been surprised if you hadn't asked me that. I'm not a nuclear specialist, but I know what I'm talking about. I was one of the directors of the Marine Radioactivity Laboratory of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 25 years. We measured the radioactive fallout from the atmospheric tests done by the Russians and Americans during 1972-1973, and so there I got quite an experience.

When France began its tests in Mururoa, I was worried and wanted to know the truth. In 1988, I got permission from the French government--and I was the only one to get it--to take Calypso, my ship, to Mururoa, with our specialists, to make a film. We took samples of air, water, sediment and plankton before, during and after a test, and measured the samples back in my lab.

We found that the underground test did not measurably increase the radioactivity in the volcanic rock. The coral ridge had fissures from the explosions but no radioactivity.

However, I asked the head of the French atomic-research bureau why we needed to do these tests. And, of course, the answers were very bad.

I have all my life been against atomic bombs and for complete nuclear disarmament. I have never approved of these tests, because they can only mean improving bombs that are meant to kill more people if you use them. There is no question about that.

Q: Were you surprised by Chirac's decision?

A: Chirac was a remarkable mayor of Paris. He is a very charming, very warm person, and I like him. When he was mayor, he married my wife and I. So we have a relationship. And when he was elected, I was rather pleased. I didn't care whether he was right or left, because I have no politics. But what was important for me was that he was a good man.

Then, I was baffled the 13th of June when he made his declaration that he would resume nuclear testing. I hesitated one or two hours, because I was squeezed between my anti-nuclear positions and my friendship with Chirac. But, friendship or not, I had to remain faithful to my ideas. So I protested that very evening on the television news.

Q: Your position is that the tests aren't right, no matter whether they cause leaks of radioactivity or not?

A: Yes. That is the big mistake of Greenpeace. Greenpeace started the right fight for the wrong reasons. They were right to fight it, but they were wrong to talk about [radioactive] pollution.

In each volcanic hole, the radioactivity from the explosions not only remains but they combine with the volcanic rock to make a stable board which isn't radioactive and which will stay there for millions of years.

For instance, I was asked by some people "What about the fish in the lagoon? These explosions must be terrible for the fish." The fish can only die, and some of them do, from the shock of the explosion. But they don't die from radioactivity, because there is no radioactivity in the lagoon.

None of that matters, though, when you think of the thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people who would be eliminated in a nuclear war.

But this is not politics, my friend. I'm not a socialist. I'm not a republican. I'm nothing. I'm only fighting for the future of humankind, whatever it will be.

Q: What about the argument that Chirac makes--that these tests will make the world a safer place by giving the French scientific community a better understanding of its nuclear weapons?

A: Bull, the scientific community. We don't want any kind of atomic weapons. Chemical weapons have been outlawed by all the nations of the world. Bacterial warfare has been outlawed. Why not atomic? They are all mass destruction.

So why try to twist the question to bring it back to details when the goal is a total ban. We want to outlaw the atom bomb and, of course, tests can only lead to another bomb. The only reason they want to test their bomb is to improve it. And we don't want them.

Q: This whole affair seems to have hurt the image of France in the world.

A: If it has, that is a mistake. Opinion polls show 62% of the population in France is against it. But the problem is our government.

Q: Some have criticized the French government by calling it arrogant.

A: It is criticizable. I criticize it.

Q: Why did Chirac do it?

A: Why did he do it? Gaullism. Tradition. A feeling that France must be strong. My logo is: France must be happy.

Q: What is your concern about the environmental future of the world?

A: It is high time to change the philosophy of ecology. We have 14,000 NGOs (non-government organizations) that are concerned with the environment. But they are dealing with what I call the "ecology of Papa." You see a beer can and you pick it up. You think you've done a great thing for the environment. You clean up a polluted river. It makes you feel good. But these are just symptoms of our sickness. We are taking aspirin against pollution, but it serves no purpose.

When you have a headache, you have to know why you have a headache, and instead of going to the pharmacy, you should go to the doctor and find the cause. That is a new ecology I'm trying to find. Our goal is to fight that now.

Q: So what can one do?

A: We can only improve the state of our planet by investigating very deeply. Most of the causes of environmental problems today are economic. It is the economic system that confuses price and value. This confusion causes us to hurt and deplete our natural resources and damage the environment we are living in.

This is what we are working for here, to put together a new philosophy of ecology and implement it by all means, including by using international organizations.

Q: How do you do that?

A: You mobilize the people, and that is what we are doing. Look, for instance, for the Rights of the Future Generations, which will be voted on by the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 25. We have gotten 9 million signatures. So there is a possibility to arouse the interest and will of the people. But you must, at the same time, inform them of the facts.

Q: Is there any specific environmental situation that gives you great concern?

A: If I knew one, I wouldn't talk about it, because it would divert our attention and energy to a detail. We have to attack the main problems.

We are, at the same time, a small and a powerful organization. We are small because we only have 100 people working with us, but we are powerful because we have an extraordinary list of successes: I saved the forest of Alaska; I saved the Antarctic; I saved the whales. Nobody knows that. The list of all the things we did is incredible.

Q: You saved the whales but nobody knows it?

A: I'll tell you how it happened. Some countries proposed a moratorium of 50 years to protect the whales from hunting. But it was rejected year after year. So one year I decided to see where the opposition came from, and I found that Canada was voting every year against the law.

But Canada did not hunt whales. So I went to see the prime minister and asked him, "Do you vote against the moratorium on whale hunting?" He said, "Moratorium on the whales? I don't know." So I told him Canada doesn't catch whales, but they vote against the moratorium. Why? He said he would give instructions and he did. The next year, 1978, Canada changed its vote.

I did the same with a small country named Monaco. And with these two changes of vote we got it.

Q: In your long career, what have been your most memorable experiences?

A: I don't even think about those things. I don't care really. In the morning, when I wake up, I go to my bathroom, look at my dirty face and if it looks like an honest face, I have a good day.

I live day to day and for the future, not for the past.

Q: After so many years, do you still have a special feeling about nature?

A: It is a new time each time. Nothing repeats itself. When I go to my garden in Normandy, each butterfly is different from the next.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

A: I couldn't care less. I don't care if I'm remembered. When life is finished, it is finished. Now if you ask me again, I would say that I would appreciate being considered by God. Because I'm a believer.

Q: Do you feel any special distress these days about the state of world environment?

A: The world has its own fate and we are part of it. Of course, it is partly our business to modify the fate of the world. So if we are just spectators, we are acting just like a dead weight. We must be active actors, because the greatest adventure of the universe is the human adventure.*

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