The Human the Orchid and the Octopus

It's no secret that since I was a child, I have worshiped Jacques Cousteau, dreamt of working on the Calypso or if I can't do that, then spend a few hours in his company, learning at the feet of a master. After his death a decade ago, it became the dream that would never come true. Except, it sort of has.

In the past month, I've been consumed with reading The Human, the Orchid and the Octopus: Exploring and Conserving Our Natural World, a book written in the last 10 years of Cousteau's life, co-authored by Sysan Schiefelbein and which has taking an additional 10 years to make it to North America. In the book, Cousteau uses stories of his life and career, his inventions and his explorations as springboards for a wider discussion of the impact the human race has had on our Earth.

Cousteau starts the book with a discussion of personal risk and public risk, grounding the rest of the book firmly in the philosophical understanding of the factors involved in assessing risk and how governments all over the world make decisions grounded in a market approach on behalf of the citizens of the countries without fully informing us of the consequences of the risks taken. Later chapters explore more fully the impact of this paradigm of governing. And right now, I can imagine any number of people (most of whom probably don't read this blog) dismissing the book sight unseen due to the "environmental bias". Which couldn't be farther from the truth.

Cousteau very clearly has a reverence for life and our little blue planet similar to the one you hear of in astronauts and writes of the wonders of it in a way that inspires spellbound awe. He has travelled extensively in the salty space on our planet and came to the same conclusion as astronauts who have viewed that planet from outer space: our Earth is a whole. That from above, as well as below, there are no artificial borders separating our world into nations. It is a very spiritual point of view and in addition to being a philosopher, Cousteau is clearly a religious man, repeatedly discussing how it is clear to him that the glory of god is seen in nature. One of the earlier chapters in the book is a brilliant discourse on how scriptures from every major world religion contain instructions to take care of the earth, instead of mindlessly using it. He questions the market approach to not just the use of natural resources, but in the application of a dollar value to a human life, to any life, including that of animals, which had a profound impact on me. I hadn't realized just how second nature that assumption of monetary value of a life had become in me.

I mentioned that Cousteau doesn't have a bias. This is not exactly true, as he clearly is biased in favour of protecting our world so it can protect and feed future generations, which is an opinion I can't imagine anyone disagreeing with. His approach to this opinion, however, doesn't contain a lot of bias. He presents fact after fact after verifiable fact about the shortsightedness of the human race and its approach to the use of natural resources, a use that is guided by market values instead of human ones. The ocean being near and dear to his heart, Cousteau discusses overfishing extensively, demonstrating how the applications of artificial boundaries of ownership of the ocean contribute to the collapse of fish stock everywhere. Again and again throughout the book, he calls for a rational approach to the management of non-renewable resources. For example, he suggests that the way our coastal nations claim a 200 mile ownership of the sea adjacent to their land is an artificial and irrational construct. The sea moves, none can own it. Antarctic waters are found in the Caribbean where they are an integral part of creating new life. How can anyone own that? Cousteau suggests instead that a world ocean organization with real powers be formed that decides where fishing is allowed. Farmers let fields lie fallow in order to rebuild nutrients to support future crops. Cousteau suggest the same approach be used with oceans, letting certain areas be fished for while, then lie fallow, thus allowing fish populations to replenish. Instead of eradicating fish population after fish population, this method would allow the oceans to feed not just those alive now, but future generations, as well. Does it get more obvious than that?

The Human, the Orchid and the Octopus is a clarion call for us to wake up and ask questions, find answers ourselves and hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf, for "our welfare". It is the impassioned plea of a passionate man on behalf of not just the natural world, but our children and grandchildren. The biggest gift of this book may be the way it expands your thinking to move past the immediate present, immediate gain and into five years from now, 20 years from now, 200 years from now. Cousteau's writing makes the abstract future seem so near that you can touch it and through his common sense, rational suggestions for alternatives to present practice, he makes change for the good of the present and future seem ridiculously obvious and perfectly doable. It is a sad thing that he is no longer alive - we need him more than ever.

Do yourself a favour. Get this book, read it and pass it on. If you ever felt hopeless about the state, health and future of the world, this book will make you very angry - it took me a month to read it, not just because it made me mad, but because it's best consumed slowly and given a lot of thought. However, it will also give you hope. And regardless of political beliefs, the chapter on public risk in itself should be compulsory reading for all citizens of democracies everywhere. If this book sounds like too much for you, get it from the library, copy Chapter 3, read it and pass it on. I think that chapter could very well cause millions, if not billions, of people to hold their elected officials accountable. I think that chapter could change the world.

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