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. Nathan Gardels, editor of Non-Profit Quaterly(NPQ) interviewed Cousteau on the concerns of industrialization and development on the planet

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……

….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.

…To be Continued

Copyright Non Profit Quaterly

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