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

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..

…To be continued.

Copyright Non Profit Quaterly

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