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Excerpt from In Search of Environmental Excellence:
Moving Beyond Blame

by Bruce Piasecki and Peter Asmus


by Jean-Michel Cousteau

Jean-Michel Cousteau

When my father began diving in the Mediterranean Sea in the early forties, the water was clean. Great beds of seagrass and algae thrived there, along with dense schools of fish and rich invertebrate fauna. Gorgonians were abundant, and so were huge groupers and spiny lobsters. It was the rich sea-floor community the world was seeing in the early Cousteau films.

Since those days, the Mediterranean coast has become densely populated. Industries, hotels, and homes line the coast. Sewage and other wastes stream into the sea. Sadly, the same waters where the first Aqua-lung divers discovered the sea's beauty and diversity are today biologically impoverished. And this scene — where urban development meets the water — is spreading rapidly around the world today.

I recall the reaction of Albert Falco, who has been a member of the Cousteau team for nearly forty years and was one of the earliest undersea pioneers. "Our magnificent natural aquarium," he said, "has been transformed into a large decanting basin, collecting the dregs of our life on land. To be sure, the water is still clear in the open sea ten miles offshore. But we don't go swimming in the middle of the ocean."

Since World War II, a flood of new technologies and products has been produced without innovations to avoid the accompanying new kinds of harmful waste products. Combined with growing human population needs, the productive ecosystems of the planet have become overburdened to the point where they are collapsing in many places. Our blind trust in nature, as Piasecki and Asmus note in this new book, has betrayed us. While there is a self-cleaning capacity in nature, scientists are now finding that this process can take generations, depending on the extent of the damage. If all pollution were halted today, for example, it could still take many, many years for the Baltic to recover.

During my travels around the world, our teams have witnessed many hopeless scenes — hopeless because people did not understand the dangers confronting them; they did have the tools to solve their predicament. When people band together, make coalitions, gather available information, and plot an effective strategy, mountains shrink into molehills. Impediments are overcome.

Years ago, the Cousteau Society was asked to participate with many other groups and individuals in a hearing in Brownsville, Texas, to evaluate the feasibility of burning at sea some of the most dangerous toxic wastes known to humanity. At first suspicious and uninformed about this technology, people joined efforts to question it. After talking with a variety of experts, including Bruce Piasecki, the Cousteau Society and fellow activists concluded there were safer land-based treatment alternatives that could cost-effectively take the place of at-sea burning.

In general, remedies exist for most of the ills that humanity visits upon marine, freshwater, and terrestrial systems. As my father stated in the early 1970s, "We must decide to prevent rather than cure. As far as industry is concerned, this means putting zero levels of toxic materials into the waters. The executives of an industry should be required to consume in their company cafeterias the same water being discharged from their factories into the environment." Piasecki's two previous books, Beyond Dumping (1984) and America's Future in Toxic Waste Management (1988), verify this approach. His new book with Peter Asmus goes even further in its scope, defining preventive strategies. The producer of toxic wastes should ultimately be responsible for destroying or detoxifying all wastes before any effluent leaves the confines of the production facility. Our proposal has always been to have industry bear one-third of the costs, the federal government one-third, and the regional community in which the industry is located one-third. For industry, the costs of environmental protection should be included in the cost of the product or service. We must be prepared to pay the real costs, including the hidden environmental ones, of our material goods. Were the United States and other industrial nations to have taken this stance and enforced it years ago, tens of billions of dollars of public money, perhaps ultimately hundreds of billions, which must be spent on cleanup, could have been saved and used for more productive purposes.

Whenever environmental protection is not calculated into the cost of goods, we force future generations to pay. And, as we are now discovering, the cost increases with time as environmental and public health problems multiply, placing growing burdens on our children. My own father has been active in the environmental movement for many years.

Today, humankind faces an uncertain future. Will the strategy to store nuclear wastes from nuclear-weapons production and nuclear power turn vast areas into what Bruce Piasecki calls "national sacrifice zones"? Will the inefficient use of petroleum and the concomitant inability of governments to encourage development of alternative energy sources and more efficient hydrocarbon technologies bring the present society, dependent on this non-renewable and polluting fuel, to a sudden slowdown or chaotic halt? Will the hunger to cut the trees of the rain forest — whether for luxurious furniture, throwaway chopsticks, cardboard for packaging, or to clear grazing land — contribute to an alteration of the climate of the planet, degrading regional environments, wildlife, and societies? Will the storage and inefficient disposal of hazardous wastes contaminate freshwater sources and living organisms for generations to come?

These are among the issues contemplated and resolved in In Search of Environmental Excellence. The problems are vast; the fear they create is real. Yet, this book argues, the solutions for many of these problems are available today. The key is to go beyond the complex of fear and blame caused by inadequate information and inadequate cooperation between government (national, state, and local), industry, and community. Working together, we can overcome our problems, and the quality of life for future generations can be preserved. Such is the timely argument of this book, which excites as it educates.

Bruce Piasecki and Peter Asmus offer a ray of hope and a blueprint for solutions to the vast array of environmental challenges before us. The authors show how we as a global community have gone wrong; but they also argue that, by gathering together to share appropriate information and technology, we can learn to understand and to solve our environmental dilemma.

At the individual level, each of us can make small changes to affect these large problems. Start recycling, or recycle more. Use less water. Save energy. Insulate your home. In the net, we, as a species, can effect significant, earth-revitalizing changes.

It is easy to say to a polluter, "No, you can't manufacture this product in this manner with the accompanying pollution," yet offer no alternative approach. It is more difficult to say, "No, but how about this solution?" At the Cousteau Society, we use the second approach, and it has been shared by Piasecki, Asmus, and others in a new generation of environmental writers.

Despite society's best efforts to prevent disasters, they still occur, as this book highlights — ranging from the environmental blunders of ancient Rome and Greece to Hanford and Chernobyl, to Valdez and Bhopal.

How we plan for the future will determine our success or failure. Remarkably, there is no national or international agency in society whose primary concern is the future, although our decisions cast long shadows ahead. Consequently, we lurch through time, reacting to one emergency after another, trying to rectify problems rather than prevent them, consuming, despoiling, and eradicating the life-support system for our own progeny. We are borrowing from tomorrow's environmental bank accounts, and leaving damaging debts for our children to pay.

In Search of Environmental Excellence applies a new measure to our environmental dilemmas: that we must consider first and foremost how they will impact the unborn generations to come. We as a society must begin to act now as if in the very presence of those future generations whose planet we can plunder or preserve.

— Jean-Michel Cousteau

Read Chapter 3: "A Global Greenhouse — Framing the Debate »

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