Cousteau Society Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Founding of the Cousteau Society by Jacques Cousteau and his son Philippe marked Cousteau’s effort to use scientific research and education to preserve the world’s marine environments.

Summary of Event

Jacques Cousteau, joined by his youngest son, Philippe, incorporated the Cousteau Society in January, 1973. The organization’s American headquarters were located in Chesapeake, Virginia, an independent city-suburb of Norfolk, and its operations were launched the following year in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Within a short time thereafter, offices opened in Los Angeles and New York City as well as in Canada and France. As was characteristic of all Jacques Cousteau’s endeavors, the society’s advisers were drawn from a wide spectrum of show-business personalities, writers, environmental activists, scientists, and scientific organizations. The nonprofit society was well funded, largely on the basis of membership subscriptions and through substantial subsidies from Monaco’s Oceanographic Institute. Its publications included the Dolphin Log, the Calypso Log, and the Calypso Dispatch. Environmental organizations Cousteau Society Marine life, protection [kw]Cousteau Society Is Founded (Jan., 1973) [kw]Founded, Cousteau Society Is (Jan., 1973) Environmental organizations Cousteau Society Marine life, protection [g]North America;Jan., 1973: Cousteau Society Is Founded[01010] [g]United States;Jan., 1973: Cousteau Society Is Founded[01010] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan., 1973: Cousteau Society Is Founded[01010] [c]Environmental issues;Jan., 1973: Cousteau Society Is Founded[01010] Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau, Philippe Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Simone Melchior

The Cousteau Society signaled a distinct shift in Cousteau’s thought and marked a new emphasis in the application of his impressive energies. Sixty-three years old when he founded the organization, Cousteau had already enjoyed more than two decades as one of the world’s most familiar and respected personalities. After 1953, hundreds of millions of television viewers had come to know him as an inventor, poet, writer, photographer, educator, entertainer, and marine biologist. Poised before cameras for hundreds of hours on Calypso Calypso (ship) —the converted U.S.-built minesweeper that served as a platform for his undersea adventures—Cousteau and his sailor-specialists became the most famous captain and crew of their time. Millions of readers became familiar with the scores of handsomely illustrated exploration-adventure books written by Cousteau and various collaborators, which depicted encounters in all quarters of the globe with both well-known and rare sea creatures. Cousteau’s The Silent World (1953), Silent World, The (Cousteau) in fact, became an international best seller. These educational activities, however, were not intentionally environmental in orientation, nor were they rigorously scientific either in objective or in emphasis.

The Cousteau Society, on the contrary, was designed as a global environmental organization. It was dedicated to “the enhancement and preservation of the water planet,” to related research into the marine environment, and to educating people all over the world through publications, films, and lobbying about environmental problems. Prior to 1973, Cousteau had been notably nonpolitical, believing it sufficient to entertain and educate through the intrinsic drama and beauty of filmed and written accounts of his underwater explorations, encounters, and adventures. With the formation of the society, Cousteau declared that he was embarking on a new phase of his life.

There were several reasons for this. He had long been deeply disturbed by the senseless slaughter of intelligent marine mammals such as dolphins and whales and by the deterioration of the silent underseas world, as seen in the demise of ancient coral reefs, disruptions in the oceanic food chain, and growing marine pollution. The international energy crisis, Energy crisis (1973) which struck with full effect in 1973 when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) curtailed oil production and drastically raised prices, awakened him to the deleterious impacts of war and rampant nationalism and to the fragile interdependence of the world’s peoples and their environments.

Cousteau was convinced—and he publicly asserted—that world leaders were systematically lying about the energy crisis and about environmental issues. They were guilty, he charged, of placing selfish and shortsighted interests ahead of crucial ecological challenges. Although Cousteau had previously confined himself to fighting, in his words, “against the elements,” he committed himself in founding the society to fighting against political systems responsible for decisions that led to the disruption and blatant mismanagement of global resources.

Cousteau perceived the society as an international“state department,” with a function to educate the world’s decision makers about the ecological ramifications of their decisions. To this end, with the weight of the society behind him and with his own celebrity status serving as a passport, Cousteau hoped to circumvent conventional diplomacy and confer with world leaders and legislators in order to ameliorate or resolve environmental problems. The society’s efforts to educate future generations were aimed at the long-term prospect of undercutting the conventional “unwisdom” from which, Cousteau believed, sprang so much of the damage to the world’s ecosystem.


Jacques Cousteau wears an Aqua-Lung, which he invented, in a still from Louis Malle’s film The Silent World (1956).

(Library of Congress)

Once he had founded the society, Cousteau brought his television shows, his expeditions, and the Calypso under its aegis. Along with the series of publications that kept the society’s subscribers apprised of Cousteau’s plans and activities, Cousteau likewise promulgated a “Bill of Rights for Future Generations” aimed at a worldwide audience. The document was drafted by three academics who served as members of the society’s advisory council—Gabriel G. Nahas and E. Allan Farnsworth of Columbia University and Stanley H. Thayer of the City College of New York—and was intended for adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The bill’s main articles specified the rights of future generations: the right to an undamaged and uncontaminated Earth, the right to prevent irreversible ecological destruction, the right to assess the environmental impacts of new technologies, and the right to take all appropriate action to guarantee that the biosphere was not sacrificed for expedience or for mere convenience.

The Cousteau Society based its subsequent lobbying efforts and educational campaigns on this document. To safeguard the planet Earth from further damage and contamination, Cousteau insisted, for example, that the United States should be prepared to spend $1 trillion over a fifteen-year period to harness energy from the oceans, plants, wind, and sun. Emphasizing this objective, Cousteau and the Calypso joined Sun Day Sun Day celebrations at the U.N.’s New York headquarters in May, 1978. Few tangible results accrued immediately from these alternative energy promotions, but the following year, Cousteau and the society sponsored a weeklong series of so-called involvement days in order to promote Cousteau’s ideas for protecting ocean environments. Organized regionally, these offered a forum for scientists, film and music stars, and public officials. Lavish display booths highlighting solar energy and organic farming techniques, and the intensively advertised presence of popular musical groups, attracted large numbers of teenagers, whom Cousteau envisioned as the hope of the future.

The tragic death of Philippe Cousteau in 1979 deeply saddened his father and noticeably altered the society’s style. The dashing Philippe had been Jacques Cousteau’s heir apparent as the society’s leader; his replacement by his older brother, the architect and businessman Jean-Michel Cousteau, placed the society on a sounder administrative footing and also tended to depoliticize the organization’s activities. By 1980, in fact, Jacques Cousteau, then seventy, was at odds with the positions taken by a number of environmentalists on what they regarded as critical issues.

Cousteau, for example, rejected conclusions environmental activists had reached about depletion of Earth’s ozone layer, Ozone layer;damage insisting that the evidence indicated little diminution of these protective gases. Cousteau likewise refused to agree with their view that industrial pollutants were primarily responsible for the degradation of the biosphere. Aboard the Calypso, he had taken hundreds of measurements throughout the world, plotting the decline of animal life in the seas; he claimed that these losses were far too great to be attributed to chemical pollutants. Instead, he identified the disappearance of marine life with overfishing, the destruction of spawning grounds, the filling in of marshes and wetlands by developers, and the diversion of rivers. In fact, contrary to the opinion of a majority of scientists in the early 1980’s, Cousteau did not despair of a future for the seas.

When activists charged that nuclear contamination had increased alarmingly in the oceans, Cousteau countered that his service with the International Nuclear Energy Agency convinced him that there had been no increase in oceanic radioactivity. Asked by the French government to observe a 1987 nuclear test blast at Mururoa in French Polynesia and to conduct his own evaluations of the blast’s effects aboard the Calypso, Cousteau, to the angry disappointment of members of Greenpeace Greenpeace and other environmental groups—many of whom admired him—reported that atomic residues from the explosion were well below allowable proportions. Cousteau was, in fact, an advocate of carefully exploited nuclear power, a position that led him on occasion to decry antinuclear spokespersons as enemies of technological progress.

Under the direction of Jacques and Jean-Michel Cousteau, the Cousteau Society during the 1980’s increasingly avoided direct confrontations with industrial organizations and governments, as well as with environmental critics. Both Cousteaus, for example, opposed offshore oil drilling, deplored large-scale commercial fishing operations, denounced industrial pollution, and publicly excoriated hunters. Instead of actively battling over these issues, however, the Cousteaus favored a return to an educational approach.

By the following decade, therefore, the society had readopted many of the old strategies, albeit with variations, that had brought Jacques Cousteau international fame years before. The society again concentrated on film production—chiefly for television specials that drew public attention to the marine environment—as well as on scientifically informed oceanic and underseas exploration and on the production of educational books. In conjunction with scientists and educators, the society continued to garner awards for films broadcast to the homes and educational institutions of more than one hundred countries. The society’s Project Ocean Search Project Ocean Search offered field study programs, and the inauguration of Cousteau Centers—the most famous being in Paris—employed sophisticated museum techniques to influence public attitudes and to sway policy makers.

The society also collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution Smithsonian Institution in advancing its Mammal Events Program and helped subsidize the Mammal Stranding Program, a study of whales and dolphins that periodically beached themselves. The society further sought to stimulate interest in marine technology. It annually produced several hours of television documentaries about such topics as the Cousteaus’ innovative windship Alcyone, the continuing research of the Calypso’s crew into ocean productivity, the vitality of ocean and freshwater habitats, and the discrete interrelationships between Earth’s biosphere and atmosphere. On behalf of the society, Cousteau also lobbied for the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Human Environment, for the establishment of the United Nations Global Environment Monitoring System, Global Environment Monitoring System and for the adoption of the Law of the Sea Treaty. Law of the Sea Treaty (1982) Not least, the society underwrote research both to augment scientists’ knowledge of particular regions and to furnish guidelines to policy makers eager to safeguard their local environments.

The effectiveness of these educational efforts, in the short run at least, has been unclear. Cousteau Society research indicated that those who viewed its television documentaries were intrigued, moved, and probably educated by them. Independent researchers agreed that the society had indeed conveyed significant information about the oceans but added that there were no indications that such information had altered attitudes or encouraged people to take action to protect their environments. The Cousteaus accurately pointed out that the reckoning of educational results involved long-term, complex calculations. Their supporters maintained that those who enchant, delight, and entertain the world have an advantage when they also try to educate. The Cousteau Society continued to sponsor expeditions to evaluate the health of the seas, including a return to the Red Sea in the early twenty-first century. Environmental organizations Cousteau Society Marine life, protection

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cousteau, Jacques-Yves. The Cousteau Almanac of the Environment: An Inventory of Life on a Water Planet. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. A collection of hundreds of essays, along with vital statistics, maps, tables, and photographs compiled by the staff of the Cousteau Society. Exceptionally informative about the state of the world’s biosphere and about vital environmental issues. Valuable index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Silent World. 1953. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004. An introduction to Cousteau and his marine explorations. Covers Cousteau’s testing of the Aqua-Lung, which he helped to invent, and his early underseas adventures and research across the globe. Well-written and illustrated, with both black-and-white and color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cousteau, Jacques-Yves, and Philippe Diolé. The Underseas Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. New York: Bristol Park Books, 1990. Splendidly illustrated three-book series; includes The Dolphin, The Shark, and The Whale.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Margaret. Jacques Cousteau: A Biography. New York: Scholastic, 1991. A brief work for young adults presenting an uncritical survey of Cousteau’s life and achievements. Includes photographs and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munson, Richard. Cousteau: The Captain and His World. New York: William Morrow, 1989. Outstanding biography of Cousteau maintains a sensible balance between Cousteau’s achievements and his flaws. Includes many excellent photographs, chapter notes, and a useful index.

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Categories: History