If there is a heaven, I'll be surprised. If I wind up there, even more so. But if, at the pearly gates, I see Jacques Cousteau, seated just to the right of Saint Peter, helping that apostle mete out justice, I won't be taken aback. Cousteau's book, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus, newly available in an English translation, spans a magnificent life of thought and adventure. Readers who are familiar with Cousteau only through his work as an undersea television star will learn that he was also an important inventor of scuba gear an outspoken conservationist and a World War II fighting veteran. His book shepherds readers through a number of problems that occupied Cousteau for much of his life, and a note of warning ties the various chapters together. Whether writing about the importance of pure science, deploring the destruction of coral reefs, or predicting the near immortality of future humans, Cousteau calls for caution, responsibility, action suffused with thought.
In a book filled with gems, it can be hard to isolate one to talk about, but the chapter titled Catch as Catch Can, which explores the problem of unsustainable fishing practices, is arguably the most important. When rich nations feed fish to livestock and bolster gourmet restaurants with exotic catches, he notes, they're taking food away from poorer countries where fish isn't just a menu option it's often the only available protein. Although politicians hesitate to confront the fishing industry, Cousteau comes right out and says that most fishing professionals are in it for a quick buck at the expense of the industry's future. Just in case you're thinking a 10-year-old book must be out of date, let me tell you that, in addition to being an inventor, fighter and conservationist, Cousteau was also a prophet. His predictions that terrorism and genetics would preoccupy the 21st century were eerily right on the money. The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus will top must-read lists for people who want to understand the 20th century from the viewpoint of one of its greatest titans.