Opinion | Our Oceans, Our Future

This is an article from Turning Points, a special section that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

Turning Point: The spread of Covid-19 in 2020 led to dramatic reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions, with one study finding that emissions fell by roughly 1.5 billion metric tons during the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2019 — the largest half-year decline in recorded history.

“No ocean, no life.” Being a Cousteau, this message was practically written into my DNA. And it’s one I’ve tried to share with the world through my many years of work as an environmental advocate.

Unfortunately, given the dire state of our oceans today, it’s clear that the message hasn’t gotten through to most people.

As we reflect on 2020 — one of the most socially and scientifically difficult years in recent memory — and look for ways to move forward, it’s crucial that we understand this simple fact: Without a healthy ocean we will not have a healthy future.

Many of us have experienced the magic and beauty of the ocean. Yet its vital connection to our daily lives — the ways in which it supplies the oxygen we breathe and nourishes the crops we eat — remains far less understood.

I’ve had the challenge — and the privilege — of spending 31 continuous days living in an underwater habitat, which has given me a unique perspective on the intrinsic value of the ocean as our primary life support system. The truth, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, is that our planet would more appropriately be called Ocean, not Earth. Without our water, Earth would be just one of billions of lifeless rocks floating in the inky-black void of space.

How can we change our perspective on the ocean as it relates to our planet? We can start by heeding the lessons of 2020. While the coronavirus has caused great suffering and tragedy, it has also shed light on some of the invisible structures that underpin our daily lives, from racial injustice to the extreme disparities in wealth that burden our communities. While these realities have always been plain to some, it took the seismic shifts created by the pandemic for many of us to wake up to them.

The pandemic has also served to remind us of the beauty of nature. As Covid-19 spread across the globe in the spring, prompting nation upon nation to impose strict lockdown measures, the natural world briefly reasserted itself: Cloudy Venetian canals grew clearer. The smog dissipated over the Hollywood Hills. Cars vanished from the roads, leading to a significant, though temporary, drop in carbon dioxide emissions. These developments were encouraging, suggesting that dramatic change was possible, and that there was hope for a greener future after all.

Yet, as the pandemic has continued, it has also caused the use of disposable plastics to skyrocket. Grocery bags and latex gloves fill our trash bins. Discarded face masks flow down the drains of our city streets and into our waterways, potentially harming sea life. Whether we realize it or not, discarded plastics are choking the life out of our ecosystem.

Both environmental pollution and the pandemic share an unnerving trait: The mechanisms and processes that underlie them remain largely invisible to the naked eye. We can’t see the microplastic contaminants we may be ingesting when we eat food from the sea today, just like we can’t see the respiratory droplets of the coronavirus as they pass from person to person. This fact can make these threats feel particularly overwhelming.

But we aren’t alone in these fights. None of us are naturally immune to the virus, or to the effects of pollution and climate change. And we can create real change if we act collectively.

Seemingly small, everyday actions can help combat both pollution and the virus. For example, wearing a washable and reusable mask is an easy way to protect your neighbor’s health and assure that less plastic ends up in the ocean. To protect our waterways further, we should avoid buying consumer goods wrapped in plastic, which will in turn lower the demand for such products.

We live in a closed-loop system. We can’t actually throw things “away.” The plastic we toss in the garbage often just ends up inside the bodies of marine animals, before finding its way back inside of us.

Like my grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, I believe that we protect what we love, and love what we understand. We have the ability to dictate the magnitude of the coronavirus and climate crises if we can simply absorb the lessons of science, including the hard truth that devastation awaits if we act too late. We must learn that to be on nature’s side is to be on humanity’s side.

Now, more than ever, we need hope. But we can’t just wait around for it; we have to create it.

One way I’m building toward a more hopeful future — and contributing to the effort to find solutions to the pressing problems that confront us — is through the creation of Proteus, intended to be the world’s most advanced underwater research station and habitat. The first in a projected network of Proteus habitats will be located 60 feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea off the island of Curaçao, and will serve, essentially, as an international space station for ocean exploration, allowing scientists and observers from around the world to live under the sea for weeks or potentially months on end.

As they do, they’ll unlock more of the ocean’s secrets. With only roughly 5 percent of Earth’s oceans explored thus far, there is an urgent need, and an ideal opportunity, to better understand how the ocean affects climate change, and what it can teach us about clean energy and food sustainability.

And, of course, there’s the ocean’s astonishing biodiversity. What medical breakthroughs might we stumble upon through the discovery of new species?

The first Proteus habitat, slated for completion in 2023, will feature a video production studio, intended to allow millions of people around the globe a chance to experience the wonders of life under the sea. Through Proteus, more will come to understand the power of our simple message: No ocean, no life.

Every day that we fail to find solutions to the climate crisis is a day that we come closer to losing another species to the ravages of a warming planet. Climate change isn’t going to slow down so that our own priorities can catch up.

Yet I have hope. A research station like Proteus is essential to protecting our waters — and to assuring our future: I believe the marine environment may well contain natural compounds that could help ease this pandemic or the next one.

Historically, in times of extreme crisis, humanity has come together to share ideas, put in place bold solutions and find new ways to survive. Now is the time for similar action. As we look to 2021 and beyond, we must finally take the steps necessary to protect our oceans, relying on science and the power of human ingenuity. Our lives depend on it.

Fabien Cousteau, an aquanaut and environmentalist, is the founder of the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center.

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