24 Jan 2018 Story Oceans & seas

Drowning in pollution

By Pierre-Yves Cousteau

When I was a child, my father, Captain Cousteau, an explorer and oceanographer, sometimes scolded me for my behaviour or actions that had an unfortunate outcome. "I didn’t mean to!” I would say in my defense. And his answer was always the same: "You could have meant not to do it".

More than 3.8 billion years ago, microscopic marine organisms were the source of a new molecule on our planet, a waste product of their metabolism, rejected in water and air: oxygen. Bubble by bubble, these tiny settlers oxidized not only the whole of the Earth's crust, but also all the oceans. This oxygen, highly toxic for all the other micro-organisms that had until then been masters of the planet, became an ozone layer in contact with the ionizing rays in the upper atmosphere. Today, that layer is still protecting all life on Earth from damaging solar radiation.

Our politics and our values have bowed down before the economic algorithm that governs us all.

The term “pollution” comes from the Latin verb “polluere”, which means to dishonour or defile. Since ancient times, human beings have been polluting and defiling both nature and humanity, and lately we have begun calling this pollution “externalities”. The production of goods and services, from copper forges in the Roman empire to contemporary plastic bags, lead to the release into the environment of molecules that are harmful to life.

The notion of intention is at the crux of the global problem of pollution, which contributes to the destruction of life on Earth, both in its diversity and in its quality. If someone were to start breaking everything around them, that person would immediately be locked up. However, when economic benefit is involved, that same person or entity may actually be encouraged and subsidized. As soon as money is part of the equation, destruction is permitted. The environment and human life are nothing compared to the false god of profit. To oil barons, oil spills and climate change are acceptable risks.

Today, more than one third of fish and seafood contains plastic, while 80 per cent of the world's tap water contains microscopic particles of plastic. The carbon dioxide that humans have already emitted by humans will cause sea levels to rise by 12 meters. Toxic effluent travels from rivers into the seas, the floors of which are already being relentlessly scraped by industrial activity.

A circular economy mimics the natural processes from which we have alienated ourselves.

But it's always involuntary. We do not want to kill the polar bear. We do not do it on purpose! But we could make a purposeful choice not to do it.

A circular economy mimics the natural processes from which we have alienated ourselves. It implies that there is no waste. That every product, every activity, feeds other processes of valorization. We have become the masters of this planet by cutting off the Earth’s natural cycles. To continue to survive on this planet, we will have to learn to integrate them into our economic system.

Our politics and our values have bowed down before the economic algorithm that governs us all. This algorithm has brought us many benefits, including safety, comfort and convenience that are unprecedented in human history. But it has also led to the destruction of the environment, and immeasurable amounts of pollution. This system must change to take externalities into account. Our island is getting too crowded; we can ignore our impacts no longer.

The UN Environment Assembly in December 2017 generated bold pollution-beating commitments from governments, business and civil society, as well as nearly 2.5 million individual pledges to #BeatPollution. 

Find out about UN Environment's work on oceans, and support the UN campaign to tackle marine litter.