By Alex Horton
British filmmaker David Attenborough has spent decades hawking green. But will his latest — a documentary about the preservation of underwater and coastal habitats — actually have some effect on the tides?
“Becoming Cousteau” — which had its U.S. premiere Sunday in Monterey — certainly aims to win over hearts and minds. Its director, Joe Oppenheimer, and the blue-chip producers that produced it started this adventure back in 2017. In a refreshing departure from the other climate change documentaries to be released, “Becoming Cousteau” paints one man — in this case, famed explorer Jacques Cousteau — as a force for environmental good. They took his chronicle of fish and ocean creatures from the 1921 film “The Outward Bound Guide to the Living Ocean” and turned it into the narration, touching story and visionaries for conservation that Anadolu has dubbed “One Hundred Years of Sea Change.”
“I think that it is in everyone’s conscience today to protect the planet,” Oppenheimer said to The Washington Post after the film’s premiere. “The problem is how do you compel that?”
The same question came up again and again when visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Sunday afternoon.
“You can’t create millions of homes, or deal with urban traffic, or make billions and billions of meals — none of these things are sustainable — without a healthy, clean oceans,” Audience President Patrick Van Horn said in his introductory remarks to the film. “You can’t make a clean world, and a prosperous world without the oceans. The oceans are, fundamentally, where growth is.”
His stance was a rare point of agreement: Even those who support green initiatives stressed that the ocean is not simply a “calculated, earned deduction on someone’s paycheck.” It provides sustenance, income and shelter. For Ismar Meyer, executive director of Ocean Conservancy, “a wealthy man’s good sense” is irrelevant if those same men and women — or “the next 20-something CEOs” — will not step up and be stewards.
Reaching this point is in large part dependent on public awareness, as did “Becoming Cousteau.” Researchers from UC Davis’ Institute of Marine Sciences traced commercial lines of, say, textiles or tires, to their threads or materials, and then jumped back to the oceans in order to gauge the negative effect industrial industrialization had on the ocean. In the end, the number of pounds of pollutants that have landed on the ocean floor actually decreased after the sweeping Pacific garbage patch was contained.
“The good news about ocean debris is that we are no longer in a sense lacking in what we think of as pollution,” Johan Andresen, a postdoctoral fellow at the institute, told the audience.
It’s not for everyone. Michael Plumlee, the founding executive director of the marine sanctuary Sierra Madre-Sierra Wildlife Sanctuary, called coastal populations, namely gray whales, at risk from an El Niño-driven phenomenon.
But it’s worth considering: During the presentation, Kimberlee talked about her family’s connection to the ocean. Her father’s political affiliation after the Great Depression, she said, was with the Sierra Club.
That man? His name was Jacques Cousteau.
Like his namesake, his son illustrated how the oceans created communities, economies and life and death. The ocean environment influences everything from our environment to the ecosystems around us, and Audience President Van Horn likened it to the world’s largest reservoir: When conditions aren’t set up properly, he said, “everything drowns.”