Humans are waging the Earth's first true eco-war

Jean-Michel Cousteau

February 01, 1991|By Jean-Michel Cousteau

TODAY, the world watches not just a massive conflict in the Middle East, but perhaps the planet's first true eco-war.

Nuclear and chemical warfare has been threatened; threats to use oil as a weapon have now become a reality. Along with all thoughtful people, I shudder at the implications of what appears to be an ever-escalating, ever more desperate battleground. I am especially disturbed because of the Middle East's ecological significance, and its personal significance for me.

In 1951, the Middle East was the destination of the first voyage of our ship, Calypso. She traveled to the Red Sea, namely to the Farasan Archipelago off the Saudi Arabian coast.

There, in the spirit of understanding, my father led the world's first aquanauts on an exploration of the most extensive coral reefs outside Australia's Great Barrier Reef. They marveled at the region's unadulterated beauty, bringing to human eyes the magnificence of an undersea world unknown at the time.

The ship returned to the area again in 1967. Egypt and Israel were at war. An oil refinery at Suez had been bombed and shell fragments fell all around Calypso as she lay at dock, taking shelter from hostilities.

But that experience pales in comparison to what we witness today. As the stakes climb higher with each hour, the Earth itself becomes a hostage.

First came reports that the Iraqis had ignited some Kuwaiti oil facilities. There were also reports that the Iraqis had dug trenches in Kuwait that could be flooded with oil and set on fire to hamper an enemy advance. These reports clearly signaled that little would be off-limits in this conflict.

Then came the news that, making good on their threat, the Iraqis had deliberately released oil from Kuwaiti facilities to coat the Persian Gulf with what appears to be an astounding quantity of oil, perhaps as much as 30 times the amount spilled in the "Exxon Valdez" disaster.

Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, warned at the outset of the war that large-scale oil fires would send black soot into the stratosphere, blocking sunlight and playing havoc with climate in a variation of the "nuclear winter" scenario.

Black greasy "rain" has already fallen on Iran as a result of the fires at the Kuwaiti refineries.

However, other scientists, such as those at the Sandia National Laboratories in the U.S., disagree that the burning of oil fields would disrupt global climate. They argue that smoke and ash would be dispersed. But that prediction, of course, assumes that only a limited number of oil fields become involved.

I know from traveling to Alaska during the Valdez incident how utterly impossible containment of a major spill can be in peacetime. I can only imagine the difficulty of dealing with a much larger disaster in the midst of war. We already know that during the Iran-Iraq war in 1983, a major oil spill occurred as a result of Iraqi bombing, causing a fire that reportedly burned for a full year.

Full-scale eco-war in the gulf would surely have a catastrophic effect on the marine environment -- not only smothering coral reefs, but also smothering plankton, the microscopic food that makes Persian Gulf fisheries possible.

The gulf is an Arabian treasure; extensive damage would exact inestimable long-term cost to the environment and to the economies of all the countries in the region, and perhaps well beyond.

Fresh water, too, has come into play. This major spill threatens to clog some intake valves at desalinization plants that provide many Arabian people with their drinking water. Other water supplies could be contaminated or cut off. Turkey and Iraq share hydroelectric facilities, and much of Iraq's fresh water is controlled by Turkey. Will this water, too, become a weapon?

If elements basic to existence are permitted to be used as tools of battle, will they become permanent pawns in the shifts of political power?

"God is great," it is said in the Middle East. But no god condones the deliberate polluting and laying waste of such godly gifts as the air and water, which make life possible on this planet.

I do not argue causes here in political terms, but in terms of principles that transcend national boundaries and divergent interests. From space, we see no borders other than natural features -- glistening coasts, blue rivers, thrusting mountains, billowing clouds -- all indifferent to flags and parliaments and armies.

Eco-war must be renounced in the name of all that is good in the human spirit, and in the name of the borderless world that is the only home we have. Our embattled planet must outlast those who threaten it. Perhaps even the most intractable cause can cede that point.

Surely it is clear that if Earth is today's hostage, every nation is a prisoner held for ransom no nation can pay.

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