Both Le Monde du Silence and Le Monde Sans Soleil are remarkable documents of the underwater world. At this time, during the fifties, very little was known about coral reefs, sea creatures, and the sheer profusion of life beneath the ocean's surface. Cousteau and his crew go a long way (indeed dedicated their lives) to allowing us a glimpse of this fascinating world. Yet, there are scenes in both films which seem to pride themselves upon this human mastery over other creatures, and the destruction of their habitat. Whether sledge hammering at coral walls, or tormenting fish by enclosing them within a glass box, or dispersing chemicals in the sea as 'harmless waste', or simply killing a wide variety of creatures in the least humane way possible (appal to appeal), all in the name of learning, there comes a point when I simply switch off and think to myself: Were scientists really that dumb in the fifties? How can anyone watch this and think Cousteau (and his cronies) great pioneers of 'knowing' (science)? Of course, not all scientists were that dumb. But there are always exceptions. Recently, we could see this, at least televisually, with the Australian 'tormentor of beasts' Steve Irwin who, when his karmic credit finally ran out, was stung to death by a manta ray he was attempting to toy with for the sake of his Channel 5 program.
It's curious, more than slightly ironic, that the following year the best documentary award was handed to Jerome Hill for his moving portrait of the Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer. Cousteau, irrespective of how he popularised the underwater world (I shall not enumerate the crimes that have been carried out under the pretext of 'scientific endeavour'), would have done well to have been acquainted with Schweitzer's work, and above all the 'ethics' that Schweitzer extolled. "A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives." When science (and exploration) 'shrinks' from ethics, when it just becomes an excuse to gain more knowledge and 'better understanding' (does understanding even come in degrees?) that will invariably rationalise post-factum the deeds we have done, it has already debased itself and become the way forward for a race of people who have lost their entitlement to the nomenclature 'human'.
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