In an essay in which cultural historian Helen M. Rozwadowski traces the intellectual climate surrounding Jacques Cousteaus aquatic utopias, which he managed to manifest temporarily in his Conshelf-experiments (see my post here), she concludes:
“The story of ‘Homo aquaticus’ (a term invented by Cousteau) reveals the extent to which the future of humanity has become tied to the ocean, including as a font of moral rebirth and, more recently, as a refuge for the human species. […] A discourse about the fate of humanity and of the planet”
According to Rozwadowski, aquatic fiction of the 19. and 20. century also reflected racist ideas of white superiority. According to the evolutionist concept that human evolution started in the oceans, popularized by Darwin and Haeckel, diving humans not only came closer to creation, maritime cultures like the Polynesians were portrayed as less developed and closer to human origin. A popular trope of science fiction (and pseudo-science) from the 1950s through 1980s was the “insistence on evolutionary reversal to enable survival”. Man would have to develop backwards, grow gills and move back into the sea if he was to survive the anthropocene.
Rozwadowski paints a picture of a society that views the ocean through the lens of “the twin dynamic of technophobia and technophilia”. Going into and mastering the ocean as a habitat was in the 20. Century at the same time a regressive fantasy and a futurist high-tech adventure. To become aquatic, man either has to regress or needs more and better technology.
As far as moral renewal is concerned, Rozwadowski quotes one of the divers of Cousteaus Conshelf project, Falco, with the words: “I don’t know exactly what happened. I am the same person, yet I am no longer the same. Under the sea everything is . . . moral.” Frederic Dugan, another diver and close associate of Cousteau and co-author of several of his books, “insisted that ‘the coming undersea life will be inspiring,’ drawing parallels to creative historical epochs such as the Renaissance.”
I find this very interesting under the light of current debates around climate crisis and particularly rising sea levels in the anthropocene. Could the threat of flooding also instigate utopian ideas about a moral and evolutionary renewal of mankind in the sea?
Among the stories and books the essay quotes are: Jacques Cousteau with James Dugan: “The Living Sea” (1963), Paul Anderson: “Homo Aquaticus” (Amazing Stories, September 1963), Aleksandr Belayev: “The Amphibian” (1928), Kenneth Bulmer: “City under the Sea” (1957), D.D. Chapman and Deloris Lehman Tarzan: “Red Tide” (1975), and Arthur C. Clarke: “The Challenge of the Sea” (1960) and: “The Ghost of the Grand Banks and the Deep Range” (2001).
Thanks to Lajos Talamonti for the lead.