“There are two sides to humanity”
Popular scientist and environmental lobbyist Hubert Reeves is a key public face of ecology in France. Jane Hanks spoke exclusively to him on a wide range of subjects, from astrophysics to airports
Hubert Reeves, astrophysicist, advisor to Nasa, Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France (CNRS), winner of the Albert Einstein award and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, has dedicated much of his time and his great knowledge to explain the mysteries of our universe to the general non-scientific public.
He was one of the founders of the Nuit des Etoiles (Night of the stars), created in 1991 by the Association Française d’Astronomie, which now attracts thousands of participants across Europe and Africa to look at and understand better the stars on three consecutive nights each summer. He has never stopped giving conferences, making films and writing books for both adults and children.
He is now 85, but that did not stop him publishing four books last year including a guide to wild flowers and a synopsis of his thoughts on all that he has learnt during his extremely active life.
His priority is the environment and he cannot relax into retirement, while he feels it is urgent to act now to stop the destruction of our planet. He is President of the association Humanité et Biodiversité which works to lobby the government on green issues.
Hubert Reeves was born in Canada but has made France his home for many years. He is the epitome of the kind, wise professor with his smiling eyes and long beard. Jane Hanks listened to what he had to say on a whole range of topics, in his charming French which resonates with the accent he has kept from his Canadian roots.
Why did you decide to become an astrophysicist?
I come from a modest background and grew up in the province of Quebec in Canada. My father was a salesman and my mother looked after the house and family.
We had a house in the country and my parents had a great respect for nature and instilled in me a love of everything that was in the natural world. My dream, therefore was to become a scientist.
What have you learnt about the universe from your extensive studies?
I have always been interested in the origins of the universe, how it was formed. So I have done a great deal of work in finding out about the origin of chemical elements.
I have always been curious and there are still far more questions than there are answers. There is still a great deal to learn but I am happy to have participated in increasing knowledge in this field.
Why has it always been so important to you to share this knowledge with the public, who find mathematics, chemistry and physics difficult?
I always think about the woman who has been a housewife all her life or a man who has been working hard in a factory and who have not had the chance to learn these things and they think that perhaps they are not capable of understanding them. However, these are questions about the origins of our world and in fact everyone is interested, not just scientists.
We all want to know where we come from. The general public is far more capable of understanding these subjects than they perhaps think they are, and when they realise that they can it is a great feeling. It is important to democratise knowledge. An educated society is far less likely to resort to terrorism, for example, because they have access to culture and have answers to certain questions.
A lot of your books have been for children. How important is it to teach children about the stars and do you think astronomy should be taught at school?
There are certain ages when children are particularly curious and it is then that they must have their questions answered. It is extremely important because if we don’t feed their curiosity, it will die inside them and they will be the poorer for it.
I think astronomy should perhaps be taught in schools but not just there, because when a subject becomes obligatory it can become boring. Conferences and events like the Nuit des Etoiles are much better at arousing interest.
You told me that you looked at Saturn’s rings through a telescope at a Nuit des Etoiles event in your local village, and that is a much better way of learning because it is in a festive, agreeable and popular spirit.
How did you become an ecologist?
During the sixties and seventies we were not aware that there were any problems. We thought nuclear power would be the answer to everything and give us clean energy. Little by little, however, I began to understand that there was a problem and that I needed to do something to make the world a better place in the future for my children and my grandchildren.
I am now the President of Humanité et Biodiversité, an association which is a lobbying group. We have no political allegiances. We are there to remind governments to keep to the electoral promises they make about the environment. At present we are very close to the Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot.
Sometimes we win. We were very happy that the decision was finally taken not to build a new airport for Nantes at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. It would have been appalling to waste precious farmland on an airport. It shows that perhaps attitudes are slowly beginning to change and that there is an awareness that we must preserve our natural resources.
When I go to lycées to speak I find that young people are far more interested and enthusiastic. Trump is a disaster, but I am encouraged that China has turned very quickly towards ecology.
Are we really about to destroy our planet?
I cannot stress enough that at present we are at a critical point. No-one knows what the world will be like in 50 years and it could go either way depending on what we do now.
There are two conflicting elements at play. On the one hand there are continuing actions like deforestation in the Amazon and use of fossil fuels which is adding to the deterioration of conditions.
There is global warming and an increase in violent storms. Our biodiversity continues to be threatened as more and more species of insects and birds and plants and animals are decreasing. There are fewer worms, for example, and if they go our soil will be ruined.
On the other hand there is progress. There is greater awareness and countries have shown their commitment by signing the COP 21 agreement for example.
As a scientist, looking at the scientific evidence I am convinced that the menaces are there. However, things could change for the better. It is why, what we do now, and the decisions we make now are so important.
What can we as individuals do?
There are many things that people can do and lots of books in the library giving advice but the problem is that not enough people are reading them. I think it is true that people are not frightened enough yet about what could happen to the planet to do much about it.
It is a period which reminds me of 1940 in England. Hitler was gaining ground in Europe and people were sitting back and saying nothing could be done. There was just one man who refused to accept the situation and said “NO, we will fight back”. We need someone now with an attitude like Churchill, a man I greatly admire.
You have also spoken out about animal’s rights. What rights do you think they should have?
I think we should consider that they are sensitive and can suffer and that should influence the way we treat them. I am not totally against hunting, for example, but I think it should only be carried out to redress the balance of nature when the population of a species needs to be reduced and not purely as a sport.
Human behaviour towards animals is improving though. Over time since the Romans, we have reduced our cruelty to animals massively. It is important to state that things have improved. It is good for the morale.
I am not a vegetarian or a vegan and I like a good steak from time to time, but it is imperative that we eat less meat. We use up far more energy producing animal protein than cereals and so, for ecological reasons we must eat less.
What new projects are you working on now?
The association Humanité et Biodiversité is continuing to fight on many fronts. The next campaign will be to prevent plans for gold mines in French Guiana in South America, which is one of the richest countries in the world for its biodiversity.
The chemicals used to extract gold are harmful for nature and for people and we would never allow it to happen here. We must make sure that the people living there have the same rights as we do.
Have you been able to establish a life philosophy after all your studies?
I have just finished writing a book called Le Banc du Temps qui Passe (The Bench Where Time Goes By), where I gather together my thoughts on several subjects and make several points. I have come to the conclusion that there are two sides to humanity. The sublime and the cruel.
Humans can do the most marvellous things, such as creating music as Mozart did and on the other hand there are the terrors of the concentration camps.
For the future of the world we can either bring out the best in humans to use our amazing intelligence to find solutions to the crisis we are now in or we can continue deforestation in the Amazon to make money. The sublime or the cruel.
We need to concentrate on the sublime. For me, music is sublime. The concert halls are my churches and I often go to concerts.
Le Banc du temps qui passe, by Hubert Reeves, Editions du Seuil
He said it: Memorable quotes from Hubert Reeves
“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroy-ing is this God he’s worshipping.”
“Life is hard and we must exercise our humanity and help others. That may be just helping the people in our close circle of family and friends but it is important to do so.”