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Q&A: Philippe Cousteau Jr.
Aquaman: An Extended Interview

Click on the image above for a video clip of this interview.

Underwater explorers Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his son Philippe captivated audiences with their pioneering documentaries on marine life. Philippe Jr., 29, is filling his predecessors’ flippers as co-host of the Discovery Channel/BBC-TV series Oceans and cofounder of EarthEcho International, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit. This generation’s ocean advocate spoke recently about the powerful environmental force behind youth activism and new media.

Audubon: You and your sister, Alexandra, founded EarthEcho in 2000. What’s its mission?
Cousteau: To empower extraordinary leaders to take action to protect and restore our oceans. As an organization, my sister and I founded it really in honor of my father, Philippe Cousteau Senior, who was the youngest son of my grandfather. He passed away in 1979, just about six months before I was born. He was vice president of the Cousteau Society, he produced, directed and filmed an ABC series, he had his own series, “Oasis in Space”; he was a real leader and the right hand to my grandfather and all of his work, so when he passed away, his legacy was kind of dormant for a while. My sister and I started EarthEcho to really rekindle that and to help people remember it. The idea of focusing on leadership is that Cousteau means so much to so many people—it was a great symbol of leadership in the world, and we wanted to pass that on to a new generation of young people and help them, because a lot of the big ocean conservation organizations don’t really have big youth leadership to empower the next generation. We kind of stepped in to fill the void.

Q: Is EarthEcho’s focus on oceans?
A: We focus mostly on oceans. We’re called EarthEcho, but truly we live on a water planet, this is a blue planet, so the connection we try to make for people is often the connection they haven’t made—which is that oceans affect each and every single one of us, no matter where we live. Oceans are a primary source of oxygen, a source of protein for up to two billion people, and they regulate our climate—which, in turn, regulates most of our water supply. We’ve got this big issue, I think, in the world today where we separate fresh water and saltwater, and we shouldn’t as much as we do, because they’re so intertwined and so interconnected. So we do focus on oceans, but really, with the message that oceans are the critical life support system of this planet, and they get way too little attention.

Q: What’s the biggest environmental threat to oceans?
A: I would say that the increase of carbon into the atmosphere is the greatest threat to our oceans, because it’s not just a climate change issue—climate change is one of them—but ocean acidification is the other, and that’s not necessarily related to climate change; it’s purely related to the increase of carbon in the atmosphere that’s being absorbed by the oceans.

So, that’s why I step back one and say it’s the output of carbon in the atmosphere, which is causing ocean acidification and climate change. And climate change is such a problem for the land because of what it’s doing to the oceans and how it’s changing the patterns in the oceans. Look at Darfur: That’s a water crisis. Same thing with Gaza and the West Bank—Israel doesn’t want to give it up because it’s got a lot of water. The oceans are what are changing, causing the desertification because climate is shifting, so it’s just a knockoff effect that goes all the way down the road.

Q: How does EarthEcho prepare kids to tackle those problems?
A: Our program, Leadership Ocean, is working with existing youth organizations and developing learning opportunities to identify a small number of the brightest kids and help add the environment—and specifically oceans—to their set of knowledge. One strategy we use is peer modeling, so we’re also targeting pop culture heroes to be advocates for these issues. We’ve partnered with the Vans Warped Tour, America’s longest-running, most successful concert tour, and we’ll be expanding to include extreme-sports events.

Many of the environmental leaders that we have today are getting along in age, and I think it’s hard for teenagers to connect to somebody who’s like their grandparents. It’s imperative we find, identify, and empower the next generation of young leaders and heroes who can then be the voice for these issues—who can provide that inspiration to other young people to say, ‘I can do that; I want to do that.’ And it’s not somebody who’s far off in the Arctic exploring things that seem out of reach for many kids, but it’s someone their own age facing the same challenges that they’re facing who is able to do extraordinary things and who is a powerful voice.

And we’re not just interested in young people who care about the environment, per se, we’re interested in young people who are extraordinary, who show initiative and leadership. In partnership with existing youth leadership organizations, we want to nominate the best of the best, the brightest that they’ve already identified, and bring on a small number of them into our program and help add environment—and specifically oceans—to their set of knowledge, and set of skills, and set of what they care about. So, we’re interested in kids who care about the government, we’re interested in the kid whose goal is to be a senator by the time he’s 30; we’re interested in that kid. We’re interested in the kid who wants to be a lawyer, we’re interested in the kids who are entrepreneurs. We’re also interested in the kids who are advocates, who are interested in music, who are already interested in the environment. We want a broad cross section of young people that we focus on.

And at the end of the day, my sister and I always say in our speeches—this concept is really where it came from: that we’re not Cousteau because of our birth certificate. We’re Cousteau because of how we were raised; we carry on that legacy because of what we were taught, and that it’s good teaching, not genetics, and that we think that we should share that with as many young people as possible.

Q: What was the thinking behind partnering with Vans Warped Tour?
A: Van’s Warped Tour is America’s longest running, most successful concert tour. It’s main demographic—80 percent of the almost 700,000 young people that they hit every summer over two months—is 15 to 20 years old—a wonderful demographic for us to be able to reach. We realized that, instead of going out and trying to start our own concert series, well, let’s work with the group and organization that already has amazing reach, already has amazing credibility, and already has green initiatives on tour, whose founder is already committed to the environment. There, we already have a built-in audience of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young people.

There’re a lot of band members and pop culture heroes who kids worship as gods who are young themselves, and we can then train them through our Leadership Ocean program to be effective spokespeople for these issues. It’s really heartening to see how many of these bands, how many of these people are really engaged and saying, ‘What can we do? We really care about these issues. We didn’t know, but you’re helping us to learn.’

We bring them on expedition. We brought one band on expedition to St. Croix and really helped them to make the connection and have experiences—you know, as we say, the ‘aha’ moment. The idea, then, is that these bands can go out and be cheerleaders for kids getting out in the environment and kids getting engaged in these issues, and then it’s coming from the nonusual suspects, and that’s powerful.

We’ll be working with Warped Tour again—but we’ll be expanding over the next few years to extreme sports events, to other music concerts, etc. as ways to, again, just build this coalition, this group of leaders out there.

Q: Kids are so tech-savvy these days. Does new media play a role in environmental outreach?
A: It plays a huge role. I think my grandfather would have been very excited. EarthEcho recently completed a project with the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Laboratory, which is a very prestigious six-month research and development program, to learn how to distribute our content through a new media platform. The goal is to engage people in pro-environmental behavior and track that behavior. A major component of our program is streaming live video on cell phones. Eighty percent of United States teens has a cell phone, a billion text messages a day are sent—a day—by these mobile devices. And also, we know that in developing countries, people have cell phones before they have running water, before they have electricity before they have landlines. I saw it in Mozambique, when we were filming a year ago. There was a little coastal village where people are living in huts, I mean, very basic—the most basic subsistence living—and a bunch of the these people had cell phones, with little solar panels that charged them.

It’s the idea that, finally, it’s not a static, one-way interaction with your audience. What the Internet, Facebook, MySpace, and other things provide is the opportunity for dialogue. They’re democratizing tools, because you don’t have to have a billion dollars to control the airwaves. With the Internet, anybody with a good story can speak.

There’s still strength in traditional media and music, and musicians that are played on the radio waves. That’s why I work with Discovery Channel and Animal Planet—I mean, people still watch television. You know, that’s part of the equation. It’s not to be excluded, it’s just enhanced by the digital media that exists today—cell phones, and social networking sites, etc.

Q: You’re involved in many other projects, such as the Discovery Channel/BBC-TV series, Oceans. What’s it about?
A: We’re looking at al five oceans around the world and giving an update on them. It’s part of the media work that I’ve been doing with Animal Planet and Discovery Channel that’s looked at various programming for television, mostly focused on ocean conservation and some freshwater issues as well, but mostly ocean conservation stories—exploration, adventure, that kind of thing. Again, it’s an extension of the traditional media aspect. I’ve also done some work with NPR and radio. It’s one of the ways that we reach people. You know, the average consumer in this country is bombarded by a thousand brand hits a day, so you’ve got to be in a lot of places to cut through with your message, or else you just get drowned out.

Q: What’s the coolest sea creature you’ve ever seen?
A: Sharks. It’s a tie between sharks and octopus, actually. They’re my two favorites. Octopuses can fit through a hole the size of a quarter. If their beak can fit through it—it’s the only hard part of their body—they can fit through it.

Q: Any particular octopus that you like?
A: The Maori octopuses are fantastic. They get about six feet tentacle to tentacle, and you can pick one up out of the water—they kind of check you out, poke around. As long as you’re quiet and slow with them and don’t startle them, they won’t split. Great whites are amazing, too; that was one of the greatest experiences ever. I have to say, gray whales are pretty cool, too, because in Baja, they come right up to the boat and they stick their face out of the water to look at you, and they love getting scratches. They even roll over onto their back, and you scratch their belly, they roll back over and take a breath and then roll over again. They come up to your boat and they bring their calves along—they’re six feet long—and the adults are 50 feet long. That was a pretty amazing experience, too.

Q: Do you have any other projects that you want to mention?
A: I do some consulting with my company, Azure Worldwide, on sustainable development, or a term we like—ecotainment—which is designing experiences for green developments—environmentally, socially responsible developments—and creating experiences for consumers and guests. Some of these are for developments, and some for master planners on cities and things like that. The question is, how do you create a space where people can learn about these issues in a fun and exciting way that’s just part of everyday life?

Also, we’re looking to create a video game for, like, Xbox. There’s a lot of games that are based on fiction, made-up realties, but there’re a heck of a lot of amazing stories, and terrible things, and crime organizations, and crises going on in the real world, real environmental stories that are happening—such as the illegal trade of endangered species, third largest criminal trade in the world—and so why don’t we create a game that is just as exciting, just as engaging, based on reality? Because video games can be a great opportunity for education. Think of all the things you have to learn and memorize when you play a video game—take Spore, or take any of the Sim games—you gotta learn about the guns, you gotta learn about the terrorist organizations, you gotta learn about your stats, you gotta learn about the location that you’re going to, and you gotta learn about how you put things together, and physics, and all sorts of different things. Video games work the way we learn, which is through instant gratification, through constant reward of what you’re doing, knowing where you stand, being able to get rewards for what you’re doing. So, we’re very interested in video games and how can you use them for science and for education and for conservation, as opposed to just entertainment.

Q: So this is in the incipient stages?
A: Very preliminary stages.

Q: You have a master’s degree in history. How does that fit in to your work?
A: I’m not a scientist, for sure, definitely not a scientist, I’ll be the first one to say that. I’ll never claim to be an oceanographer, marine biologist, scientist, anything like that. Maybe it’s the historian in me—I like to be straight up front and honest about those things. My grandfather and father weren’t scientists. I always knew that I was passionate about communication and exploration. History gave me an opportunity to study a lot of different things up until yesterday—history is not just about the medieval times or ancient Rome; it’s as much about contemporary issues. So, I was able to study history of politics, history of society, history of the military, history of the environment, history of social issues, of people, of cultures, of religions and get a broad understanding of a lot of different issues.

And I do believe Churchill was right: If we don’t learn where we’re coming from, if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we’re doomed to repeat them. I think it’s important to look at the past—contemporary past as much as the long historical past. I think we’ve made a lot of mistakes in the last 40 years, and we need to learn from those, but also understand how people work, why they do what they do—it’s important if you want to change that behavior, so history was always a way to have thorough understanding of those issues to be able to inform what I do from a communications perspective in my life.

Q: You said that the Cousteau name is not just a name on a birth certificate. What have you learned from your grandfather and your father’s legacies?
A: I was fortunate enough to have films and stories about my father, even though I never met him, and that was a powerful part of my upbringing. And my grandfather, I spent time with him as well, and I think what we learned from them is that the environment—on the most basic level—is not about a separation between people and the world around us; we’re all integrated. And that it’s a bigger issue than just whales, and birds, and trees and things—it’s really about people, it’s really a people issue and the sustainability is about people, though sustainability is a word that I have some trouble with, only because it implies keeping the way things are. As I’m sure many would agree, we don’t want to sustain the bird population, we want it to go up! We don’t want to sustain the Everglades, we want them to get bigger, we don’t want to sustain the forests, we want them to get bigger, we don’t want to sustain the fisheries populations, we want them to get bigger. So, I think that those are the kinds of things that we learned from them—that the environment is about people and that we have great potential for enhancing the world around us, and that we have a responsibility not only to ourselves but, as my grandfather always said, to future generations to not mortgage our own behavior, our own excess on their backs. And I think he had enduring hope; it was another thing I learned from him, was this positive outlook that we have great potential to do great things and not to lose hope.

Q: How do you maintain hope, though? It’s very trying sometimes when you’re immersed in bad news about the deteriorating state of the planet.
A: It is very difficult. I, personally, find excitement and hope in what I do. There’s really two sides of it: There’s kind of the faceless masses—when you do film or television and you don’t know who all’s on the other side of the television screen, or when you do radio or when you do big education programs, or if you do lectures, there are a lot of just faceless masses. But when I work with, specifically, young people in the programs that we’ve done—for example, when we did a project in the Everglades, we worked with five high school students, and they were going from their junior to senior year. None of them were sure if they wanted to go to university or what they wanted to do with their lives, and after they spent a summer with us filming a documentary in the Everglades, and we worked with orphans in Kissimmee, and replanted trees along the Kissimmee River and did restoration along the lower one-third of the Kissimmee River, which is a great success, that October, they’d gone to visit different schools and talked about their experiences and they came back to us and said, ‘You know what, we’re all going on to university, we’ve all applied, and next year we’re all going on to volunteer either with another orphanage or a camp about the environment; we’re also interested in media.’ One of them was taking a gap year, but she was going on to university after that. And to have that change and effect that individuals directly come to us to say, ‘Thank you, you changed our lives,’ is what I think about when times get tough, because you just remember the individuals that you’ve touched and the individuals’ lives that you’ve changed, and that’s what gives you energy to keep you going.

Q: Your grandfather lived to be 87. What do you hope you live long enough to see?
A: That’s a really tough question. You know, my grandfather and my father touched so many people in this world, and I’ve thought about this question a lot, especially in the last few years and over this last year doing these expeditions in a lot of places my father and my grandfather visited undergone massive changes in the last 50 years—such as the Mediterranean Sea, where there are rubble-strewn places that used to have coral and now have algae everywhere and no fish. I think that all I could hope for, personally or professionally, would be that people look back and say, ‘What he did was worthy of the legacy that his father and grandfather left behind.’ Impossible to fill, I think. There’s that great quote that ‘We always stand on the shoulders of people that came before us,’ or ‘there’s nothing new under the sun,’ another one; I think that’s true—impossible to fulfill or fill my father or my grandfather’s footsteps or shoes. But I think we can do good things, and we can move forward with that legacy and hopefully do justice to it—but impossible to recreate it or fill it.

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