Interviews

The environmental advocate

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Philippe Cousteau Jr. wears many hats. The grandson of legendary explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and son of Philippe Cousteau Sr, the renowned documentary filmmaker, Cousteau Jr. has followed in their footsteps by educating people about environmental issues. He is co-founder and president of EarthEcho International, a non-profit organisation seeking to empower youth to take action for a brighter future. He is co-founder of Azure Worldwide; a strategic environmental design, development and marketing company. He is also an adventurer, explorer, author, TV host and special correspondent for CNN International. Yet for all his roles, they unite behind one singular goal. “My mission in life,” Cousteau says, “is to help people recognise the power they have to change the world.”

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You’re part of a legendary family renowned for protecting the environment. Did you ever contemplate doing something else, or was this always the natural path to take?

I credit my mother for keeping the legacy of my family alive for me. My father died six months before I was born and, while I saw my grandfather several times a year, it was my mother who inspired me. But she always encouraged me to follow my dreams and never made me feel like I had to follow anyone particular path as long as I did my best to make the world a better place. At 16 I was able to go on expedition with friends of ours who had known my father and they exposed me to the world of exploration and adventure. From the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the wrecks of Bermuda and the coral reefs of Bonaire I was hooked. From then on I have always known I wanted to do something similar to my father but have always tried to pursue it in my own way.

You work focuses particularly on oceans. Is this the environment you are most passionate about? 

The ocean is the root of my legacy and the root of all life on the planet. I would say that they inspire me but that my personal work is more about people and our connection to the world around us. My mission in life is to help people recognise the power they have to change the world. I believe strongly that we cannot achieve environmental sustainability without creating human sustainability. For the environmental movement to be successful we must evolve and break out of traditional silos. We must empower people everywhere to take action themselves and feel connected to the issues.

That is why, while I still do a great deal of work on the oceans, my businesses focus on everything from youth education, to sustainable investment funds on Wall Street, to my show on CNN, to a consulting company that works on educational themed entertainment for resorts and attractions (amongst other projects we completed just this last year was a $10million project for the US Department of State designing, building and managing the US Pavilion at the most recent world expo in Korea). We are in the process of developing projects around everything from a new documentary series for the US market, to apparel, to a hotel brand – but all of it is united behind the common vision of giving people access to inspiring information and giving them the tools to change the world through their finances, school, vacation, what they buy; everything.

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EarthEcho International has a specific focus on educating and engaging youth. Could you explain the thinking behind this emphasis?

When I graduated from university I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to contribute meaningfully to growing the social and environmental movement. So I started to try to get a handle on the landscape of what existed in the marketplace from an environmental perspective and realised that few organisations had a robust youth strategy. In other words, few groups ever really focused on kids as change makers in society. That seemed odd to me considering the fact that marketing companies had been targeting kids for decades because the research showed that it is very hard to change an adults mind and that youth are more willing to accept new ideas and are often more willing to embrace progressive issues around society and the environment.

Furthermore, marketing executives also figured out that if you can reach the kids, they will influence the adults for you. One of the primary reasons that I think the environmental movement has failed to grow substantially over the years is that it has largely ignored youth. So we set about to change that by becoming the leading youth environmental education group in the United States and the world and we are well on our way. Already we reach millions of youths with adventure-based educational materials that focus on helping educators do an already-tough job by giving them exciting tools that bring education alive.

There is a wonderful quote from Philippe Cousteau Sr. that people can only love what they know. Do you feel people are aware of what remarkable sights are hidden in the oceanic depths?

We have only scratched the surface of the oceans considering we have placed more people on the moon than at the bottom of the ocean. But thanks largely to the world of my grandfather and father – though many other incredible people have also contributed over the years – we know a great deal more than we did about the ocean. However, even though people have seen a walrus or a polar bear, a coral reef or a shark, each successive generation has their own way of seeing the world, and so we must continue to explore the world for the first time every time and explore it in a way that is relevant to a new generation. Things like 3D and 4D technology, smartphones and the internet allow us to see things in a totally different way and are critical to inspiring a new generation.

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Are people aware of the dangers the oceans are facing?

Young people are more aware than ever that we are facing problems and they are fired up to change it. That is what gives me hope every day.

What would you list as the chief threats to oceanic environments?

Simple: carbon. Which causes both climate change and ocean acidification. Add to that the issue of overfishing and those would be my top three.

Do you feel these issues are getting the attention they deserve – in terms of media coverage and political priority?

No, these issues rarely get the attention they deserve. It is a crowded media market and it is hard to break through. That is why we have to be in hotels, on TV, in the classroom, in books, etc.

What can be done to fight these threats?

Not unlike civil rights or women’s rights, building environmental sustainability will take a new generation that realises we can no longer sacrifice sustainability for short-term economic gain. Places like China are quickly realising this fact and global attitudes are changing. It is the next generation that is leading the way.

What can eco travellers do to contribute?

Travel is what inspired me to want to protect all the beautiful things I had come to love. Those of us who are fortunate to see the world have a unique responsibility to work to ensure that our children are not robbed of that right by our negligence, ignorance and myopic pursuit of quarterly gains at all cost. Instead we should realise that we can build a world where every child can drink clean water, breathe fresh air and walk on green grass under a clear blue sky.

Photos: Jessica Ellis/CNN.

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