Get a closer look at what inspires and motivates adventurer and environmental advocate Alexandra Cousteau in the transcript from our Coverage interview.
Experience Life (EL): You started scuba diving with your grandfather when you were just seven years old. At that time, did you know that was a path you would follow and was there ever a doubt in your mind?
Alexandra Cousteau (AC): I think the answer to that goes back a little earlier, to my parents taking me on expeditions with them starting when I was just four months old. While I obviously don’t remember, I spent the next three to four years going on many expeditions with my family. I think that certainly makes an imprint on you: To this day, whenever I’m in the field working on a project with my team, I feel more at home than anywhere else.
That, with the examples my father and grandfather have given me, was certainly a good beginning for what I do now. I never really struggled with what would I do when I grew up. I just always wanted to continue to travel.
People always ask what my favorite place is and my answer is probably the place I haven’t been yet. As wonderful and different as each place I’ve been to has been in its own way, the feeling of discovery — of going somewhere for the first time — is always what I’m most excited about. I think that is really the legacy that I got from my first dive and the expeditions I went on as a child: The excitement of discovery — it’s always new and never gets old. The first experience is always the best, no matter where it is.
EL: Marine ecosystems have often been called silent and invisible. Why do you think they are overlooked more often than land-based environments and why are they taken for granted?
AC: Just 50 to 60 years ago, nobody knew what was in our oceans. When my grandfather’s film, Silent World, came out, it was the first time the general public got a glimpse of what was under the surface of the ocean — and it covers 70 percent of our world! It was a big deal to see men going under there and breathing and exploring; it was a paradigm shift.
In the years since the film was released, we have learned more about our oceans than ever before, yet have lost more than ever before, too. I think the reason that people perceive our oceans as a silent world is because their sounds don’t resonate in our society.
The title of my grandfather’s book, The Silent World, was inspired by the first time my grandfather took my father scuba diving when he was four years old. My father was so excited by what he was seeing that he would point things out and start talking to my grandfather. The regulator kept falling out of his mouth and my grandfather would tell him to put it back in. When they got back on the boat, my grandfather said, “Phillipe, you can’t talk when we’re under water, it’s a silent world!”
But in many ways, it’s not a silent world: You have whales singing, shrimp crackling and parrot fish chomping on dead reef. And when you go scuba diving along a coral reef, it’s a pretty noisy place, a busy little metropolis with various fish doing their thing and surviving.
I think we see it as silent because most people haven’t experienced the ocean or gone diving. To ask these people to protect it when they’ve never experienced it makes it challenging because people protect what they love.
EL: You founded Blue Legacy in 2008 to tell the water stories of this planet. Why?
AC: Water — whether you live in America or Turkey, are Baptist or Hindu — is the one thing that none us can live without. We all experience it in the same way. It’s our most important life support system; it’s what maintains life on this planet. It allows us to develop civilizations and nourishes the environments that, in turn, nourish us. We have to work together to protect it, despite our differences.
Water is threatened primarily by climate change, and it’s the vehicle in which we all will experience climate change. What I’ve been focusing on with water isn’t science, politics or even management of resources from a technical perspective. I’m looking at water and telling stories about how people experience their quality of life as it relates to water. The results of overuse, pollution, mismanagement and climate change are how we’re experiencing water in our lives right now. I will measure my success on how I’m able to influence the way people perceive and experience water, and engage in conservation of that resource.
EL: What are the critical connections between water-based eco systems and land-based realities?
AC: As a society, we have been successful in managing our environment in the broadest sense of the term through industry, building and development. We have manipulated our environment for our own survival. One way we manage things is to break them down into manageable parts — and we’ve done that with our water cycle. So we’ll look at the health and management of a lake or series of lakes, but not consider how that lake flows into a river that flows to an ocean that evaporates and is carried into the atmosphere and rains down somewhere else. We haven’t really looked at our water cycle from a holistic perspective.
That is reflected not only in the mentality of individuals, but in the way we have parsed out responsibility for different water ecosystems to federal agencies and other organizations. They all have different budgets, priorities, agendas, disciplines and cultures. We have done the same thing at the state and community levels. We have fragmented our water cycle to such a degree that our public consciousness is limited.
I think that approach is one reason why we’re at where we are today. We are reaching a point where we need to look at it from a holistic perspective — so we can protect downstream areas from upstream degradation, which is only now starting to pierce our awareness. That is my focus: looking at how we define our relationship to our water planet. We need to make sure that the cycle is unbroken, because that cycle is one of the most important things in the world.
EL: How can we overcome our differences when it comes to water policy, use and management?
AC: We can’t hash over what has happened in the past. We just need to learn from it and move forward. Water is the vehicle through which climate change will be felt, I can’t stress that enough. Look at the droughts that we’ve experienced in this country; the drought that has ravaged Australia; the fact that a third of Greece burned last summer and had the hottest, driest season on record; China is diverting entire river systems to the north because of the droughts that are ravaging that area. We are seeing climate change everywhere and it’s impacting all of us equally.
Two years ago in Atlanta, Lake Lanier was three months from a mud hole. It’s interesting that Turkey was experiencing the same thing at the same time. It goes back to my point that no matter who we are, we experience it the same way. Even though the Turkish and American people are different in many ways, they were experiencing the same critical shortage of water.
It’s exciting, in a way, because it brings us closer together, and I think we need issues to come together on in this world. My hope is that water will be something that we can come together on. I have heard people say that the next world wars will be over water — my hope is that it won’t be. I hope that we will have enough foresight to use it as an opportunity for peace and not a chance for opposition to have us tear each other apart.
EL: What can individuals do to reduce their impact on water-based ecosystems?
AC: That is a really important question because most people think that their impact on the water cycle happens between the faucet and the drain in their home. That is not the case. Urban runoff is now greater than industrial runoff. People think it’s factories and industries that are doing all the polluting, but there are so many toxic chemicals we use at home that haven’t even been vetted by federal agencies. Products like Lysol and bleach are terrible for our health, yet we spread them around on our surfaces and touch them and eat on them. They then make their way into our bodies, and then into the environment as urban runoff. Replacing these toxic products with natural, biodegradable products — even homemade alternatives like lemon juice and baking soda — is really important.
Another thing is recycling. We have all kinds of toxic things in our garages: motor oil, paint thinner, kerosene, the list goes on. There are ways to recycle them, and Web sites like www.earth911.com will tell you places in your area where you can recycle all sorts of things. That keeps it out of the water system, as well.
We have to keep in mind that we are upstream from everyone, as well as downstream from everyone. What we put in our water will eventually reach others. Trying to keep as many harmful, toxic things out of the water as possible is really important. We need to protect the quality of our water, as well as reducing our consumption.
EL: How about at the community level?
AC: There is nothing more important than being a behavioral role model. Do it in your home, but also talk to neighbors, family and friends, and let them know how important conservation is. Go to town meetings and be involved in the decisions that are made there. Get involved in the elections of officials — look at their environmental records.
One thing I ask my audience when I speak is, “How many of you consider yourselves environmentalists?” About half the audience usually raises their hands. Then I read them a definition of environmentalist: ‘Someone who cares for the quality of the environment, especially as it relates to human health.’ I then re-ask the question and everyone raises their hands. Of course they do, because clean air, water and food are essential for us to live.
The view of environmentalists has changed. We used to be considered treehugging, hippie freaks, but, clearly, I’m not that and I’m definitely an environmentalist. I’ve seen many things in the places I’ve traveled and I have to be an environmentalist. It would be uncomfortable for me not to be, or not to be outraged by people and their inactivity. It’s everyone’s problem.
I’m working to find a way to connect people so they know it’s not just the responsibility of a special interest group to conserve our ecosystems, but something we all have to collaborate on. We need to help people to see that they are all environmentalists — to get them to identify with the things they care for in life — so they will all come to the conclusion that, “I am an environmentalist!”
EL: You’re leaving on Blue Planet Expedition 2009 shortly. What is the goal with your campaign and how do you plan to share your discoveries with the world?
AC: On this 100-day expedition to five different continents, we’ll be looking to tell archetypal water stories of not only the place we are in, but of places all around the world. We will go to the Ganges River in India, for instance, where we will be looking at the role of water in the spirituality of people and their quality of life.
During our journey, we will be sharing daily content — blogs, Webcasts, photo galleries — with our broadcast partners with the goal of reaching as many people as we can. The whole idea is to have people experience our journey with us on a daily basis and to engage them in becoming citizen scientists.
EL: You carry on the legacy of your grandfather and father through your work. What legacy do you hope to leave someday?
AC: My work is inspired by theirs, though, obviously, they were discovering the world and I think it’s up to my generation to start to protect the world. Now that we know what is out there, it is time for us to save the ecosystems.
The nice thing about this issue is that I’m not doing things that other people will never do. I’m just experiencing water issues in different parts of the world. Those water issues exist in every community and there are very real ways that people can do the same things that I’m doing.
That is what I’m excited about: Reporting on it, sharing and being a role model for the changes. I think that is where my work is different from my family’s. The storytelling tradition is carrying forward, but we’re using a new model. Being able to distribute this information for free through our broadcast partners is really significant. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s something we can all share and talk about in online forums.
Another way my legacy will be different is that I’ve moved away from the ocean box and into a broader focus on the interconnectivity of our water resources. That is an important distinction. There certainly is a lot of inspiration from my family, and there is continuity with what they did, but I do think that there is a different approach and a different mission.
EL: ociety has become increasingly sedentary and indoor-oriented over the past few generations. Do you think that there is a connection between this removal from outdoor activity and the environmental changes that we face?
AC: Sure, and it goes back to my statement that we’ve been asked to protect something we’ve never experienced. I think there are things in our own community that we can experience that are representative of the greater reality.
We can’t be armchair explorers. We have to be explorers regardless of socioeconomic status or the amount of income we have or the level of education or the communities we live in. We need to turn off the television, go outside and discover what is in our own backyards. When people realize that environmental issues like water quality exist in they own communities — in their own backyards — and get out and see it for themselves, then it becomes something they’re truly interested in and want to learn more about.
EL: Can you suggest ways for people to build a stronger connection with nature?
AC: Curiosity. Obama said in one of his speeches that curiosity should be added to the list of virtues that all Americans have. I was so thrilled that he used that word. I think curiosity is something that we are losing, but it’s what drives people outside. It’s the urge to understand something they don’t understand. Through that understanding, they expand their horizons to an awareness they might not have had before. I think that is critical to experiencing life.