Grandson of Filmmaking Legend Jacques Cousteau Explains How Empowering Young Science Activists is Good for Business and Critical for Survival
“What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole,
the keyhole of nature, trying to know what’s going on.”
Jacque Cousteau, Explorer, Conservationist & Filmmaker
Growing up before the Internet and 500 channels of digital HD cable existed, there were basically three ways most Nerds (or any kid like me) accessed and explored the mysteries of the natural world beyond their local ecosystem. If my friends and I wanted to see something more exotic than the occasional crayfish or turtle down at “the creek,” we either had to head to the library or catch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom on Saturday mornings.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s documentary-style program nurtured a healthy respect for ocean habitats and concern for all creatures – both ordinary and extraordinary – dwelling within them. Undersea World also employed the filmmaker’s deliberate narrative style. As his distinctive, lilting French accent guided viewers through each episode’s adventure, Cousteau’s reverence for the environments and wildlife he and his crew explored was clear.
Now, four decades after the final TV voyage of Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso, his grandson Philippe carries on the family legacy of ocean conservation, filmmaking, and exploration. In fact, as an Emmy-nominated TV show host, environmental advocate, and self-described “social entrepreneur,” Philippe has helped take his family’s commitment to environmental education a step further.
In 2000, Philippe and his sister Alexandra established EarthEcho International, a nonprofit to honor their father Philippe-Pierre Cousteau, who had served as pilot, diver, photographer, director, and lead cinematographer for most of the Cousteau productions during his lifetime. Philippe, Sr.’s belief in “a world where every single child can breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and walk on green grass under a blue sky” continues to serve as EarthEcho’s vision today.
Catching Up With Cousteau
I met Philippe Cousteau, Jr., last fall at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City. He had just finished participating in a panel discussion titled, “Oceans vs. Space: Which is Really the Final Frontier?”
Although he was in a time crunch to catch a plane, Philippe didn’t rush out the door. Instead, he lingered to talk and have his picture taken with an eager student, who had been waiting patiently for him. Watching his interaction with the young boy and the rapt attention he gave to every word, I immediately recognized their enthusiasm was mutual.
The personality and passion Philippe projects for the camera or when on-stage is no act. This guy is genuine. There were no cameras or crowds to impress while he spoke with this young fan. Yet he was thoroughly engaged and showed he really cared about what the student had to say.
Right then I knew I had to invite Cousteau to do a Nerd Profile.
Because Philippe is such an energetic, charismatic, and high-profile personality with a healthy media platform from which to share his and EarthEcho’s environmental vision, his multifaceted career is helping to fulfill an often overlooked but vital role in the STEM/STEAM food chain: that of STEM communicator.
If you’ve ever seen one of his news segments on CNN or shows on Hulu, Fox, Great Big Story.com, and Discovery Channel, you know Cousteau, like his grandfather and father before him, gets his important messages across credibly, effectively, and with a just the right amount of artistic flair. He doesn’t just want kids to momentarily appreciate the beauty of far-flung places around the world. He also wants to mobilize, equip, and work hands-on with young citizen scientists, offering them the knowledge, technologies, and resources they need to actually help save the planet, one community at a time.
I waited my turn in the wings, hoping Cousteau might spare another minute for me before he had to leave. When he’d finished his visit with the boy, I quickly introduced myself and told him I thought Raising Nerd’s audience would benefit from hearing his story since our organizations shared some common goals:
- Inspiring kids to be active
- Engaging kids in a variety of creative STEM opportunities, and
- Encouraging kids to explore, ask questions, and pursue their true passions.
Cousteau graciously accepted my interview request, asked for my business card, and said he or someone from EarthEcho would get back in touch. Four months later, I was finally able to wedge a Nerd Profile onto his crazy travel and production schedule. And now, as Earth Day 2017 (Saturday, April 22) approaches along with the March for Science, what better time to share his Nerd Profile with you and your Nerds?
We hope you enjoy Part I of Raising Nerd’s in-depth conversation with Philippe Cousteau:
RN: It’s clear the careers and expertise of your father and grandfather had an enormous influence on you given the focus of your work today. So, what was it like growing up in a family of explorers, environmentalists, and filmmakers – and essentially growing up in two countries, the US and France?
Philippe Cousteau (PC): Well, probably not what you’d expect. My father died six months before I was born. So, I was really raised by my sister and mother. Because of that, we didn’t spend a lot of time on expeditions. We saw my grandfather just a few times a year [when I was younger] but he certainly had some influence on me.
My childhood was a lot more “normal” than you might think. I was born in Los Angeles and lived there for many years. I was back and forth to France while growing up, but never lived there for longer than a year and a half. So, I mostly lived in California and Connecticut. I had the opportunity to spend time on some small trips. But by the time I was old enough to do it, my grandfather wasn’t really going on expeditions anymore. I kind of missed that by a few years.
But what mattered was the message and legacy of my father’s work and my grandfather’s work. Especially what I learned from my mother, who helped keep all that alive for me.
RN: What were some of your interests as a kid? How did family members encourage you in your pursuit of those interests?
PC: One of the things I was most fortunate to have from my father was his tremendous body of work. He filmed and produced most of those Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau episodes and, growing up, I got to watch all of those. I got to read the books he [and my grandfather] wrote. So, I had this body of work that a lot of people who lose their parents don’t have. Maybe, in that day, they might have a photo or an album or something. But I had this rich body of work that I could learn from and see what he was all about and learn about his legacy. My mother made sure that we saw those, we heard the stories, we watched the films, and read the books. We were fortunate in that respect. I think those were a lot of the early influences for [my sister and me].
RN: According to your bio, you have a master’s degree in history from St. Andrews University in Scotland. Since the ocean, exploring, and wildlife conservation are literally in your blood, when did you’d decide to follow in your grandfather’s and father Philippe’s footsteps instead – was there ever any doubt the path you’d take?
PC: No! When I was 16, I got an opportunity to go on an expedition – not with my grandfather but with a world-renowned oceanographer Dr. Eugenie Clark, a friend of ours.
It was the first time I got to go on a real expedition trip alone. It was to Papua New Guinea. We were doing a lot of research on the tides. Since it was in a very remote, rugged place like Papua New Guinea – an incredible spot – it was going to be eye-opening to the world. From that moment on, I realized that there was a way to hopefully make a living where I could explore the world, and film, and do scientific research.
I always saw my role to be the same as my father and grandfather’s. My grandfather was a naval officer. My father studied engineering and filmmaking in school. Even my uncle [Jean-Michel Cousteau] studied architecture. There wasn’t a scientist in the lot. And no one ever claimed to be a scientist. We’re storytellers. My grandfather was always very careful to be clear about that and also provide a platform for scientists to communicate their work.
I studied history specifically because I wanted to be able to understand how the world works, how people think and what motivates them. Knowing that I wanted to be a storyteller, I believed (and I still do) that history is a really important background to have and foundation for understanding people. If you want to inspire people and influence people to care about the world, then it’s important to understand their motivations and how they think, and why the world is the way it is.
RN: How does EarthEcho International continue your grandfather’s and father’s mission of helping promote ocean, wildlife, and water conservation?
PC: A wise man once told me if you don’t have a youth strategy, then you don’t have a strategy at all. Having grown up with people like my grandfather, my mother, family friends, expedition leaders, and the people who worked with my father, I often thought about my life and what influenced me. And when I was coming out of college I realized I wasn’t [interested in the ocean and environmental issues] simply because of the name on my birth certificate. I was engaged [in these issues] because of good teaching from a young age.
When we were looking to create an organization, I looked around at a lot of the big NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and saw, pretty much across the board, there was lack of a real youth strategy. There were other great organizations already doing great research. So, I thought about where we could meaningfully contribute without reinventing the wheel. We felt that a youth strategy was important and a place where we could make an impact.
That’s what inspired EarthEcho.
That and all those days sitting on my grandfather’s lap from a young age, just talking and hearing the stories about what he did. Then as I got older, going out to dinner with him, drinking wine, and enjoying those kinds of things – always in the context of his experiences – those were good teaching moments. Story is the language of learning. So, EarthEcho asks how we can be storytellers to a whole new generation and inspire them the way my grandfather inspired me.
RN: How does EarthEcho empower young people to create changes in their community? Does the organization only work with kids through school programs or are there other opportunities for kids to get involved?
PC: We work with young people both inside and outside the classroom. We believe in the power of young people. We believe they can make a positive difference in their communities – that they can take action and be agents for change. That’s really our focus.
We don’t look at just raising awareness or providing young people with “educational products.” We provide context and information about the world around them – a world they are curious about. Then we seek to engage them in ways that enable them to do something to affect change. Our programs vary from broad initiatives to classroom curriculum.
One global program, the EarthEcho Water Challenge is about water quality. It’s a “citizen science” program and the largest of its kind in the world, allowing young people to get engaged through after-school groups, faith-based organizations – you name it – in testing water quality around the world. More than 60 countries have participated in the project over the past few years.
We also provide a lot of curriculum content in classrooms to help teachers – who are so often undervalued in this country – do their jobs and give them the resources and tools to make what they’re already teaching in their classrooms come alive.
And we’re creating a new program STEMExplore with United Technologies all about profiling STEM careers. It leverages a lot of the media work I do, including the content we gather and documentary filmmaking we do on expeditions, and brings that into the classroom. It addresses a huge issue in this country with respect to workforce readiness. We’re really looking to inspire, engage, motivate, and give young people the tools to take action.
RN: You’ve co-written some great books for kids, including Going Blue: A Teen Guide to Saving Our Oceans, Lakes, Rivers & Wetlands, Make A Splash!, and Follow the Moon Home. How do these books encourage kids to get involved in conservation efforts?
PC: All those books have the consistent theme of kids changing the world.
Make A Splash and Going Blue are both practical guides that are specifically focused on and provide activities to solve environmental problems. Make A Splash is for elementary school kids and Going Blue is for middle and high school. Those books were designed as guides to help kids understand how to take action.
Follow the Moon Home is a picture book and fictional narrative. It’s about a little girl who moves to a new town and, as her summer project, she decides to gather her friends and take the initiative to protect sea turtles.
The whole idea [behind the book] is still “Young people can change the world. They don’t have to wait for adults.” In fact, kids often are the ones that drive the initiative, and we wanted to profile that kind of behavior. We looked at Make A Splash and said OK, what’s the “ideal child” [who would use this guide] and what would they do? That’s where the story of Vivian in Follow the Moon Home comes from. In my mind, the story is a good example of how young people can change the world by motivating their entire community and helping change attitudes, hearts, and minds.
RN: Most people know you as an explorer, environmental advocate, and TV host but you also refer to yourself as a “social entrepreneur.” Can you tell us more about that less familiar “title,” and why it has become an important aspect of your work?
PC: To solve problems in the world today, we need more than just non-profits, NGOs, and foundations. There’s no question those organizations are important, but they’re insufficient on their own. We need businesses and industry to be a part of the solutions.
About six or seven years ago, I recognized the need and an opportunity for me to be involved in the “impact investors” movement. Basically, finding ways for people to put their money where their mouth is in terms of investing in businesses that are not only profitable, but also share the same kind of environmental, social, and governance values that a lot of people care about.
So, we launched an investment fund on the New York Stock Exchange about five years ago called the Global Echo Exchange Traded Fund (NYSE: GIVE) to give people an easy way to do this. The idea was to create an impact investment platform that would give back a percentage of the financial advisors’ management fee to our charitable foundation, the Global Echo Foundation. The Foundation then invests in initiatives around women and girls and environmental sustainability, which are all connected.
As social entrepreneurs, we’re attempting to leverage business, industry, and nonprofits to solve problems.
With initial funds from the Foundation, our project built solar panels at Panzi Hospital in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, which is world-renowned for its treatment of survivors of sexual violence as well as its healthcare for women, girls, and children, in general. And this is in a part of the world that so desperately needs help and is so ridden by strife – much of it driven by [scarcity of] natural resources in Congo.
As my grandfather always said, “You can’t build environmental sustainability without building human sustainability.” And the best way to do that is to invest in women and girls. This project invested in supporting Panzi Hospital as a way to help them transition off fossil fuel, reduce the destruction of natural resources in that country, and empower women and children in that community to help build a more sustainable society.
We look at the intersection between people and the environment, which is where we need to be looking. If we can solve human problems we can solve environmental problems at the same time, and vice-versa.
The GIVE fund is still active. We’re still raising money in the Foundation through the fund, and we’re looking forward to other projects to support in the future.
Next week, we’ll share more about Philippe’s unique STEM career as well as what continues to fuel his passion for environmental advocacy in Part II of this adventurous Raising Nerd Profile.