Grandson of Filmmaking Legend Jacques Cousteau Explains How Empowering Young Science Activists is Good for Business and Critical for Survival
Last week, in Part I of his Nerd Profile, Philippe Cousteau told us about his background and early influences, and we learned how they inspired his:
- Passion for environmental conservation and other causes that impact women, children, and families around the world
- The founding of EarthEcho International; and
- His diverse work in broadcasting, filmmaking, and online media.
Here in Part II, you’ll learn more about how this explorer, media personality, and respected environmental advocate approaches new challenges, advises young people, and continues to expand EarthEcho’s horizons through social entrepreneurship.
RN: In what ways are you and your EarthEcho colleagues branching out beyond ocean conservation and why?
Philippe Cousteau (PC): I’ve always been interested in more than just the ocean because everything’s connected. It’s human nature to silo things off into little boxes. People are surprised when I’m advocating for protecting the coastal plains in the Arctic or Alaska and also supporting building solar panels for a women’s hospital in eastern Congo. People are like, “What? You’re all over the place.” And I’m like, “No.”
If you really understand how everything is interconnected, you recognize that it’s all part of a grand strategy. Land and ocean are vitally connected. And protecting land-based areas is important to protecting the oceans. Energy exploitation in delicate areas on land can have a huge impact on coastal regions which could have an impact on fisheries, which, again, can have an impact on people.
If you look at Congo, helping invest in and support the lives of women has been critical to the stability of that community as well as stopping the kind of conflicts that are destroying forests and wildlife there. So it’s all connected.
I think, as a society, we need to do a better job of connecting the dots and understanding that when we talk about the environment, we’re better off starting the conversation by addressing how we can provide opportunity and purpose for people – how we can solve problems for people – and then we can make the world a better place.
RN: What would you say has been the most satisfying aspect of your career so far, and why? What’s been the most challenging?
PC: As always, the greatest challenge is figuring out how to drive resources to the work we care about. The nonprofit sector in this country employs more people than the financial services and car industries combined, but there were no bailouts [in 2008] for us.
But I’m proud to say EarthEcho survived the recent financial crisis and we didn’t lose any of our key staff. We’re still here and growing. This year, we’re seeing tremendous growth and running really amazing programs doing the work I love the most, which is working with young people.
Teachers are always coming up to me saying, “My students loved this event,” or “they loved your talk.” And my response is, “I probably got more out of it than they did.” Because seeing their enthusiasm, their fire, their hope, and their optimism is what keeps me going.
Look, there are a lot of problems out there. Some are getting better, but on a grander scale, I think we’re in for a rocky time in many respects. It can easily get depressing when you see a U.S. Congress stacked with science deniers and still clinging to the outdated idea that doing anything for the environment kills jobs (which is complete malarkey).
More people are employed in the renewable energy field in this country now than oil, coal, and gas combined. So we’re seeing young people that are fired up and care about these issues, and that’s why I get so much out of this work.
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe that failure is just an important part of the learning process – learning through trial-and-error and persistence. Tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment. How did you use that event as a stepping stone to future success?
PC: I agree that failure is always where you learn the most. When we started EarthEcho, we were young and full of enthusiasm and really thought what we believed was the most important thing and assumed that people would just support us. It was tough in the beginning because we had no background in this kind of thing – we didn’t know how nonprofits were run and we didn’t really understand the realities of the world. What we pretty quickly learned after struggling for two years was we needed to not think about what matters to us but what matters to our audience. When we recognized that, things started to change.
Our early efforts in media and television were very naïve in that they were really hardcore science and hardcore scientific messaging and stuff that [our staff] understood and cared about but failed to realize our audience didn’t. So what we learned – and continue to learn – is how to make sure we’re speaking to our audience about things they care about and in a way that’s relevant to them.
RN: Can you give me an example of that concept and how you’re better connecting with your audience today?
PC: I think too often we in the industry get stuck in this cycle of a little bit of arrogance. Sometimes, it’s like we’re saying, “Hey, this is what matters and I’m going to keep telling you about it until you see the world my way,” as opposed to recognizing that we need to understand our audience, go to where they are, and speak to what they are concerned about and what they care about.
We focus on dying coral reefs and melting ice caps so often in this industry, and yet that appeals to a very small percentage of the population. But maybe enough to keep a lot of the big NGOs with their direct mail campaigns kind of trundling along. But what we should be doing is talking about human opportunity and economic opportunity. About purpose, dignity of people, solving problems, and about helping people build better, stronger communities, healthier families, and a better life for themselves.
I think that’s just a maturation of our movement and understanding we need to be where our audience is and really understand what they care about. We need to help them recognize that protecting our air and water, investing in innovation, technology, and renewable energy options are ways to create opportunity for people as opposed to, as a friend of mine once said, “‘catastrophizing’ all of these events.” Nobody wants to be part of that.
People want to be part of opportunity and optimism. That’s what I think we ought to be focused on going forward: creating opportunity and solving problems as opposed to melting ice caps and dying coral reefs, which are just irrelevant to a lot of people. And that’s unfortunate, because we all know they are important and if we don’t save the reefs and help the oceans, we’re all screwed. But if we can expand our audience and meet people where they are instead of where we want them to be, we can achieve a lot of really good things.
RN: What advice do you have for the future scientists and explorers out there that dream of building a career like yours? What activities, education, clubs memberships, or other activities should they pursue?
PC: In addition to learning how to problem solve and think critically – maybe the most important skills of all and ones we all need to continue developing –my number one piece of advice is to learn how to communicate and how to be a storyteller.
Even though I’m not a scientist, in many ways, my career certainly intersects with STEM as a communicator. So, I always tell young people that no matter what you are interested in doing in your life, study communication. Make that part of your education.
Because if you’re a scientist, guess what? That skill is going to be useful for you to help get grants for your research. The ability to communicate your message and what you care about will help sell people on why what you’re doing is important. Whether you’re an engineer or a doctor, communication is going to be important. Telling stories, being comfortable talking to people, and even understanding the basics of broadcasting and online media are all important for anybody [to succeed] in the world today.
There are surveys that ask people about what scares them the most, and public speaking is consistently ranked higher than death…which is ridiculous, obviously. I tell young people the best thing they can do, no matter what they’re interested in, is learn how to speak, articulate ideas, and present yourself. That stuff matters.
Getting up in front of an audience, selling an idea, and communicating the importance of and a passion for an idea you care about is hard. It takes constant effort and constant practice. So, I tell high school kids to go back to their middle or elementary schools. Just do it. Give a presentation about a school project you did or trip you went on. Sure, it’s going to scare the crap out of you – because it certainly did me – but the only way to get good at it is to do it.
RN: Who are your professional mentors or inspirations today? Who inspires you and motivates you to do what you do?
PC: I think most people are inspired by people who advocate for important movement in the world and do great things. Dr. Denis Mukwege, who founded the Panzi Hospital, is someone who inspires me. Malala inspires me. For me, it’s really anybody that looks at adversity and says I’m not going to accept this as the status quo. I’m going to do something different.
My mom also inspires me still. Given what she went through, how she raised two kids by herself, and kept my father’s legacy alive in the face of incredible difficulty and adversity…it’s pretty inspiring.
RN: You’ve said you hope to have kids some day. How would you try to inspire your own child to pursue his or her own creative passion in whatever field they might choose?
PC: I’m a big believer in doing. My mom was also a big believer in that. She was always the kind of person who would come take us out of school so we could go on a trip. Whenever opportunities came up to do these kinds of things or go somewhere local – maybe a factory to learn how things work – my mom was always a big advocate for us doing that. So she’d often have to argue with school administrators about something like me missing a math test. She’d tell them that I probably wasn’t going to learn nearly as much from taking that test as I would taking a trip to Papua New Guinea or going to see the sights at a national park. I mean, you don’t have to go halfway around the world to find amazing experiences!
My mom wanted us to have real-world experiences. I think that’s the best way to make things come alive for young people. It’s not about sitting in front of a TV, which I think often substitutes for parenting these days. It’s about getting outdoors and seeing how the world works. There are so many lessons to be learned in nature that can pretty much relate to anything.
At EarthEcho, one of the reasons we do a lot of curriculum enhancement work around the environment is because that’s how you learn how the world works. It all comes from the environment. Biology and chemistry are how the world works – how nature works. When it comes to STEM, I advise kids to just go outside, see how things work, and ask more questions!
RN: [I pointed out it must pain him to tell kids not to watch TV since, you know, he hosts several TV shows…]
PC: [laughing] Well hopefully all we’re doing when we’re on TV is inspiring people to want to go explore and see things for themselves or, at least, let them see things they wouldn’t have had been able to see otherwise – and spark their interest in nature. That’s really why we do what we do.
But, yeah, I would much rather kids go outside and play in the woods than sit at home and watch Xploration Awesome Planet. But I hope that when they are at home they will watch Awesome Planet, because it’s about the woods and how the world works, and volcanoes and scuba diving and sharks and all this great stuff. But given a choice, yeah, go outside and don’t watch a TV show, not even mine.
RN: What does an explorer/environmental activist/globetrotting TV star do to relax?
PC: Staycation! I like to hang out at home with the Mrs. and the dog (we have a Siberian husky that we rescued about a year ago). On a Sunday morning, wake up, make some pancakes and just not go anywhere or see anyone. Yeah, my vacation is a staycation.
RN: Tell me something – a trend, a recent experience, or a news story – that gives you hope for the future of our oceans, waterways, and environment, in general.
PC: One trend – I just saw it mentioned again in an article today – that is a testament to the power of innovation and opportunity in business, is that after people had long predicted electric cars would constitute only 3 percent of auto industry production by 2035, now they’re estimating they could represent much more than that – 10, 15, 20 percent or more. (We have an electric car – a little BMW i3, which we love.)
So, because the industry has adopted this kind of technology, which just keeps getting better, it’s had to revise its original estimates. [Electric cars are] a great example of how with industry support and innovation we can solve problems and save the world at the same time. Despite naysayers who may fight against innovation and progress, technology moves forward anyway – not because of any politician, but because the markets drive it. Efficiency drives it. And that’s what people want.
Raising Nerd’s final question for Philippe came from my curious 9-year-old and Raising Nerd special correspondent, RocketteGirl, who was dying to “meet” him.
RocketteGirl: What’s your favorite place to explore in the whole world?
PC: [Chuckles, thinks for a moment] Wherever I am.
It could be in the backyard, just looking at the flowers and trees and bushes, or digging through the soil. Or…Nepal or Australia or…just whatever place it is that I get to go.
I’m always inspired by the story from a few years ago about the scientist from the Smithsonian Institution, who discovered a new species of insect in his own backyard in the Washington, D.C., area. So, yeah, I think my favorite space to explore is whatever is all around me.
After you’ve checked out Philippe’s shows on TV and online, check out these additional resources for your Nerds to go out and explore their own backyards… and beyond:
- Discover a New Species!
- National Audubon Society
- USDA Plant Database
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal
- BBC Earth