Reader Profile: Philippe Cousteau

Aug. 2, 2013

Human behavior can be difficult to change. Perhaps one of the most challenging tasks of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System is public education and outreach. In successfully carrying it out, stormwater managers might take a cue from Philippe Cousteau Jr., son of Philippe Cousteau and grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who represents the third generation carrying on the family passion for environmental conservation.

Cousteau is a self-described explorer, social entrepreneur, and environmental advocate. He points out that if behavior changes are to occur with respect to conservation, they will most likely take place through educating the younger generation.

Much is at stake. The oceans provide about $21 trillion to the global economy in oxygen production, food, and protection against storms and coastal erosion, Cousteau points out, adding that “drastic measures” are needed to safeguard them.

One of many ocean conservation issues is the grave concern over carbon output, not only from the perspective of ice caps melting and shifts in currents and ocean dynamics, but also ocean acidification, Cousteau adds.

“It’s a big problem we’re all very concerned about, but it hasn’t been getting the same amount of attention as climate change, probably because it’s not as controversial,” he says.

The high seas have become like the “Wild West,” notes Cousteau. “There is virtually no enforcement and no regulation that can effectively protect the high seas from long-lining and bottom trawling, which are the two most destructive forms of fishing but are legal in certain areas within sovereign territory.”

On the shoreline loom other concerns with respect to coastal development.

“We still have challenges from runoff with respect to nonpoint source pollution from parking lots and development along the coast,” says Cousteau. “That’s a big problem in the Chesapeake Bay region and Washington DC right now: runoff from lawns, gardens, and golf courses and developments–from fertilizers to more noxious chemicals and point-source pollution. Around the world we face serious challenges in planning and siting development on the coast.”

Cousteau’s strategy of targeting his message to young people was inspired by his grandfather who–among his many other endeavors–created television programs that attracted family viewership from 1966 through 1982.

“We talked so often about the power of young people,” recalls Cousteau of his time with his grandfather. “Toward the end of his life, his focus increasingly was on young people. That had a big influence on me growing up in terms of using what I wanted to do, coming out of the university, starting a nonprofit, and saying we need to be focusing on kids because we believe how effective it is as it was not a crowded space, especially when it comes to ocean and environmental education.”

In considering the psychology around behavior change in human beings, “it is pretty difficult for adults to change their behavior,” says Cousteau. “And yet we do know that young people have a considerable amount of influence on adults. I always remind people if you get into a moral argument with a 13 year old, you’re probably going to lose.”

Cousteau points out research consistently shows young people play a major role in environmental decision-making at home, influencing family behaviors and decisions on recycling, energy use, and water use, and even voting on environmental issues.

“I’ve never met anybody who believed firmly in climate change, saw a billboard about clean coal and all of a sudden was converted,” points out Cousteau. “It’s very hard in broad-strokes public education campaigns to actually change the non-converted. You can reinforce the behavior of those who are already agreeing with you, but it’s pretty hard to change the behavior of those who don’t.

“On the other hand, young people are predisposed to more positive behavior, so they’re already there when it comes to dumping out plastic bags and bottles and trash and helping animals. We don’t have to convince them that those are either bad or good things.”

And they’re most likely to question their parents on their use of plastic bottles and bags.

“Then you start to see behavior change,” says Cousteau. “It’s been a big mistake on the part of a lot of big groups to neglect young people and focus on changing the behavior of adults. We’re not expanding the converted by doing that, we’re really talking to ourselves.

“I’m not saying that public education isn’t important–it helps to move the bigger picture and it certainly helps people who may not know about these types of issues and are not predisposed to change their behavior–but if we really want to get an effective return on investment, we have to be focused on education at least as much as we’re focusing on the broader public at large.”

Cousteau says he reminds people that there’s a reason marketers put cookies on the middle and lower shelves at supermarkets and cartoon characters on cereal boxes.

“That is supposed to appeal to kids who are most likely not buying that food,” he says. “The parents are buying it, but the kids are making the opinion about what to do. There’s that saying that adults are decision-makers, but youth are opinion makers and obviously the opinion very often sways the decision. We focus on that with EarthEcho.”

EarthEcho and its sponsors and partners provide resources free of charge to educators, youth, and families nationwide. Cousteau started the nonprofit in 2000 in Washington DC with his mother Jan and sister Alexandra in an effort to empower young people through education.

“On average, in the United States, the environment is one of the top three projects for kids with respect to service or getting engaged in their communities,” points out Cousteau. “Millions of kids want to take action and sometimes they just need a little bit of support and some resources.”

To that end, he’s co-authored two books: Going Blue: A Teen Guide to Saving the Oceans, Lakes, Rivers, and Wetlands, which has garnered numerous awards, and Make a Splash!: A Kid’s Guide to Protecting Our Oceans, Lakes, Rivers & Wetlands, targeted to elementary-age children.

Cousteau is always looking for the next method to reach out to young people. Through EarthEcho, he’s launching a new series of educational content in the fall geared to helping educators with tools and resources needed to bring STEM education alive in the classroom.

Azure Worldwide is another venue through which Cousteau promotes his message. He co-founded the company in 2007 as an environmental consulting, development, marketing, and media company. The company’s projects include work on environmentally friendly resorts and destinations as well as environmental programming for domestic and global eco-entertainment attractions.

Through Azure Worldwide in concert with the University of Virginia, where Cousteau is an OpenGrounds Fellow, he developed an interactive game–the UVA Bay Game–that simulates the impact of individuals and communities on the health of critical water resources.

“The game is a successful attempt at how we can leverage game technology and game theory to create a fun experience that models complex ecosystems for people to literally play within,” says Cousteau.

Players take on the role of one of many characters in the watershed: policy maker, a farmer, a waterman.

“We know humans learn through games, from our youngest ages to our adult years,” says Cousteau. “Gaming and having fun is a wonderful way to learn and allow people to play those various different characters in this complex ecosystem and base their series of decisions they have to make through different rounds of the game on their particular business.”

A waterman has to decide how much to fish and what type of fishing to do, and is also subject to the policymakers’ decisions and the consequences of the farmers’ decisions as to how much nitrogen and phosphorous they’re putting into the system as they make decisions about what type of farming they are going to do. All players have to balance their balance sheets and understand a little bit about economics. As the game is played, every decision impacts the health of the bay and the wellbeing of the stakeholders each player represents.

“The game is designed to exist so that we understand the complex ecosystem,” says Cousteau. “Essentially, to win the game, you have to restore the Chesapeake Bay to health without going bankrupt, so we have to balance the needs of community and the environment so that everybody can win.”

Cousteau says the game has been an “amazingly successful tool” as his organization has played the game with different groups.

“We’ve played with everyone from the EPA and NOAA down to middle and high schools throughout the country and multiple big corporations from GE and IBM and onward to small advocacy groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation,” he says.

The game is being refined and will focus on middle and high school students throughout the next year.

“We’re going to be piloting it in schools along with the work that EarthEcho is doing and start to develop it as a focus tool for young people to help augment educational curricula about the Chesapeake Bay that are mandatory in many of the bay states within the watershed,” says Cousteau. “Providing these interactive gaming tools that are based on sound science and tens of thousands of data points, the game model itself is very accurate to the actual conditions of the Chesapeake Bay, and the decisions that each avatar character makes have realistic impacts on the bay as a whole.

“It’s a remarkable, fun, engaging game,” he adds. “I’ve had so many people from educators and policy-makers come up to me and say in all of the years of working on these issues, they never understood or appreciated how the system works the way they had in the two hours playing the game.”

The game is designed to be translated to other watersheds. Azure Worldwide is eyeing Arizona, Australia, Colorado, and Texas as areas into which to expand it.

As if that isn’t enough to occupy Cousteau’s time, he is engaged in other efforts as well. He partnered with AdvisorShares Investments to launch the Global Echo Exchange Traded Fund on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: GIVE). He also formed the Global Echo Foundation, a nonprofit that provides resources to solve worldwide social challenges, including those affecting women and children, environmental conservation, and supporting social entrepreneurship. Cousteau also is a special correspondent for CNN International, where he hosts the Going Green series.

What He Does Day to Day
Cousteau is everywhere: underwater, in the air on a plane, and on the air . . . and even in an office sometimes. During a recent week he spent a day in CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, and was in Washington DC the next for meetings with the EarthEcho staff, working on fundraising plans and proposals and developing content for the upcoming school year. The next day, he was working on financial projects for Wall Street. He then flew back to Los Angeles for meetings on a new series.

What Led Him Into This Line of Work
While not everyone fancies going into the family business, Cousteau was attracted to it hearing the “wonderful stories” of his father growing up. His father passed away six months before he was born, and Cousteau credits his mother for keeping his name and legacy alive.

“My grandfather had a huge influence on me, too,” says Cousteau. “I grew up with stories of modern-day adventures akin to Indiana Jones and for any kid in their teens and 20s, those are pretty exciting stories.”

During his late teens–before earning an M.A. in history at St. Andrews University in Scotland–Cousteau had the opportunity to have some adventures of his own with family friends, scientists, and researchers, traveling to such places as Papua New Guinea, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.

“I saw amazing places in the world and meet incredible people,” he says. “You’re in the highlands of Papua New Guinea at 16 years old and meeting people in grass huts still hunting with spears and bow and arrow, and that is like Indiana Jones. That’s the kind of thing that captured my imagination. I thought, wow, I can travel the world and have wonderful adventures, work to help people and make it a better place. That has always been my ambition. Best job ever.”

What He Likes Most About His Work
Cousteau most enjoys it when young people approach him after talks in his international and domestic travels and tell him they want to do what he does when they grow up. “We know we’ve captured their imagination and they want to follow the adventure of exploring the world and making it a better place,” he points out.

His Biggest Challenge
Cousteau says his biggest challenge is “to reach through the noise that exists out there” in a saturated market. “To do that, we have to continue to innovate,” he adds. “That includes raising money. It’s difficult to raise money in this day and age, so it’s incumbent upon us to innovate in how we do that. Things like being on Wall Street, launching investment funds, the media work we do, and making books that earn revenue sources for a nonprofit.”

He says he finds the Wall Street endeavor exciting because it’s a “completely new way to think about breaking the traditional philanthropic aid cycle and questioning how we become more savvy about raising money but providing additional value–in this case, actual financial returns to people who engage in that investment fund.”

“We have to innovate,” says Cousteau. “Traditional enemies like private enterprise and Wall Street need to be our allies.”

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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