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Choices, Consequences, and Cause for Hope and Optimism
Episode 411th November 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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A tragic, yet fortuitous car accident changed the course of history for U.S. Speaker program ExchangeAlumni Philippe Cousteau, Jr., his family, and our planet. It led Philippe’s grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, to become a pioneer whose legacy still inspires Philippe - a TV host, producer, author, and social entrepreneur - every day. 

As world leaders gather for this year’s global climate summit, Philippe talks about why there is cause for hope and optimism amidst the climate change crisis, what it was like growing up with a real-life Indiana Jones, fatherhood, and falling in love. 


I’m Philippe Cousteau. And I am an exchange alumni.

Well, you know, for me growing up was, was -- it a challenge in some ways I, you know, not knowing my father and, and having this big legacy, you know, that that was ever present was a little intimidating. You know, my grandfather Jacques Cousteau, 70, about 77 years ago, co-invented scuba diving and, you know, really opened up the world to the wonders in the ocean. He was someone that was not only a, an inventor, but also a filmmaker and storyteller and author. And, you know, for, for a long time was, was considered one of the most famous people in the world. And, and was this larger than life individual who had an enormous impact on the world and, you know, opening up the ocean. I think it's hard for people to imagine that prior to his work inventing, you know, initially co-inventing scuba diving, um, the world knew very little about the ocean.

Most of what we knew was that the pollution that we dumped in and the, and the seafood that we pulled out, you know, the ocean of course, has been a crossroads of civilization for millennia. But what existed beneath the surface was always the mystery. And it wasn't until, you know, my grandfather and, and an engineer named Emile Gagnan, they co-invented a valve, a regulator, which we still use today. It's the, that we, that we use to scuba dive and then created underwater cameras and, and began to film documentaries. It wasn't until that time that that people really began to, to know what coral reefs look like, schooling, sharks, walrus, whales. I mean, again, hard to imagine today, but all of that was virtually mystery to the world just literally a lifetime ago, 77 years. And so my grandfather was, was an extraordinary individual.

a young man and tragically in:

Uh, my passion for these issues wasn't really solidified or crystallized until I was in my late teens. I always knew, you know, growing up with my, my grandfather's stories from being a little boy, hearing about his exciting adventures all over the world. And, I mean, it was, it was like a real life, Indiana Jones in many ways. And then, when I was 16, I had the opportunity to go to Papua New Guinea with a woman who, who inspires me to this day one of my heroes, a woman named Dr. Eugenie Clark, who was, uh, one of the, the first, uh, female oceanographers ever, was a, a leading researcher and in particular shark advocate and, and scientists. And she was conducting an expedition to Papua New Guinea out to Millbay not in the, uh, southeastern part of the of, of the country.

And I was able to go along and spend a few weeks with her out in, uh, these remote islands, uh, where we would be, you know, trading, we brought school supplies to the small little villages and we'd be trading rice and flour for fresh fruit that people would be coming out on, on small dugout canoes to trade with us and, and we were just days and days away from, from the nearest kind of city or, or, or town and, um, we would hike up into the mountains and they had caves there that were filled with human skulls going back for centuries and centuries of, uh, uh, un- undocumented unknown religious significance. And it, to me it, it also felt like Indiana Jones, I mean, I, we were in this remote amazing place diving and filming and having all these experiences and, and meeting all these people and, and, uh, that was the moment that I said, "My goodness, like you can do this for a living, why would I wanna do anything else than be able to travel and more than just travel and see these places, share them with others and, and use those experiences to inspire others."

I, you know, my grandfather always said those, those people who have the, the opportunity to lead amazing lives and have amazing experiences have a responsibility to inspire others and share with the world. Um, you know, he was big on that and, and so it's not something we can keep to ourselves, but, um, I, I never wanted to and being able to be a storyteller and, and share that with the world is, you know, was, was quickly, quickly became my passion as well.

Yeah, you know, my grandfather, again, kind of taking a page from inspiration. My father and my grandfather, as storytellers, they always look for, you know, what are the different types of mediums that we can create, uh, or leverage, I should say, to, to create content that, that can reach lots of different people. And so they did books, and they did radio, and they did TV, and, you know, the internet wasn't a thing back then but, uh, they would have been doing that as well. And, and so, um, over the years, we've, you know, we always look to various different platforms, as a way to reach different audiences. And so, you know, from documentaries, and BBC, and Discovery, and CNN, all the different shows I've done, um, to two, two books, um, to virtual reality, to radio things, to podcasts that we're working on, to the animated projects, um, it's been really looking at how we leverage lots of different tools to reach different audiences. And when you know, when my grandfather was, was making the, you know, television programs, there was half a dozen channels on television. And so, if you had a, a show on Sunday nights, you had 10s of millions of people that would be watching your show.

fore World War II in the late:

his is towards the end of the:

So I certainly would not have been in the picture if he hadn't had that car accident and neither would he, and, and indeed he was told to swim in the Mediterranean every day to rebuild his strength after the accident. And it was during that time that a man named Phillip Danielle, or excuse me, Philippe Tailliez gave him a pair of homemade goggles and fins because, you know, again, at the time exploring the ocean was not a thing. And so you couldn't just go down to the corner store and buy a mask and snorkel. You had to make them yourself out of ground glass and rubber from inner tubes from tires. So my grandfather started free diving and started to explore this world - um, breath hole diving, you know, for a few minutes at a time and was fascinated by this, that this incredible whole other universe that existed just offshore of the, of the south of France.

And over time, he became quite frustrated with the fact that he could only spend a few minutes under water. And so if I think of my grandfather and in many ways, his legacy, it's a legacy of problem-solving. And for him, he eventually was able to meet an engineer, a man named Daniel and they've tinkered, and worked and developed a valve, a regulator valve that could take air under pressure and, and convert it to ambient air pressure on demand. And they attached that to a tank of air that they could breathe through in a mouthpiece with this regulator in between. And while off scuba diving was invented, but he didn't stop there. He went on to invent underwater cameras and underwater documents, you know, film, underwater, documentaries. And so every step of the way, when I think about my grandfather, I think about him as a problem solver.

rwater cameras. And so by the:

was my father actually in the:

Something that my father and my grandfather were both big proponents of. And I realized that if we're going to solve this problem, this global sustainability problem, that we must broaden the constituency of people who understand these issues and care about these issues. We have to create a broader foundation in society that supports the kind of political and economic changes that need to happen in order to build sustainability on this planet and combat the climate crisis and biodiversity decline. And I realized that in order to solve that problem, we needed more education. And that, that was a space that was underdeveloped in the environmental movement. And so an inner problem that needed to be solved in one that I said about to help solving. And, you know, so it's a chorus of voices that do this work, but I'm proud to say that Earth Echo the organization we founded, it's become a leading global environmental, particularly with a focus on, on ocean education and youth leadership organization over the past 16 years, and is really helping to lead the charge of, of recognizing the importance of education and building this movement for us to kind of have the, the, the momentum in the, in the, in the social will to see the kinds of pretty frankly dramatic changes that need to happen, if we're going to maintain a, a livable planet.

You know, for me, the opportunity to work with the State Department, it represents an opportunity to both share these, this information and share my passion around sustainability and particularly the ocean with a broader audience, and also to collaborate with some really extraordinary people who are doing extraordinary things around the world. You know, this is a global crisis that we face and the State Department, as that, you know, arm of the U.S. government, that, that conducts that diplomacy around the world. It's so important to be at the table and at that table and having the discussions with countries and cultures and people everywhere, because we're all in this together. And, you know, I think I believe climate change is, is one of those things that perhaps more than any other crisis in human history is going to require a unified global response. And, you know, and, and with respect to the United States, that's, you know, that's the State Department, State Department is on the front lines of that work. And, and that's why I'm always thrilled to be able to work with the State Department.

ur Ocean Conference, yes, was:

Finally, too, right, it's one of those things that, you know, I, uh ...we always tell folks, you know, one of the challenges that we face with I believe the, um, uh, the, the current conversation about climate and you know, conservation is that, is that we have forgotten the central role that the ocean plays in that. Indeed, climate change, the climate crisis is an ocean crisis. And, and up until the, the, the ocean, Our Oceans Conference, and, and still unfortunately, today, it work, it, it plagues us. We are, you know, underestimating, I believe, um, the, the important role that the ocean plays, in fact, you know, we cannot solve the climate crisis until we restore the oceans to abundance, and we cannot, you know, solve the, the precipitous catastrophic decline in biodiversity without elevating and putting the oceans at the center of that conversation. And, and that was a, a tremendous step forward. Um, the Our Oceans Conference, uh, towards achieving that goal and reminding everybody, just how important the ocean is to regulating our climate, to providing food, to, uh, you know, so many of these vital functions that make life on Earth possible.

So, we have a saying, at, at, at Earth Echo, "It's not that you can make a difference, it's that everything you do makes a difference, all of your choices have consequences." And, we like to think of that as a really empowering message because it means that every day, every one of our choices, we have an opportunity to do something good and build the kind of world that we want for ourselves and for our children. So, we never tell people what to do, but, but certainly the kinds of things that we do, and the kinds of things that we're inspired by the youth leaders that we, that we work with and what they do, is thinking about our choices, everyday in our, in our homes, thinking about the cleaning products that we use, thinking about the, the containers, there's a lots of innovation out there, if you wanna reuse plastic, there are, um, great companies to create now, um, tablets that you can mix with water, they become cleaning sprays, um, and reuse containers or use glass containers that are, um, you know, thinking about bar soaps for shampoo and conditioner and eliminating plastic out of your shower.

There's little things, you know, reusable, clean film, from, from cloth and, and beeswax, there's, you know, there's all sorts of different things that we can do, on innovation that's happening out there, that that's really exciting in our, in our homes, thinking about our, our clothing, um, you know, fashion is a massive polluter when top three polluters in the world and, and thinking about the clothes that we buy and, and, and where they come from, and the food that we eat, you know, 40% of the world's food is wasted, which is a massive climate crisis problem. Um, and so being very conscientious about our food, um, reducing or, or possibly eliminating, you know, uh, um, um, um, animal based protein. Um, but certainly reducing, uh, and having a more balanced diet would be, you know, tremendous.

And so, all of these different places and, and pieces and parts and choices that we make have an impact. Uh, who we vote for certainly, um, it's a tragedy in the United States that, that environmentalism continues to be a, a partisan issue. Um, it wasn't always this way. Think of Richard Nixon, who passed the Clean Air Act extension, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, he started the EPA he founded NOAA, um, you know, uh, uh, Uber Republican administration did these things, because conservation environment was not a, a, a partisan issue, really, until the Reagan era. Um, and so, uh, you know, we need to get back to that and recognize that as, as voters of, of any party, anywhere in the world, you know, we all need clean air and clean water. Um, we all need a stable client ... uh, excuse climate. Um, and so, thinking about you know, who we vote for and advocating, um, that the politician set aside those differences from an environmental perspective.

I think, you know, one of the problems that we face that needs to be solved is that the bread and butter for the environmental movement has been doom and gloom, which is a, a great short term motivator, um, but not a good long term motivator. And we need long term motivation, we know psychologically, that, that doom and gloom will perhaps get you to make a donation or take a short term action, but in terms of inspiring people to change their behavior and, and, and take long term action, um, it, it, it has its limitations. We're big believers that while we face extraordinary problems, and you know, listen, that, that we are headed pell-mell towards, um, a, a catastrophic climate change, we have seen a 50% decline in, in biodiversity on this earth in the last 40 years, a, a decline of over 60% of living creatures on this earth in the last 40 years. Um, you know, coral reefs are collapsing, 90% of our fisheries are over fished, or fished to capacity, lots of bad news out there, plastic pollution, etc, etc.

s by the United States in the:

But we'd heard rumors that there was life and schooling sharks and healthy reefs around Bikini and we thought to ourselves, "How can that be, it's only been 60 years, since literally, everything was devastated by all these bombs that we dropped?" And, um, and so we, we chartered a, a boat for this documentary, and we went up to Bikini Atoll, um, and from the first moment we set foot in the water, we were astounded at the abundance of life. Now there's still radiation on the islands and the Atolls in the area. Uh, but the radiation in the water has dispersed. The name of the documentary was Nuclear Sharks, which was catchy, but no, our number one question we got from people was the sharks were not glowing, the sharks were not radioactive. Um, but what had happened was, that area had essentially become a de facto marine protected area. No one had been there for decades. No fishing, no exploitation, nothing.

And so, because of that, nature had rebounded in an astounding way. And it was so inspiring to see these schools of 60 to 70, you know, a great reef sharks swirling around giant grouper and clan giant clams and, and healthy coral and, um, in a place that, that just 60 years ago had been completely devastated. And so, you know, we know tools like establishing marine protected areas work, we know that nature is resilient, and we know that, that if we give it a chance, a- amazing things can happen. And so, uh, the other thing that, that really gives me hope is, is that we see, finally, a global recognition of these issues and, and finally some, some, uh, very real momentum towards solving them, but more than that, the young people that, that we work with or that go around the world every day, are truly an inspiration, the optimism, the determination that they have, uh, to solve these problems, to not give up in the face of, of what are certainly daunting challenges and, and to frame a, a different future for ourselves, uh, and to build a better, better future for ourselves is, is something that, that I see regularly and that, that gives me tremendous hope. 

go, now. It was the summer of:

But in many ways, when you apply that dispersant, that oil breaks up, and it's a surfactant and a solvent and breaks up the oil into small droplets that then disperses into the water column, and almost becomes more difficult to manage. At least at the surface, you can burn, you can skim you can collect, um, but when it goes into the water, it's, uh, extraordinarily toxic and it is, um, it is very, uh, uh, it's i- impossible at that point to, to collect. And so, uh, long story short, Sam and I went down, um, as part of for, for, for ABC News and we went diving into a spot where the if this person had been deploy ... applied, we had to wear hazmat suits, 'cause the dispersant is a neurological toxin as well as the oil being toxic. And, um, we demonstrated to the world that the oil isn't going away, it's just sinking, um, and, and actually suspending in the water column. And, and what we witnessed was just this thick red soup that we were diving into with dead fish floating and jellyfish and, and seaweed covered in, in these globs of oil that were slowly dispersing into the water.

Uh, and it was global news. And it kind of lost a lot a year of my time down in the Gulf spending, covering this story for, for several news outlets over, you know, repeatedly in the developments. And I went to LA to give a speech to folks in the entertainment industry. My wife at the time was a filmmaker for E! News, more in the entertainment side of journalism. And, um, we met through a mutual friend at that event. And, we're, we're talking until they shut the bar down at 2:00 in the morning around us and I changed my flight, we had dinner the next night and, um, we've literally been together ever since. And she always had a passion for traveling, for animals, and for nature.

e was with me to Expo, it was:

Yeah. Uh, uh, you know, I never believed in love at first sight, um, until I saw Ashlan across the room, and, um, I, I was just, uh, an, an amazing experience. The daughter we have, a little girl, Vivian, um, just over two years old, and another one on the way and just about three and a half weeks. So, the family is growing and, and our ambition, uh, is to, is to grow, help them grow and, and see all these places and just come with us on these adventures and, and expeditions and, and do it as a family. So, uh, we're, we're, we're extremely fortunate, you know. I never knew my father. And it's been so meaningful and, and such a privilege for me to be a father. Um, it's, it's the joy of my life.