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"If You Protect the Ocean, You Protect Yourself." A Conversation with Jean-Michel Cousteau

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French explorer and filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau has spent his life campaigning for the health of the world's oceans. He has produced over 75 films on oceans and the environment, involved thousands of young people in hands-on environmental education programs, and met with dozens of world leaders--including nine U.S. presidents--to press the case for stronger environmental protections.

Cousteau recently spoke with us about his work at the Ocean Futures Society to protect the world's oceans through science and education. The overarching message of this work: "if you protect the ocean, you protect yourself."

Download the entire interview here or listen to brief interview highlights (6 minutes):

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(A transcript of these highlights appears below)

Or listen to excerpts from the full interview:

Public School Insights: As I understand it, education is a major part of your mission at the Ocean Futures Society. Could you explain how you pursue this mission?

Cousteau: It’s almost exclusively our mission. In a very simple way, the mission of Ocean Futures is if you protect the ocean, you protect yourself.

A more in-depth approach of this same message [involves] two different educational programs that we have. Number one is the fact that we want to take the children out of their schools, with their teachers, and put them in touch with the environment so they have a firsthand experience. Those programs, called Ambassadors of the Environment, take the young people and their teachers to… let’s say a shoreline somewhere, preferably the ocean but it can be a river or it can be a lake. [The goal is] for them to understand the connections between water and land, and how [it] all depends on each other. This has been going on now for over twenty years, and its working extremely well. We are in thirteen different locations worldwide, from Greece to South America to the Caribbean to the Pacific to cruise ships and so on.

Another program is called Sustainable Reef. Sustainable Reef is designed to go into the school systems and make sure that the teachers and the children have enough materials to understand the importance of tropical coral reefs. This is designed for the nations that are near tropical coral reefs.

We are also switching from Sustainable Reef to Sustainable Rainforest. It’s the same approach, and we are going to implement the program in the Amazon.

Public School Insights: In the United States, there has been a call for much better science education in general, but the reasons often cited for this are economic reasons--we want to be more competitive with other countries and people see science and technology as the keys to the future. Do you think that these economic goals for improved science education are in conflict with the environmental goals that you cite?

Cousteau: No, they’re not. I really believe that science is critical, and science and the environment are really one and the same thing.

We really need to take care of Planet Earth, and Planet Earth is being put under a lot of pressure by our mismanagement. Anybody who has the understanding will adapt and change. [But] how can you protect what you don’t understand? I think education is critical because that’s when the future decision makers are acquiring the information which will allow them to make better decisions when they become adults.

The ocean is now in a state whereby we know that, because we have accelerated the normal process of evolution, which has happened with warming and cooling off.  The ice of the Arctic, of Iceland, of the Antarctic, of the glaciers all over the planet are melting away. I just went to a glacier which is melting six hundred feet a year. Six hundred feet.

The ocean level is rising, and it’s rising in different places at different speeds and different heights. But the one certain thing is that hundreds of millions of people throughout the planet are going to have to move. They are going to have to move, and the question is where. And where’s the infrastructure which will allow those people to go to other places and have a decent life? The consequences are economically dramatic—we’re talking about billions of dollars—because of the infrastructure, because of the construction of new airports and on and on and on.

That’s where science is so critical, so important, to understand and be able to adjust accordingly.

Public School Insights: Do you feel that there are enough people in the US or elsewhere who are getting involved enough in their exploration, as students, of the oceans that they could become oceanographers and more serious scientists who could advance the knowledge of what’s happening in the oceans?

Cousteau: No. There’s not enough. We need more. And in the US, definitely, because all the support or funding that was focusing on research, whether it is applicable research or fundamental research, have been depleted to a major extent in the last twenty years. I think we need to rethink this. I think, yes we need to do more research. Yes we need to have better budgets, and science is critical.

We need young minds to come up with answers, new ideas, new solutions, new patents, new technologies that are going to take care of the problems we created.

One needs to know that everything is connected. Whether you live on top of Mount Everest or the Rockies, you’re connected to the ocean, because that snow or ice is coming from the ocean. Then it’s going to melt, it’s going to go down the streams, it’s going to go into the ocean with everything we’ve put into it. We continue to use the ocean as a garbage can. We have to be educated to the point where we don’t do that anymore, and there are ways where that can be avoided.

Public School Insights: Thank you very much. I truly appreciate the time you have taken with us today.

Cousteau: You are very welcome. I hope this is helpful, and we are here to share information with as many people as possible so they can take it and make better decisions themselves.