Protect the ocean, and you protect yourself. That’s the message of Jean-Michel Cousteau, explorer, environmentalist, educator, film producer, and overall champion of our oceans. As son of the late Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel was exposed at a very young age to the majesty and wonder of the oceans, and he’s devoted much of his life to seeing that they continue to thrive.
In honor of Earth Day, Cousteau will deliver a public lecture on April 22nd at 7:00 PM in Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. We spoke with him for a preview.
Much of your life’s work has been dedicated to preserving the ocean’s ecosystems. What drives this passion?
Good question. My father (Jacques Cousteau) co-invented the regulator, a part of SCUBA equipment that controls the flow of air to the diver. As a kid, long before certifications, I was invited by my father to explore the ocean when he put a tank on my back—and on the backs of my late brother and mother—and pushed us into the sea off the French Riviera. We became instant SCUBA divers. But my childhood playground is being destroyed and trashed.
My father was very concerned, as am I, about the state of the oceans. So, after he passed, I started the Ocean Futures Society to honor my father’s philosophy.
What are some of the Society’s primary goals?
We’re made up of a small team of dedicated people who want to make a difference. Our goal is to acquire knowledge and transmit this knowledge in a very general ways, like TV shows, and in specific ways, like educational initiatives such as our Ambassadors of the Environment program. (Ambassadors of the Environment is a program designed for school groups and vacationers that empowers participants to become better caretakers of the Earth. AOE sites are found all over the world. Click here for more information.) Basically, we’re a non-profit group in the business of communication. Because how can you protect what you don’t understand?
I think we need to protect and manage the oceans like a business—live off the interest and protect the capital. Right now we’re eating up our capital, and the ocean can’t keep up. We all need to become managers of this business.
How can we start making a difference today?
We need to be better stewards. We need to pay attention to what we buy. Everything that is newly manufactured and assembled releases more CO2 into the air.
Ask yourself, “What do we have locally?” Let’s re-establish the importance of the seasons. Why do we have to eat strawberries all year long? In the past, the arrival of strawberry season was exciting, it was an event.
In the south of France, where I grew up, there is still the bag that my mother used for shopping on the doorknob of the kitchen. So why does each person in the US use so many plastic bags every year? Do we really need to? At my grocery store, I get a five-cent discount for bringing my own bag, and the store saves five cents by not giving me a bag. They save, and I save, and everybody wins.
Consider the fish we eat. On land, we are no longer hunter-gatherers. We’re farming grains and herbivores—cows, chickens, and so on. We don’t farm carnivores—they’re too expensive.
So why are we promoting and advertising fish that are carnivores? It takes 10-12 pounds of meat—wild plankton and other fish—to produce one pound of salmon. This is accelerating the demise and depletion of our water ecosystems. We should be eating fish that are herbivores, like tilapia, that eat plants. There is a terrible over-fishing problem. We need to become farmers of plants and herbivores in water like we are on land.
How have CO2 emissions already affected our oceans?
One example is that rising CO2 levels provoke acidification of the ocean. Rising acidity means that creatures who need to make their shells out of calcium carbonate, like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp, are having a harder and harder time doing this. These shells serve as their skeletons, and their protection. Coral reefs are also made of calcium carbonate, and our animal architects are having a harder and harder time building them. Eventually, they will melt away like mud.
We need to work harder to protect these sensitive ecosystems. Eighty percent of our tropical coral reefs are under the control of developing nations that rely on them for protein, for the protection of their coastlines, and for tourists who come to see the reefs. Coastal habitats, which ocean life depends on for food, protection, and reproduction, are being destroyed.
What about environmental threats to fresh bodies of water (lakes and rivers)?
Lakes, rivers, any body of water—eventually, it’s all connected to the ocean. It’s just an issue of time. Much of what we dispose of—actual objects, toxins, chemicals, and heavy metals—ends up in our lakes and rivers and ultimately the ocean.
Nature has a wonderful system for cleaning water and depositing it back on the Earth as rain. Then we ruin it and put it back in the ocean. The more we ruin the water, the less able nature will be to clean it. Ultimately, we need to stop using our oceans as a universal sewer.
You’re coming to Northwestern in a few weeks to speak on Earth Day. What will your key message be?
If you protect water, you protect yourself. If you protect the ocean, you protect yourself. If you protect the lakes, you protect yourself. Without water, there is no life.
Cousteau will deliver a keynote lecture to cap off One Book One Northwestern’s Earth Day celebration on Thursday, April 22nd, from 7:00-8:30 in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are recommended. Click here for more information.