© Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Jean-Michel Cousteau, inheriting the ocean

Posted on 16 December 2014.

Fifteen years ago, the Ocean Futures Society began its battle to protect the marine environment. We met its President Jean-Michel Cousteau – who has always devoted himself to the crusade to help the oceans.

It all begins with a single gesture - every time you drink a glass of water, you are connected to the ocean.

In 1999, you founded the Ocean Futures Society to raise awareness about the marine environment and safeguarding it. What is its mission?

Everything I know, I learned during my childhood alongside my father, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Founding Ocean Futures Society was a way of following in his footsteps. I am now very honored to be able to continue his work, and for me it is very simple. The Society’s motto is "protect the ocean and you protect yourself", which says it all. It all begins with a single gesture - every time you drink a glass of water, you are connected to the ocean. So whenever you take an aspirin, it will also end up in the ocean. The seven billion people on the planet are all connected to a single water system, which shows how important water is. And proves that as a matter of urgency we have to stop using the ocean as a universal sewer. Besides waste, plastic and wrecks of all kinds, whose presence is obvious, there are also thousands of chemicals that are invisible to the naked eye, such as the heavy metals that contaminate everything that lives in the water - primarily fish, which we then eat! After the triple disaster in Fukushima, scientists in California caught fourteen radioactively contaminated blue tuna – the ocean respects no borders! But the good news is that the communication revolution is also global, and shortens distances. Information sharing is now faster and we are all connected!

You have been working to save the oceans for decades. How has the message changed? What are the issues given that the term "sustainable development" is on everyone's lips?

It isn’t so much the message that has changed as the way of transmitting it. A decade ago the battle conducted by some environmentalists was aggressive and angry. It is rarer today because the need to protect the planet is commonly accepted. As an intermediary, I have always thought that the best way of convincing people, be it a big industry boss or government leader, is through dialogue. When promoting an idea, we will always come up against people’s defensiveness - in my opinion there is only one way to break down mental barriers and that is to touch their hearts - and only then can you start a proper conversation. We all have a bank account, a home, sometimes a car, but also a family and children - explaining how certain decisions will have profound consequences for future generations ensures sustainable development makes sense. I often say that the planet is managed like a business, and we have to be good managers to make sure it doesn’t go bankrupt...

What has been your greatest achievement over the last 15 years?

I talk both to young people and policy makers - the results are not the same but they are equally important. I have always tried to influence leaders through diplomacy, which has contributed to several major decisions being taken. Recently I made the former oil industry baron and US President, George W. Bush, aware of the huge amount of garbage floating in the Pacific - I took him and his team to see the damage off Hawaii, far from any coastline, and he was stunned. It led to the creation of the largest protected marine area in the world. 2000 km long! Although many species are disappearing, as human beings we have the extraordinary privilege of being able to choose to live on, and we have to act accordingly...

Protecting the oceans often seems a far cry from city dwellers’ usual concerns. What can we do in our day to day lives to help the marine environment?

We can stop using the world, and in particular the marine environment, as a global garbage dump. We all have a tendency to throw things away, but in nature, nothing is wasted, everything is a resource and we would do well to remember it.

Plastic waste is also a big concern in these environments. You have condemned the existence of the seventh continent of waste - what do you think is the solution? Do you and your Society support any circular economy experiments?

Every little helps, especially if it is not just a questions of good intentions but also money. The recycling industry has got it figured out - take New York City, for example. All the garbage bins are now locked, and the city makes money from what has been collected. And for those able to take it, there is also an extraordinary opportunity for using gravity to capture the particles suspended in the dirty water from our homes. I think it could create millions of new jobs in the future... and would protect the ocean too! In Santa Barbara, California, where I now live, I am on the city council and we have for example decided to call a halt to the construction of septic tanks to avoid polluting the waters.

Rising sea levels are threatening many coastal areas - what is your view?

Global warming is a global problem but for the time being only directly impacts a relatively small number of people - ten, fifteen, perhaps twenty million islanders living on the thousands of small islands scattered across huge areas of ocean as large as Europe - such as Polynesia. It is appalling because soon thousands of people will have to be moved, and no-one is really speaking out about it. Their governments don’t know what else they can do to draw attention to it. I went to the Maldives, where the President convinced all these representatives to pass their diving certificate and sign an agreement under water, explaining that their country will soon be swallowed up, and that they will urgently have to find a new homeland. The cities have more power, but given the magnitude of the issue most are completely impotent! Few people are aware of it, but Miami is currently the most threatened city the world. Half of Florida, whose coastal protections, such as coral reefs, have disappeared due to urbanization, risks disappearing under the waves - the result is 70-story buildings built on sand that are directly threatened by the rising seas.

When you were young, you hoped to one day build cities under the sea. What is your dream now?

Yes, it was a childhood dream, and not completely unreasonable since there is still an underwater structure where astronauts get used to the absence of gravity before leaving on space missions. My son Fabien has just spent 31 days there - a record - hosting scientists and collecting data. More realistically, I am now very committed to the fight against keeping marine mammals in aquariums - they are imprisoned in facilities that cost a fortune to maintain in order to perform circus acts. The goal is not to ban them, but change them. Once again new technologies act as a great accelerator and will soon enable visitors to get closer to the animals without turning them into circus performers. Paradoxically we are in one of the most exciting periods in the history of humanity, because although we have to very rapidly find solutions, we have the resources to do it.

Find out more:

- Ocean Futures Society website