Alexandra Cousteau's Mission to Save the World's Water
Now, Alexandra—along with her brother, Phillippe Jr., and cousin Fabien—is part of the third generation of Cousteaus fighting to protect our oceans and rivers. And at 33, Alexandra is a prolific advocate. Among other projects, she has founded Blue Legacy International, which explores human interactions with water; has been honored by the National Geographic Society and the United Nations; is on the board of directors of the Mother Nature Network; co-hosted the Discovery Channel's Blue August; was the global water adviser for LiveEarth 2010's Run for Water; and will publish her first book, This Blue Planet, in 2011.
Alexandra Cousteau: My parents put me in swim lessons when I was 3 months old and took me on an expedition for the first time when I was 4 months old. And my grandfather taught me to dive when I was 7 years old. So water has always been a huge part of my life. My earliest meaningful memory would have to be playing in tide pools in Hawaii. We spent part of a summer in Maui, and my brother and I would spend all day in the tide pools looking at little creatures and putting them in our buckets and then letting them go.
FL: Have you always been passionate about protecting water?
AC: When you're a child, you don't really realize the threats that face the environment, and certainly 30 years ago, 25 years ago we didn't have the same level of threat that we have now. So I knew that we needed to protect the oceans because there were a lot of threats facing them, that it was an incredibly important thing to do. But it wasn't until I started seeing places disappear.
FL: Like where?
AC: Like those tide pools that I played in—they're gone now. And a lot of other places throughout the Caribbean and in Florida and the Mediterranean too. There are places that I spent a lot of time in as a child disappearing. I guess I was always convinced that environmental conservation was incredibly important, but by the time I was in college, I was already witnessing the end of places that were very important to me. If there was ever a moment when it became personal, that was really it.
Cousteau's legacy: taking environmental activism to the next level
AC: I look at the work my grandfather did 70 years ago, and back then the oceans were largely a surface. We hadn't really explored them at all, and people imagined what was in the ocean and they thought of monsters. What my grandfather did was really create the innovations needed to be able to pull back that curtain and start to see what was there. And he recorded that through his films and shared it and really opened everybody's eyes to all the amazing things we have in our oceans.
My father started thinking about the larger crises and started doing films that went beyond talking about what was there, but really talking about what human development and progress meant for the natural environment.
Today, when I look at what's happening, I realize that we need to take the environmental movement to a whole different level. We need to get people to not only know what's there, but take action to help protect it. What's really hopeful, and what makes the world a different place today, is that we know it's there and the threats are exponentially greater, but the awareness of what we stand to lose is also exponentially greater.
Not only in my own work, but sitting on the board of Mother Nature Network—which is growing exponentially, recently—I realized people are hungry for this kind of information in a way they weren't before. And they're making it not just a political issue or economic issue or red-versus-blue issue, but it's really becoming an issue of lifestyle and health and opportunity for innovation and growth. I think that's where there is a lot of excitement, for getting people to be involved in the solutions. You know, we have climate change today that we didn't have back then. We have ocean acidification, the oceans are getting fished out, rivers are leading to dead zones, we're running out of water in a lot of places for agriculture. A billion people don't even have access to water; a half-billion don't have access to sanitation. All these are really, really serious issues.
Empowering a new generation of environmentalists
AC: It will talk about the different human faces of our global water crisis and how our lives are touched in all these different ways by water—not just the water you drink or grow food with, but also the water we use for our religious rites and the water we use for recreation and all the different ways that we depend on water that we forget. And really looking at the idea that water is our most important life support system and the vehicle through which we'll feel the effects of climate change.
We are connected to water in three primary ways. The first is the watershed that we live in. The second is through the community that we are part of. And thirdly, at a global level, through the interconnectedness of the hydrasphere and the water cycle, and the idea that we live in a world where water is constantly flowing and in flux. Toxic polluting emissions in China, through the water cycle, end up as acid rain in Texas. There is a very global aspect to water that we can't neglect.
People here in the United States have this vague idea that the water crisis affects "poor people" "over there." And yet it's very, very much impacting us here. Our water supplies in the future are going to be severely compromised if we don't start managing water in a way that protects the water that we have and prevents waste.
That's actually the expedition that we are embarking on in July—we'll be on the road from July through November—a 1,450-mile journey around North America looking at global issues that are happening in our own backyard. We'll be doing that from a tour bus outfitted with a mobile work stations and editing suite. And we'll actually be producing videos and blogs and photo galleries on a daily basis, talking to people who have community action days. We'll stop in communities and help them clean up a river or go to a university or get engaged and help raise funds for initiatives. That's going to be a 135-day project that will be an official National Geographic expedition.
We'll be distributing our media through a whole network of media partners that includes over 30,000 websites and blogs. That's our way of bringing water issues home to people and helping them understand that the water crisis is happening here as well, and it's up to all of us to take action on it.
FL: Are there any trends that give you hope for the rejuvenation of oceans and rivers?
AC: I told you about the huge growth of Mother Nature Network. Who would have thought that would be possible five years ago? It's a great website, but I think that success also speaks to a real thirst for people to have access to information. They really see it as a lifestyle issue and not a political issue, and that gives me great hope because we need people on both sides of the aisle to be really meaningfully engaged in the debate and the dialogue and the conversation. We need more conversations happening. The more people we have talking about these issues, the better chance we'll have of actually getting people to participate in the solutions and get involved.
Environmentalists all by themselves are not going to solve these issues; these are issues that we have to work on together. And I think young people are really engaged and find great meaning in taking care of the environment. They intuitively understand that as our environment degrades, so does our quality of life. I talk with kids all the time who are just so excited, not just about our expeditions and the adventures that we have, but also about being part of it and getting involved and doing things in their own communities. That's really exciting.
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