Wouldn’t it be ironic if Alexandra Cousteau was aquaphobic? Thankfully, that’s not the case. The founder of Blue Legacy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to our water-based planet, Cousteau grew up on oceanic expeditions helmed by her grandfather Jacques-Yves and father Philippe, and learned to scuba dive at the tender age of seven.
At 33, she is a globally recognized advocate for water conservation and sustainable management. Cousteau produced the inspiring “Expedition: Blue Planet” video series that focuses on a 100-day global expedition that explores water issues; the experience will be the focus of her first book, “This Blue Planet,” to be published by Dutton in 2011.
We spoke to Cousteau as she took a break from promoting Planet Blue’s “Blue August” initiative, in which she and her brother, Philippe, hosted a month’s worth of water-focused programming for the network.
And the irony is all ours. Aquaphobic? No way. Not only does she love the water, Cousteau told us, she even loves swimming with sharks. “There is nothing to fear in the water. I once went diving in the middle of a hundred sharks,” she said. “They were like, ‘Get out of my way, you skinny human. Take your big bottle with you and stop blowing bubbles at me!”
This is a busy month for you!
Yes. I woke up in a tiny little town in Illinois and now I’m in Washington, D.C. It’s one of those days where you don’t know where you are.
Why are you traveling so much these days?
I was in St. Louis last night to give a speech at a water conference, but most of what I’m doing has been for “Blue August.” In the last 40 years we’ve learned more about the oceans than ever before, but we’ve also lost so much. To now have a network devoting a month to water programming is really exciting.
What is “Blue August?”
“Blue August” is the month-long programming initiative on the Planet Green network and online. The whole month is dedicated to water issues. There are online challenges to ban plastic bottles and bags, and specials like one on the huge garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.
Yuck. Have you actually been there?
No, it’s pretty hard to get to. Plus, it’s not as visually impactful as we imagine it to be: The quantity is there but it’s not necessarily seen on the surface. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it moves up the water column because animals consume it. In some places, the surface is carpeted with floating plastic but often it can’t be seen from the surface because it’s dispersed in the water column.
Is that the kind of thing you focus on in “Blue Planet?”
Exactly. “Expedition: Blue Planet” has been a 100-day journey around the world examining water issues. Here in the states we followed the Mississippi River all the way from Illinois to Louisiana where it spills into an 8,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In India we looked at the melting Himalayan glaciers and how that affects the physical, cultural and spiritual well being of the Indian people. In Botswana we saw how important freshwater systems are for the community. In the Middle East we looked at the role of water in diplomacy, cooperation and peace building.
Yes. The next wars could very well be about water, but the assumption that water scarcity will always lead to conflict is not necessarily true. The idea that water scarcity can lead to cooperation under unlikely circumstances was really intriguing to me. We’ll film the last segment in Belize in October.
“Expedition: Planet Blue” is a project of Blue Legacy. We report these issues in two-to-five minute videos that we distribute to our media partners—National Geographic, Current TV, CNN, Treehugger, MNN—to reach the largest number of people. And all 40 of the videos are online at AlexandraCousteau.org.
What was the inspiration for starting Blue Legacy last year?
I realized that just working on ocean conservation is not going to save the oceans. The oceans are under threat from what is happening on land. Not only from climate change but also from urban runoff, agricultural runoff, sedimentation, pollution—all of these things are being determined on land.
We learn about the water cycle in 5th grade but then we completely forget about it. We have to realize that all of our water resources are connected. We forget that there are people downstream from us.
In science, we break things down to their smallest manageable pieces to try to understand them. We’ve fragmented a cycle that supports life on our planet, provides us with food, agriculture, transportation, recreation—you name it, water provides it for us in some way.
So the inspiration for Blue Legacy was really to be able to tell these stories and inspire conversation about how interconnected our water systems are. And to change the perception, so that policy and management and general practices shift to a more holistic view.
In addition to the expedition, we’re hosting a dozen experts across disciplines to discuss water issues and make recommendations for the most urgent, cutting-edge topics—across science, policy and management—that can inform next year’s “Expedition: Blue Planet” and the stories that we tell.
Do you see a future in which there’s a unified organization—sort of like the U.N. of water—that can have a voice in determining international policy in this area? Could Blue Legacy be that organization?
With any kind of organization like the U.N. you start getting into bureaucracy. You’re not nearly as effective as other media strategies could allow you to be. Ultimately, I’m a communicator. I want to be very strategic about how I communicate, utilizing social networking, new media, web 2.0—all of these things. I want the latest and greatest thinkers on these issues to inform that messaging. But I’m not anxious to create such a big organization around us that it starts to be less cutting edge.
It seems like you’re more about delivering the message directly to people than working through established channels.
Totally. It’s all about ideas. And influencing people who are making decisions with those ideas.
At 33, you’ve already done so much to further your cause. Do you think you have a certain responsibility to work in this area because of the work that your father and grandfather have done? Did you ever think about doing something else?
I went on my first expedition when I was four months old; my grandfather taught me to dive when I was seven. I grew up in this world. It’s home for me. But I don’t feel obligated to my family. In my lifetime I’ve seen tremendous changes—and I don’t like those changes. That’s why I’m doing this. I feel an obligation to future generations to protect life today. This community of life has to survive together if it’s going to survive at all.
So no other possible careers? Fashion design, perhaps?
No. This is it.
Okay, let’s talk about fashion. What are your favorite sustainable labels?
I love Linda Loudermilk.
She makes her fabrics from seaweed—that’s fitting!
Yes! I love her designs.
What are the best eco-friendly beauty finds?
Hauschka. I like the body washes from Kiss My Face. Especially the minty morning one, it wakes me up. And the nighttime one is so soothing, I love it!
You’re in the sun all the time. What sunscreen do you use?
I just grab stuff from Whole Foods. Whole Foods is sort of my spot to go buy those kinds of products. I’m not sure of the brand that I have now, but it smells like lavender.
What’s your worst eco-sin?
One that I can’t avoid is the amount of miles that I log each year in transportation. I don’t own a car, I always use public transportation, but the transportation that I use most often is a plane. There’s only so much that I can do to offset that.
Do you buy carbon offsets?
Yes, through Climate Clean. I offset as much as I can but it only goes so far.
What’s the biggest green change you’d like to make in your life—even if it’s impossible right now?
I wish I could frequent more organic restaurants when I travel but they’re just not there. I travel so much and eat out so much—I really think I would feel better if I knew that the food that I was eating was organic, and free of pesticides and steroids and hormones and all that other crap. I wish I could eat lower on the food chain.
What’s your favorite eco-friendly tip our readers should know about?
Be mindful of the quantity of water that you use in your home. Lower that as much as possible. Turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth or shave. Water the garden in the evening so it doesn’t evaporate. Use a pool cover so the water doesn’t evaporate. There are a million ways to use less water.
I also think being a role model for family and friends is important as well. Learn about the issues. Support local organizations that are trying to monitor water quality and clean up water areas.
Who’s your eco-idol and why?
That would have to be my grandfather. His thinking about the environment was so revolutionary and new and ahead of its time. He created the innovation that was needed for us to be able to explore the oceans in a way that we hadn’t been able to before. And what he was talking about in the 60s is so relevant today. We’re just now touching on issues that he brought up 50 years ago. That kind of thinking has been a real inspiration to me.