Like many baby boomers, I could be found on Sunday evenings in the 1970s, cozied up to the television, watching a gnarly red-capped Frenchman exploring the depths of the ocean. The opening music to “The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau” — full of violins and trumpets, with a playful xylophone riff — conveyed a sense of adventure and wonder that was unmatched by any other television show at the time.
The series inspired me to pursue a career as a marine biologist. Although that did not come to pass, I write about aquatic science, which is just about as good.
Like many young girls who watched the program, I had a crush on Cousteau’s son, Philippe. His other son, Jean-Michel, was okay, but Philippe – oooh la la! I was devastated when he died in an aircraft crash. And I thought Calypso crewman Falco had the coolest name.
Even as a poor college student, I donated money to the Cousteau Society and followed their adventures after the television show no longer aired.
So it was inevitable that I attended a talk last week by Philippe’s daughter, Alexandra. She was the keynote speaker at a celebration in Superior, Wisconsin, for the Lake Superior Research Institute.
The leggy blonde, whose mother was a model, is coming into her own as an icon for water issues. She founded a water organization, called Blue Legacy International, and was honored by the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer.
Her talk centered on the theme of the importance of conservation and sustainable management of water for a healthy planet. However, Cousteau doesn’t like the word “sustainable.” She thinks that to most people, it means they must sacrifice something to achieve it, and that what is achieved is only marginal, not like things were before environmental problems happened.
The status of the oceans before humans started impacting it was one of abundance – huge schools of fish, giant pods of dolphins, a bay covered with oysters. Cousteau argued that we should have a vision of abundance instead of one of meager sustainability. It’s something people can be more enthused about and it’s an easier concept to imagine.
Given the realities of human abundance on the planet, this may be a pipe dream. But what a happy pipe dream!
Cousteau also thinks we focus too much on the environmental problems that exist and not on the vision we want to achieve. She gave the example of a tip from her downhill ski instructor, who told her not to look at the trees while she was skiing. “Because that’s where you’ll end up.” He advised her to focus instead on where she wanted to go.
Since I had just listened to a talk about sustainability by Andrew Revkin, I found Cousteau’s concept of abundance intriguing. I think those two should get together and compare notes, if they haven’t already!
I didn’t have my notebook with me, so am writing this all from memory. Two other things that struck me were her story about a child who was banned from watching the Cousteau TV show, and her story about how she learned scuba diving from her grandfather, Jacques.
Cousteau said that people usually gush about her grandfather’s television show (much like I did at the beginning of this post). But a man who attended one of her talks said he would get too excited by impending peril in the underwater adventures. When Cousteau would enter a cave filled with sharks, the boy would jump up and down on the couch, yelling at the divers not to go into the cave. He’d end up hyperventilating every episode until his parents took matters in hand and banned him from watching the show. Funny!
Cousteau said she learned how to swim before she could walk. At age seven, Jacques decided she was old enough to learn how to scuba dive (a technology he invented). As she sat on the edge of the boat, getting used to the regulator in her mouth and the gear on her body, she decided she didn’t like it. She was about to tell Jacques that she didn’t want to do it when he gave her a little push, and into the water she went. The undersea world has captivated her ever since.
Cousteau’s talk ended with a question and answer session. One of the last questions came from a tearful fifteen-year-old. She said that the students in her high school were all pessimistic and hopeless about the environment. She wanted to know how to offer them hope.
After taking a moment to compose herself, Cousteau, who was tearing up too, offered stories about things that are making the environment better. But perhaps, sensing the inadequacy of this in the light of teenage angst, offered to continue the conversation with the girl through her web site.
By now, most of the crowd was wiping away tears, including the director of the Lake Superior Research Institute, who closed the session in a choked voice.
Like her grandfather, this Cousteau has the ability to move people with her storytelling. I hope she inspires a whole ‘nother army of marine biologists and aquatic scientists. And a whole bunch of people who can tell the story of the environment, showing us where to go without crashing into the trees along the way.