Philippe Cousteau Talks About How Far Environmentalism has Come, and Where it's Going


This guest post was written by Philippe Cousteau, Co-Founder and President of EarthEco, in celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day.
TreeHugger: What are the major advances have you seen (in your field) during the past 40 years? What, if any, were the major failures

Philippe Cousteau: There have been many major advances during the last 40 years, but the most significant is that I am writing this blog for a major online network dedicated to the environment. Networks like Treehugger and Planet Green which are dedicated to "green" would not have been conceivable just a decade ago.Environmentalists were seen as sandal wearing, granola eating hippies for the majority of the 20th century and being green was often perceived as a passing fancy sulking on the fringes of society. That has finally changed. Green is no longer the hobby of eccentric nature lovers...it is a big (and growing) part of popular culture as people realize that a healthy environment is critical to a healthy society not to mention a healthy economy. Evidence of this trend can be found in the public's reaction to the latest economic downturn. Over the last 50 years of the modern environmental movement, every time the economy has gone into a recession, often the first thing to get eliminated from the popular discourse is the environment. The refrain is always the same, "a time of economic downturn is no time to worry about the environment." Instead, growth has been the mantra, growth at all costs which often meant throwing environmental caution to the wind. Public polls consistently supported this opinion that recession meant we had no time for the "luxury" of conservation.

Finally...something has changed. During the latest economic crisis the opposite happened. While the country suffered from a terrible recession, some would argue the worst since the Great Depression of 1929, talk of green did not die. In fact, it seemed to grow as politicians and businesses alike began to advocate that going green was not just an environmental strategy but an economic one as well. From green jobs to clean energy the tone has changed. While it is true that some still proclaim that conservation is a surefire way to kill the economy and desperately cling to the notion that a carbon fueled economy that poisons our air, the lungs of our children and our water is still the wisest course, the tides seems to be turning. This is especially true amongst the young. I travel the country lecturing and working with over 100,000 youth a year and I can tell you from personal experience that a new generation is maturing, one that is more engaged, empowered and ready to act than any that has come before it. They see the coming challenges and are facing them head on with a determination and drive that should give us all great hope for the future. That is true change and shows that we are making progress.

As for failures there have been many but perhaps the most serious is that while we have made progress on environmental education and conservation we are still struggling with a public (at least those over 25 yrs old) which is almost evenly split between those who think climate change is real and those who do not. Despite the fact that an overwhelming amount of science supports the climate change reality, we are rarely a science driven society either politically or socially. Instead it often seems we prefer pithy soundbites that support our worldview rather than intelligent arguments that challenge us to learn and expand our understanding and the media is no different. This morning I picked up a major national newspaper and as I flipped to the metro section I was greeted by a large picture of a Koi fish. The cover story was about the National Arboretum in Washington DC and how they were conducting their annual Koi fish auction. It wasn't until I glanced down at the article that was unceremoniously squeezed beneath extensive coverage of a fish sale and the bottom of the page that I found what I was looking for, a brief story covering one of the most incredible achievements of human kind. This weekend, in addition to being the groundbreaking time when a national institution auctions off oversized goldfish, is also the time that we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Trieste descending to the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest point on earth 7 miles beneath the shiny waves of the Pacific Ocean. Only two men have ever gone that deep in the history of all humanity, and that was 50 years ago! I was fortunate to attend a gala last night with some of the world's leading scientists, filmmakers, and explorers; people who have changed the face of our understanding and pushed back the limits of human knowledge often forging ahead in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Don Walsh and Jacques Picard both risked their lives to descend that deep, only the former is still alive and he graced us with his humble and brilliant presence at the events. More men have landed on the moon than have landed on the deepest part of our own planet and that...I would argue...is perhaps our greatest failure. That despite the progress I wrote about earlier, we are a still struggling to recognize that this planet and all its wonder should be valued above all else. Pop stars and sports figures are fine but we should equally value those who continue to fight for a more just, enlightened and hopeful future. Teachers, scientists, explorers and the like are heroes that walk amongst us every day and deserve more than a passing mention at the bottom of the newspaper.

TH: What does a bright green future look like in this field?

PC: A bright green future means that we transition from a carbon based society as soon as possible. That is the most critical thing we can do. From air pollution (that causes the deaths of 25,000 people in the US each year alone) to climate change and ocean acidification, the output of carbon into the atmosphere threatens our existence like no other challenge we have ever faced. My field is environmental education, exploration and conservation and my utopian vision of the future is a society empowered with the knowledge and tools to move beyond petty arguments and realize that we must all take action in our daily lives. We must all take action to build the sustainable world that we all dream of and that our children deserve.

TH: How would we realistically transition into that sort of ideal situation? That is, how should we move forward in this field to try to reach this goal?

PC: There are millions of individuals in this country with a great deal of free time and an overwhelming desire to take action to make their communities and their planet better; an army of willing individuals who have are quietly changing the world but who need more help if they are to reach their full potential. Who are these agents of change? Look around you, I have no doubt you encounter them everyday...you may even have them in your home. That's right...youth. A year ago I had the opportunity to work with a group of three middle school boys who as part of a service project in their community did some research and found that lead wheel weights through improper disposal cause a considerable amount of lead pollution in the environment. These young men took matters into their own hands and worked tirelessly to pass a law in the state of Iowa to phase out lead wheel weights on state vehicles in the state. Later, the EPA sited their program as one of the reasons they are re-assessing their position on lead wheel weights; a development that will affect 300 million Americans. I have seen other projects as well, from elementary school students in South Florida growing a garden and selling the produce into the local community to a high school reducing their green house gas emissions by several tons each year in Seattle. We must cease to see youth as a burden on society with nothing to contribute until they are adults. On top of their personal action, youth have tremendous influence over consumer behavior in this country and are a driving force behind not only their own purchases but those of their parents and peers. We must continue to push forward education reform that brings effective and experiential education to all and gives our youth the knowledge and tools to engage in their communities and take action for a healthier and more equitable water planet. As the Greek philosopher Plato once wrote "youth are not vessels to be filled but flames to be lit." Realizing this fact and acting accordingly would take us a long way towards a greener more sustainable future for all of us.

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