Alexandra Cousteau, the Ocean Ambassador (Podcast)
TreeHugger: The White House is telling us that we're through the worst of it. Do you think that there is cause for optimism, or is the destruction really just beginning?
Costeau: It's hard to know. I know that the good people at NOAA--and probably everyone in the administration--is horrified by what happened. In my conversation with people from those agencies and from the White House, they are working overtime to try to fix it, to try to find solutions, to try to find a way to clean up the oil, to restore the environment, and to support the economies of these communities that have been wiped out by this. But I think even with the best of intentions, we are going to be looking at a much longer recuperation than anyone is probably admitting to today.
When I was down in Alabama, there was a little girl that reminded me of myself in some ways. I had no idea that Alabama had such beautiful white sand beaches and beautiful, beautiful ocean. But when we were there, there were tar balls washing ashore, and there was oil in the water. There was this little girl that was seven years old. She was standing on the beach, looking at the water, obviously wishing that she could go and play in the water. She was surrounded on all sides by big pickup trucks and people in hazmat suits. It was just surreal to see this.
It reminded me of when I was seven years old and my grandfather was teaching me to scuba dive in the Mediterranean. We had this game that we would play at the Monaco Aquarium where he was the steward king and I was the mermaid princess. We would go into the aquarium and look at all the tank fish, and he would teach me about stewardship and about how important all of these different individuals were in the biodiversity of the oceans, and how important it was for us to understand that, take care of it and protect it.
Spending time in the ocean, for me, was such a revelation. It really shaped how I understand our world, how I understand our oceans and nature. I spend as much time as I can diving and near water, in a large part, because of those childhood memories.
I looked at this little girl on the beach and I realized that now for her, unless her family's able to take her to go somewhere else, is just not an option anymore.
And so, we can look at the economic impact. We can look at fisheries. We can look at all of these very important indicators of whether or not the oil spill has been dealt with effectively. But I don't know if we can really calculate the impact that it has on a culture, or on childhood memories, or on the experiences that shape us as a society.
Alabama gets most of its revenue from tourism, which took a huge hit after the Gulf spill. And so, as I was looking at that child I was wondering, will her school have enough funding in the years to come to give her the best education that she can get? Maybe not.
And so, when you start thinking about the impact of the spill in that respect, then it becomes clear that there's a lot that hasn't been accounted for. That's why I said it will have inter-generational impacts, I think.
The quality of life and the way we experience through water, through our oceans and our coastal areas in the Gulf is going to be changed for a long time. If you destroy water in a community, in many ways you destroy really key parts of that community.
That's why I'm hoping people will start to realize from this spill that we need to assess the risks we take very differently, because I don't think we need to take risks this way to have the benefits that we seek.
Treehugger: One of the biggest questions is whether there is enough drinkable water available on the planet. There are all sorts of technological solutions out there. Are there any easy answers? What's so tricky about ensuring that there's enough fresh water for people to drink?
Cousteau: I think water as a resource is going to be the defining challenge of our time. And we have challenges coming up that we've never had before. I mean all the years that we have been building infrastructure, managing water, thinking about how to move it from here to there, and who gets what; we've never really had to deal with the reality of climate change.
And we've never had to deal with explosive population growth that the world is experiencing; or the kind of runoff and pollution that that population growth, and the industries, farms, and fisheries that support it produce.
I think the most important thing for us to think about moving forward is the idea of managing our water systems as systems, from the head where the snowfall meets the ground and mountains create rivulets and streams, to where they all come together to form a river. Then that river washes salt off the land and irrigates our fields and brings water to our children and our towns and our cities before creating a delta, then an estuary, and then reaching the ocean.
These systems need to be really intact. We can't fragment them to advance our agendas, because by doing so we impoverish ourselves, we impoverish the land and we impoverish the availability of water that we have.
And these water systems are really what protect the quality and the quantity of the water it provides for us. And I think, increasingly, people are realizing that water is a resource that does define the quality of our lives. Understanding that water is interconnected, that it's a resource that we share, that we are all drinking some way or another, that for me is what the Cousteau legacy is all about.
And I think that people want to be part of that. They want to be part of protecting water. They understand that water is their life support system and they want to understand the system that protects it and makes it available to us.
And the reason I do what I do is because I've traveled ever since I was a little, little girl. And I want to bring that to others. I want to help them to explore the world through our traditions, and find things that are worth protecting, too. And that's why we are stopping in these communities and having these conversations.
Desalination is very expensive. It has consequences for the marine environment that we can mitigate but not get rid of. And it uses an enormous amount of energy. And the production of that energy fuels climate change which continues to shift the availability of water around our world, making drier places drier and wet places wetter.
We have water recycling that we can do. We actually take sewage and purify it through reverse osmosis and ionization and filtration. In fact it's so clean it's beyond drinkable. It's just so pure that you actually have to put minerals back in so that it's bio-available to the human body. That takes less energy, and I think it's a much smarter way to go.
But honestly, the best thing we can do is use our water wisely and conserve it, use it more efficiently. Seventy percent of our water use goes to agriculture, and many of the irrigation techniques that farmers are using today aren't as efficient as they could be.
So becoming more efficient, using it wisely, using it carefully, making sure that we recycle as much as we can, that we prevent toxic chemicals from getting into our water resources -- all of that is part of the bigger picture of the solution set we have available.