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The Power of Story: Conversations with Philippe Cousteau

By: Brent Kim

Today marks what would have been the 102nd birthday of Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

My father had a knack for finding horseshoe crabs. He’d spot one scuttling along the sand beneath shallow waves, then lift it up by its armored hull—leaving eight chitinous legs and a piercing tail (not intended for combative purposes, as I later learned) waving in the air, searching for stable ground. Those childhood visits to New England beaches fostered my appreciation for the wonders of the natural world.

I recently asked Philippe Cousteau about his first memories of the ocean. When he was six, his mother took him and his sister, Alexandra, to Hawaii. Every day, they ran down to play in tidal pools where they found crabs, tiny fishes and a myriad of other critters left behind by the receding tide. It was, in his words, “a journey of wonder and discovery.” It is perhaps no surprise that Philippe has grown to become one of the leading advocates for the health of aquatic ecosystems.

If the name “Cousteau” rings synonymous with “ocean,” you may have grown up watching the televised adventures of Philippe’s grandfather, legendary explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau. Philippe and his sister, Alexandra, carry forth the Cousteau legacy through the work of EarthEcho International—a nonprofit founded in honor of their father, Philippe Cousteau Sr., famous son of Jacques Yves. EarthEcho International’s mission is “to empower youth to take action that restores and protects our water planet.”

I recently had the privilege of working with Philippe and his team on two projects. The first was an action guide for middle- and high-school educators entitled What’s on Your Fork, about the links between food, water and health. You can read about Philippe’s inspiration for the action guide in his recent Huffington Post interview. The second was a webinar, on the same topics, offered through Discovery Education. For both of these projects, I drew heavily from the materials we developed as part of Teaching the Food System, a free curriculum for high school educators.

As a follow-up to our recent collaborations, I wanted to learn more from Philippe about what guides his work. He kindly donated his time for this interview.

Brent Kim: Your presence on CNN, BBC, the Discovery Network and other major media outlets has proven your abilities as a communicator. You serve a crucial role, given the need to reach the public with clear messages about public health and environmental conservation. What have you found to be the most effective way of engaging your audience?

Philippe Cousteau: I always find that the most effective way for us is through story—using story as a means to excite and engage the public. Facts and figures are hard for people to relate to, but people can relate to people. It’s important to provide learning experiences that are tied to personal narratives, as opposed to presenting flat-out information.

BK: But you embed facts within the story.

PC: Exactly. It’s critical. Story has been the language of learning for millennia. Research tells us that we don’t tend to remember information well if it’s not presented in a compelling story—if it doesn’t have conflict, characters and all the things that have been part of how we passed on knowledge, as a species, for [most] of our existence. The practice of using data as a primary means of communicating has only been around for a blink of an eye.

BK: It’s as though storytelling is in our genes.

PC: Absolutely.

BK: Part of our work at the Center for a Livable Future is about creating awareness of the connections between food, public health, equity and the environment. But for many people, I think food is just food—issues like climate change and the diversity of life in our oceans often seem so far removed from what’s on our plate.  How can we better help our audiences visualize and understand how different parts of the food system are related?

PC: For us, a big part of our strategy is focusing on young people. We so often find that young people are much more receptive to new ideas, to changing the way they look at the world before they become too entrenched. You know the old saying—you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I think we, as a movement, have to do a better job of empowering young people to understand these connections and these issues.

There’s one story about youth that really influenced me. While covering the Gulf oil spill, I was talking to a group of elementary school students in Tennessee. Oil was still spilling into the Gulf. I told them a story about the spill; they responded with lots of questions. I then asked them, “Who do you think is going to clean up this mess?” These students—they were between four and six years old—turned to me and said, “We will.”

It was a powerful moment for me. Adults were trading blame, some were saying it’s not a big deal, some were saying we were going to fix it easily, some were saying it wasn’t going to affect the Gulf that much. But these kids—they understood that this was going to be a long-term disaster. They understood that it was going to be, unfortunately, their responsibility. They knew they were going to get stuck with the bill, so to speak.

I truly have faith in the power of young people—especially when it comes to food. I get irritated when I talk to adults about the programs we’re doing and they say, “Kids just want pizza.” I get frustrated that we would relegate children to unhealthy food simply because we think that’s all they want. It’s disrespectful. Kids don’t always want to go to school either—so should we not teach them math and history because we think they don’t want to learn it? And in many cases, kids do like school, and kids do like healthy food! When we did that webinar, Brent, you remember we asked what foods kids love—we got a litany of answers that included avocados, leafy greens, and a diversity of fruits! Granted some of the responses were pizza, but at the end of the day, I really felt like kids are savvier than we give them credit for.

Part of our approach… is to focus on young people, and work with them to empower adults. Youth have a huge influence on consumerism, and on their parents. These are just some of the strategies that we employ to make a positive difference in our work.

BK: Marketing agencies are aware of that, too—they’re working on their end to capitalize on the buying power of youth.

PC: They certainly are. I have an acquaintance who works in Latin America. They own the rights to market a major U.S. cookie brand. I remember he asked me once, “Why do you think we put the cookies on the lower shelves? We don’t put them on the higher shelves for the parents. Our distributors put them on the lower shelves so the kids look at them and say, ‘Mom, Dad, I want cookies!’” That’s a perfect example, to me, of how marketing companies leverage the power that youth have over food choices. The fact that we, as an environmental movement, have largely neglected to recognize this power is very unfortunate and shortsighted.

BK: Any words of advice for young people looking to follow in your footsteps?

PC: I tell them that no matter what their interests are, to study communications: to give lectures, speak at their university, work with different forms of media, learn how to speak in public and to tell a good story. When people are asked what they are most afraid of, they often rank public speaking above death. I tell people to follow their passion, first and foremost; they’ll be better at their work if they love it. But I also tell them to study communications. That’s my universal message.

At the end of the day, what do I do? I’m a storyteller. That’s my job. I’m not a scientist, and I never claim to be a policy expert. I have a degree in history. I don’t have a degree in science. It’s really about telling stories.

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