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A Life Aquatic


Third-generation conservationist Alexandra Cousteau upholds a family tradition


By David Zuckerman


It should come as no surprise that even before she could walk, Alexandra Cousteau had sailed high seas with a crew of deep-sea divers. Her grandfather, after all, was the legendary explorer and filmmaker Jacques; her father Philippe was a renowned diver and filmmaker in his own right, serving as Jacque’s second in command until his untimely death in a car accident in 1979 (Alexandra was three, at the time, her brother, Philippe Jr., months from birth). 

Though they had lost their father, Alexandra and her brother nonetheless grew up surrounded by people who made protecting and enjoying the natural world their life’s work. Today, the siblings strive to uphold that legacy, working as conservationists, educators, and heads of the nonprofit EarthEcho International. (You can also see Philippe on the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet.) Founded in 2000, EarthEcho uses educational, multimedia, and community-based programs to promote environmentally conscious behavior. Plenty caught up with Alexandra, now 31, to discuss EarthEcho’s psychological approach to environmentalism and how her famous family has influenced her work.  

 

What do you hope to accomplish through EarthEcho?

My brother [Philippe] and I started EarthEcho because we believe that every choice you make has an impact on our world. We see that as a very empowering message and want people to feel excited, knowledgeable, and empowered about making sustainable choices on a daily basis.

It looks like, with your focus on positive reinforcement, you’re using tactics inspired by consumer product marketing.

We’ve done work with the Institute for Learning Innovation and other groups that are focused on understanding, from the perspective of behavioral psychology and social marketing, how people learn, and how they change their behavior. Habits are ingrained, and it’s hard to get people to change, especially when they feel powerless. In our experience, if you get somebody to make a change and then celebrate what they’re doing and make them advocates for creating change elsewhere, that seems to be something that works.

So there’s a real psychological component to what you’re doing. You’re not just trying to educate people but to change how they think.

Absolutely. Right now there’s a disconnect in people’s minds between what happens in the environment and what we do. And that’s what we need to address.

Do you or EarthEcho ever get involved on the policy side?

We don’t want to repeat the work of other organizations. We really want environmentalism to become mainstream and part of popular culture, because that’s when things happen. That’s why we’re a storytelling organization. People don’t relate to data, they don’t relate to animals, unless they’ve been anthropomorphized, they relate to people and they relate to stories. We tell the stories of people who are doing things for the environment so we can add value to their work and get their stories out there to have an impact on people.

So have you always known that you wanted to do this kind of work?

I first went on expedition when I was four months old. For me, it’s been my whole life. My brother and I have such a sense of responsibility and respect for the legacy that our father left us. I don’t think either one of us ever imagined ever doing everything else.

I know you lost your father when you were very young. Did you and Philippe spend a lot of time with your grandfather? Were you close to him?

We were, absolutely. Not having a father, he was very important to us. He would talk to us about so many things that were just so fascinating; he made the world a miracle. We think of him often in what we do, though I would say that our father was probably our greatest inspiration. The reason that we’re doing what we’re doing is to continue his work and his legacy.