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Carrie Vonderhaar/Ocean Futures Society

Don’t give up the ship.

The late “Commander” Jacques Cousteau’s vision to create a planet where the ocean is venerated continues to impact mankind today, thanks in large part to the actions of his son, Jean-Michel Cousteau. For example, on Earth Day 1997, Jean-Michel led the first live, undersea video chat from the coral reefs of Fiji. In 2002 he became the first person to represent the environment at the opening ceremonies of an Olympic games. And now, through his nonprofit Ocean Futures Society (created to honor his father’s philosophy) and his Ambassadors of the Environment program, the Cousteau legacy of environmental awareness thrives. As Earth Day approaches April 22, American Way talked with Jean-Michel during a recent visit at Ocean Futures’ Santa Barbara, Calif., headquarters.

Bet You Didn’t Know…

•People at home use more than 1/3 of all energy.

•Each person throws away approximately 4 pounds of garbage a day.

•Approximately million tons of oil produced in the world each year end up in the ocean.

•It takes 90% less energy to recycle aluminum cans than to make new ones.

•Energy saved from one recycled aluminum can will operate a TV for hours and is the equivalent of half a can of gasoline.

•Every ton of recycled office paper saves 380 gallons of oil.

•Turning down your central heating thermostat one degree cuts fuel consumption by as much as 10%

American Way: After 42 years, Earth Day seems to be at a plateau, like complacency has seeped into the critical mass. Would you agree?
Jean-Michel Cousteau: We need to reframe it, look at it financially. If you recycle and use energy wisely — turn off lights when not in use, for example — you save money. You can use that differential to improve your standard of living on the same income. I’d like people to understand that saving greenbacks and the planet’s green stuff isn’t mutually exclusive.

AW: What about the increase in eco-militant activist groups? Friends or foes?
JMC: I believe completely in diplomacy. With Ocean Futures, we’ve realized you get somewhere when you engage in dialogue and communicate effectively. Diplomacy, communication and education define our strategy. That’s how you affect change — in the environment or otherwise.

AW: How do you educate?
JMC: Three ways: Through our Ambassadors of the Environment* program and our Sustainable Rainforests and Sustainable Reefs programs. The latter two emphasize the importance of protecting water sources and the ocean. It’s time to stop using them as trash cans. I filmed a PBS documentary in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, 1,200 miles from Kauai. I was on an island in the middle of nowhere and found debris — I counted — from 52 countries: metals, plastic, glass …

AW: Obviously some people don’t care. How do you change that, encourage the I-did-it-my-way generation to go green?
JMC: By building the belief that by caring for the environment, we care for each other. We can serve others. Every day I wake up and think what a privilege it is to be alive on this planet, then think about what I can do to help those who don’t yet feel that privilege. Earth Day to me is every day. I suggest people adopt that attitude, use environmental stewardship as a way to reach out to others.

*Ambassador programs are available at select Ritz-Carltons, including Grand Cayman; Laguna Niguel, Calif.; and Kapalua, Maui, as well as in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Catalina Island and onboard select cruise ships. Visit www.oceanfutures.org
AW: Social media seems like an effective way to get that message out, yes?
JMC: Rapid communication and technology have changed Earth Day. Information about environmental issues hits the public instantaneously. That’s good. The “everything is connected” theory has gotten out; people get that now. At the end of the day, we protect what we love. We need to work on protecting other things like the environment. With Ocean Futures, we tell people if you protect the ocean, you protect yourself. That applies to everyone. No water equals no life. More than 4,000 kids die each day because of no access to clean water**. So if you ever think Earth Day or environmentalism is worthless, go look into the eyes of a 5-year-old. Are you — we — going to give up? No.

**Information courtesy of UNICEF