Applying Jacques Cousteaus wisdom

This guest post is by John Englander, former CEO of The Cousteau Society.

June 11th, marks Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s 100th birthday. “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” television specials were the “must-see TV” of the 60’s and 70’s. The “Captain” and his team aboard the Calypso enthralled us. For many generations, he was the exemplification of a conservationist, who was also a genius at communication. While he may be remembered as the premier underwater explorer, he actually evolved to focus on broader concerns for the planet, its inhabitants, and their quality of life.

I keep thinking back to a private conversation we had, even before he hired me as CEO of The Cousteau Society.

It was January 1997, when I had the privilege to spend several days with him. He was the honoree at a fundraising dinner for Ocean Futures, a nonprofit that I chaired.  Cousteau shared some insights from his vast experience that suggest a different approach to changing public policies. While it could apply to most any issue, I am struck by the application to the current challenge of greenhouse gases and energy sources.

At age 86 Jacques was deeply concerned about the planet that we were leaving to future generations, with issues ranging from a deteriorating ocean, to fresh water supplies, to climate change. Several conversations focused on the challenge of changing public awareness and policy. Late one night I asked, “How do we change the world?” With a dismissive wave of his hand, in his distinctive French accent, he began:

Forget the politicians–they all think short term….  But there is something I have found that works. Identify an issue with a campaign that has emotional appeal. Advocate a specific policy. Get letters, petitions, and faxes.  With thousands of signatures, the politicians will join the parade–No–they will try to lead the parade.

I did this three times with success.  To push for the Antarctic treaty; to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific; and to promote a new legal concept at the U.N., ‘The Rights of Future Generations.’ We must appeal to the public directly with a powerful message and tie it to a specific action or change in policy. I think this is the only way.

How direct and sensible. Cousteau’s guidance was to build strong public support for a particular policy, in order to create the political backing for it. Contrast that with the current efforts to prevent devastating climate change by mid-century. We find ourselves advocating passage of complex legislation, without even being able to explain what’s in it. Or we advocate a goal such as a 20% reduction in greenhouse gases, but without developing public support for a clear way to achieve it.

It is widely accepted that the key driver of climate change is increased greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically the greatly elevated CO2 level is wreaking havoc with the oceans that Cousteau worked so hard to protect.  The effects range from coral bleaching, to ocean acidification, to sea level rise. I believe the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions is to institute a pricing mechanism. We need a coordinated sustained campaign to develop popular support for one, so that the lobbyists are not the only presence on Capitol Hill.

Cousteau’s final advice was to engage the public by means of petitions–now greatly facilitated by the Internet. His experience was that politicians will likely join the parade, once they see grass roots enthusiasm for a new policy. Individuals and organizations can state their clear support for a carbon pricing policy, starting now. The commemoration of his 100th birthday is a good time to apply his insight and wisdom to the climate challenge–the one that will determine the viability of our ocean planet.

John Englander, former CEO of The Cousteau Society, now consults and advises about climate change and ocean impacts; his website is

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22 Responses to Applying Jacques Cousteaus wisdom

  1. catman306 says:

    We all must do whatever we can to change this fossil fuel empire into a sustainable future. Please someone, start a petition. Start many petitions. Get the politicians on board. If the human race has any future at all it will be a sustainable one. Stop subsidizing non-sustainable energy because it has no future. Put subsidies into sustainable energy sources. (Solar, bio-mass, wind, tidal, and geothermal.)

    Get BP out of the Gulf of Mexico. Keep them out. And the rest of the multi-nationals, too, because apparently they don’t live on planet Earth and have no concerns about its failing health.

  2. I recently posted a nice primer on Ocean Acidification for those that would like to learn more about the topic:

    The 800 lb. Gorilla in the Ocean

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks for the great post, John.

    I remember watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” quite often when I was growing up. He had a big influence on me.

    I agree, of course, with putting a price on carbon. And I agree that a public movement is necessary — one that is informed and supported by campaigns and grassroots activity and so forth. And, I agree that simplicity is beauty and that it’s tough to build passionate public support for legislation that is so complicated that the public can’t understand it. “Do you support the 123XYQ bill?” “Well, if you could explain to me how the 123XYQ bill actually works, and what it is, then I might be able to even begin to think about it!”

    The need for a carbon price is obvious, and the economics profession (and others) have a deep responsibility to the public and to humankind to explain clearly why that is so, to people who don’t understand markets.

    (It’s interesting that many people who are “champions” of markets and who claim to understand how markets work do not want a price on carbon and think that the market can address climate change without a mechanism that would result in a “price” for carbon — or rather for GHG emissions. Let’s have economists and others clear up that confusion!)

    Something is necessary.

    Also, although communications and “petitions” on the internet are nice, they do not replace, or have the personal force of, thick printed-and-signed petitions with thousands of real signatures, and they do not replace or have the motivating force of “marching in the streets”. As I wrote in a recent comment on another thread, “Nero stayed in his comfort zone while Rome burned”.



  4. mike roddy says:

    Scott, thanks for that link, it’s great.

    I’m with Jeff on having been influenced by Cousteau from watching his TV show. Seeing his photo, and remembering his gentle, inspiring demeanor, got me all emotional. We desperately need more men and women like him.

  5. Raul says:

    Much of the noble classes were happy to have the poor servant class
    in close walking distance. It made for better service, as the servent
    didn’t need as much food for a long journey to work or to use so much
    time for travel.
    With sanctions against those who would speak about conditions nearby
    in the servant slums grew more sustainable, the servant living conditions worsened. When the fires of the slums grew, the mansions of the wealthy also burned. The great fire wasn’t the first fire that Rome faced
    because of such.
    So, yes Nero should have known better.

  6. Erin S. says:

    I’m all about supporting a carbon pricing policy. Where do you recommend my friends and I sign such petitions? Thanks for sharing with us John.

  7. Adrian says:

    Jeff and Mike, Cousteau was a big influence on my life, too. A hero, and I never use that word lightly.

    Yes, a price on carbon. Would a bunch of small petitions work, from many parts of the US?

    We Americans are locked in a co-dependent relationship with the oil companies. Petitions won’t do it alone. We must also change our habits.

    If we were all to drive 10% less (from Craig Comstock), if we had carless days each week (as in Meatless Monday), if we committed to walking or biking on journeys less than a mile–the impact would be huge.

    The trick is persuading large numbers of people to do these things, to make it socially desirable. Start a “think twice before you drive” campaign. It could happen: look what’s happened to smoking in public places.

    If each reader reduces driving and then persuades friends and family to do so, and they do likewise, a chain reaction could get going. That would do quite a bit to ease our country’s need to let big oil rule energy policy.

  8. Chris Winter says:

    I never missed a Cousteau TV special back in the 1960s and ’70s, and was a member of the Cousteau Society. Thanks for the post, the blog, and the memories, John.

    I think it’s appropriate to add this bit of remembrance:
    John Denver — Calypso

    And this also seems timely:

  9. What A nice and timely surprise!

    As a (recent) former staff of the Cousteau Society, I am delighted to see that you make the link on this special day!
    Others do, too : on June 8, 2010, the US House of Representatives agreed 354-0 to Resolution 518 “honoring the life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, explorer, researcher, and pioneer in the field of marine conservation,”.

    Commenting on the resolution, president of The Cousteau Society Francine Cousteau noted that “it was introduced by the Representative from Florida, a state that is being directly exposed to the consequences of the terrible oil spill that resulted from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig”…

    …and conclude with these words that should please all here :

    “In the spirit of this Resolution, the Cousteau Society supports all those elected officials in America and elsewhere who help make possible the emergence of clean and safe energies.”

    Thanks to Joe Romm and guest author John Englander for the post!

  10. What follows is a “bolus of insight” from a great poet regarding a breach between a civilization and “the strong earth”.

    The Purse-seine, by Robinson Jeffers, 1937

    …….I cannot tell you
    How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible,
    then, when the crowded fish
    Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall
    to the other of their closing destiny the
    Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body
    sheeted with flame, like a live rocket
    A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside
    the narrowing
    Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up
    to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls
    of night
    Stand erect to the stars.

    Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
    On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light:
    how could I help but recall the seine-net
    Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how
    beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
    I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
    into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now
    There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
    of free survival, insulated
    From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
    dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
    Is being hauled in…….

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, est. 2001

  11. paulm says:

    This is why I know that we will not solve the AGW issue – human nature, however, I still hope we might though.

    Can you believe huge corporation like Mitsubishi are trying to fish Tuna to extinction so that their horded stock pile will increase in value! Makes me cry and hang my head in shame.

    Time for a system reset maybe?

  12. Dan B says:


    Thanks for the reminder of the major initiatives Jacques Cousteau undertook.

    A friend of mine who worked in marine biology used to call him “Jacques So-So”. It was a dig by an elite scientist against someone who understood the enormous importance of communicating with the average person.

    What I feel is important to communicate these days are the exciting new developments in clean renewable energy and wise energy use. They’ll make us healthier by reducing pollution, make us more comfortable in our homes and businesses by increasing fresh air and producing a more comfortable temperature (insulated walls and high efficiency windows are more comfortable to be near during hot or cold weather), and it will create more jobs.

    We’d all benefit from a regular program on TV and/or the internet demonstrating renewable energy projects around the world, especially one that had the same level of enthusiasm for exploration and discovery that was a hallmark of Jacques Cousteau’s TV programs.

  13. John Englander says:

    Thanks for all the good feedback. As for Erin’s good question about where to start with “petitions.” I am going to do some work on that shortly. Please register at my website for updates. In the meantime, simply write your representatives. Emails are easy way to do it. At least in the US, they are facilitated on the and web sites. Also is a good place to get involved.

  14. PeterW says:

    The problem is the MSM and the PR industry have found ways to circumvent the groundswell of the people. A perfect example of this is the protests against the war in Iraq. They were very large but you would never know this from media coverage.

    The recent Tea Party movement is another example of how things are different today. This fake grassroots organization was put together by industry hacks, lobbyists and PR flunkies to thwart the Obama administration. Sure they found a flock of sheep to follow them but the top of the organization is all money. And you can believe they will be very useful countering any groundswell for climate action. As long as there’s a perceived opposition to your movement, the politicians will not take you seriously.

    What’s not mentioned is that you need a media that’s willing to ask the tough questions. As we all know, those days are long gone.

    And finally, haven’t groups like been trying to do exactly what this article suggests?

    I don’t have any magic answers, but maybe we should start with the media boycott Jeff Huggins suggested a while back.

  15. mevers28 says:

    I’m all about carbon pricing. We have to pay to have our trash picked up, and our trash is waste. CO2 is also a waste, yet we get to get rid of that for free right now. Huh?

    Problem with pricing for carbon is that it is seen as a tax and there is no way congress is going to pass a carbon tax.

  16. Scott Supak says:

    “We are living in an interminable succession of absurdities imposed by the myopic logic of short-term thinking.”—Jacques-Yves Cousteau

  17. Michael Tucker says:

    Thanks Scott!

    And if he were still with us he would be producing programs highlighting the extreme peril our oceans are facing. Not just acidification. His absence is deeply felt.

  18. Raul says:

    In Searching UTube there was a interesting thing. A man had taken
    a sheet of coroplast (the material outdoor signs) and pumped air
    through the long thin channels. He did it in the winter with the
    coroplast directly in the sunlight. He said that the air comming
    out was way hotter than the cold air going in.
    He used a piece of 2 by 2 that he had made channels into to
    direct the air through the coroplast. He used a wet vac to
    power the air flow.
    I think it would be nice if the air flow system was designed
    so that it would S-curve as a base to inlet the outside air
    to the base of the coroplast. Then the air would rise up all those little channels in the coroplast to the base level of the window
    sill. The window being opened just enough for the air flow sys.
    to direct warm air into the room.
    What do you think would it sell at the hardware store for the
    price of a heater?

  19. Raul says:

    And sirs and ladies,I spent many an evening enjoying the boundless
    views of the Cousteau’s

  20. Gogo Bonkers says:

    Hello all ye ocean lovers. My name is Mudlee and my good friend Seafree and I just helped celebrate World Ocean Week. We perform in the children’s band, Gogo Bonkers, a group that is committed to helping out in any way they can to preserve the health of our planet. We have many songs about the Earth as well as the Ocean. Please feel free to visit our website and let us know if we can help you and your organization in any way.



  21. J Bowers says:

    As an example, here’s one way to bring home the impact of the BP Gulf disaster (pun intended). Google Maps automatically centred over your location with a daily representation of the spill laid over the top.

    Visualizing the BP Oil Spill Disaster

    Send it to your friends. I won’t repeat what I said when it first loaded over my location.

    Enter the names of towns or cities in the centre of countries: Wales, swamped. Netherlands, swamped. Sicily, swamped. Eire, swamped. Luxembourg, obliterated.

    Like I suggested, send it to your friends. Send it to Palin, Inhofe and Limbaugh ;)

  22. John Englander says:

    Here’s my take, particularly responding to Peter W. #14 and Mevers28 #15 above. Good concerns about the MainStream Media, the hired PR flacks, and Spinmeisters. I have been on Capitol Hill this week. The sense there is that there is still no public support for a “carbon tax”; they are STARTING to see some support for carbon pricing, but still insufficient to counter the corporate interests. Regardless of the impression in the mainstream press, and the generally inept media, direct messages to your representatives, and petitions REALLY do have an influence. Every Senator and Congressman’s office tracks opinions, one by one, on a tally sheet. Thus any messages and petitions have much more impact that you might suspect.
    As for groups like as you ask. You will note that I mentioned it positively in my post yesterday. I believe that Bill McKibben, the founder, is a visionary and a hero. They have bluntly stated the need to have a target of 350 ppm of CO2. But even on their site, they do not take a position on carbon pricing. In my opinion, it’s the only way to get there. As my Cousteau Essay suggests, we have to be specific and say we believe in carbon pricing. Even Al Gore’s group Repower America shies away from endorsing carbon pricing.
    The only place that I see that embraces it is a site called
    But as Mevers28 notes, nobody wants to embrace another TAX.
    Interestingly, our most prominent climate scientist, Dr. James Hanson, has suggested a no-tax method, that he calls “Fee and Greencheck.” It’s a variation of his earlier, “cap and dividend.” There is a good explanation at Yet, so far it has gotten barely any traction. I think this is where we need to focus efforts.