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How Ashlan and Philippe Cousteau Are Inspiring the Next Wave of Planet Champions

In this interview, Ashlan and Philippe Cousteau share how they've combined entertainment with activism to inspire the next generation.

Written by
Angelica Pizza

You've certainly heard of Jacques Cousteau. He was a legendary researcher, explorer, filmmaker, and pioneer in ocean conservation, even co-inventing the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus—aka SCUBA diving equipment. Now, his grandson Philippe Cousteau is following in his footsteps.

Philippe is an oceanographer, environmental activist, producer, and author. And his wife and business partner, Ashlan Cousteau, is a journalist and an environmentalist. Together, they’ve combined entertainment with activism and research to inspire the next generation to change the world for the better.

In this week’s episode of Good Together, Brightly’s founder and CEO Laura Wittig speaks with Ashlan and Philippe about starting the climate conversation. For the Cousteaus, it's not about living a perfectly eco-friendly life. It's about doing what works best for you and the planet—much like how Brightly encourages consumers to make small changes that add up to big differences.

"No one is perfect," Ashlan says. "It's really about how each individual can create the biggest change in their life and really steward the environment and the ocean, which obviously we focus a lot on to make it better."

They also discuss the next steps in the environmental movement and major shifts we're seeing in the conversation surrounding climate issues—and climate solutions. According to Ashlan and Philippe, the conversation is becoming more accessible, and more people are listening.

How to Have the Climate Conversation

Philippe says the environmental movement has notoriously been seen as exclusive; therefore, it was limited in terms of audience reach. However, he's starting to see a shift in the accessibility of the conversation.

"I think it's been to the detriment of the environmental movement has been a lack of really having a clear and concise message," Philippe says. "Growing the tent of people and growing the constituency of people that care about this and understand that it's a journey that we're all on. We're all in this together and it's something that can unite us, and shouldn't divide us. And so, as we look at, certainly what my family is focused on for generations, is that element of storytelling in a way that is exciting and fun."

Ashlan says the major shift in conversation stems from the need to make climate issues relatable. The husband and wife duo believe the most important way to reach people is to know their audience. In other words, who's listening... and why should they care?

"When you think of a single mother that's working three jobs, and she has two kids, and she's just trying to make ends meet.. she doesn't necessarily have time to ponder climate change or to ponder ocean acidification," Ashlan says. "But if you sit down and talk to her about air pollution causing asthma in her children and making her children sick? She will listen."

At the intersection of entertainment and environmental education, the Cousteaus have written, produced, and hosted a number of documentaries and TV series. One of which is The Travel Channel’s Caribbean Pirate Treasure. And although the show itself isn't about environmentalism, the pair discovered ways to incorporate it into the conversation to reach a new audience. How? By using entry points that engage the audience.

"I thought if we can talk on a network where we've never been before and talk to an audience that probably doesn't sit down and watch Before the Flood," Ashlan says. "But if we could talk to them about plastic pollution in our ocean or hurricane damage, or maybe climate change. Or, how can we talk to those people about what's happening in our ocean under the guise of looking for treasure, then that could work. And it did."

Ashlan likes to refer to their method as "hiding the peas in the pudding," meaning the conversation doesn't always have to be obvious. But it can still be present.

Climate Issues Are Ocean Issues

The Cousteaus' main focus is on the ocean. Why? Because it's in trouble. We're seeing a major loss of biodiversity that harms marine life, an increase in plastic and chemical pollution that impacts both marine life and humans, and an increase in ocean temperatures. All of which are influencing global warming.

However, a healthy ocean is "our biggest warrior" when it comes to fighting climate issues, according to Ashlan.

"What a lot of people don't realize is, as we're talking about climate change, and we're talking about climate solutions, no one's talking about the ocean," she says. "What controls our climate on this planet? Our oceans. So climate change and the climate solution [are] truly an ocean problem and an ocean solution. And that's what makes us really excited: We've seen with our own eyes the power that the ocean has to renew and restore itself."

That's why Philippe and Ashlan teamed up to write Oceans for Dummies. Philippe says the world doesn't need another hard-to-read textbook. Instead, we need an education that's fun, easy to digest, and starts conversations—especially when it comes to talking about our oceans, which make up 70% of the Earth's surface.

It's Time to Talk About Regeneration

In discussing the next steps of the climate movement, Ashlan and Philippe say it's moving away from the conversation of sustainability. And it's moving toward restoration.

"Having run a nonprofit for a long time, we're also looking at how new businesses and companies are embracing innovation and recognizing that lesson isn't about sustainability anymore. It's about restoration," Philippe says. "We need to be shifting the conversation from a conversation of sustainability to a conversation of regeneration because we don't want to sustain the way the oceans are now. Or the planet, period. We want to restore, and the good news is that's possible."

Philippe believes this means learning how to restore communities, the environment, and people's health. And he says we don't need to sacrifice our health and our planet in order to sustain businesses. Instead, it's about the intention of starting a business. This means learning how to create products that support people and the plane, just as we're doing in the Brightly Shop.

For the average person, getting involved in the restoration process may seem out of reach. However, Philippe and Ashlan have a few tips for getting involved and being vigilant in the climate movement.

What You Can Do to Make a Difference

1. Vote in Elections

One of the main ways to use your voice to speak on environmental issues is to vote in elections, on both a national and local level. According to Ashlan and Philippe, speaking up for the environment is a great way to be heard by our nation's leaders.

Philippe recalls the 2016 Presidental Election, stating there weren't any questions about the environment in presidential debates. However, in 2020, that changed. "In 2020, it was one of the leading platforms of President Biden, and [it] was one of the reasons one of the top three reasons that young people turned out to vote," he says.

2. ...and Vote with Your Wallet, Too

Voting in elections isn't the only way to vote, according to Ashlan. The average person has the power to vote with their dollars.

"Vote nationally, vote locally—that's very important. But a lot of people forget that some of their biggest voting power is actually in their wallet," she says. "And by the companies that they support or don't support, they listen. I also think that businesses have this incredible opportunity to really stand up and stand for something."

To vote with your dollars, it's important to shop locally at small, sustainable businesses. And if this doesn't work for you, you can make other changes in your shopping routine. Wittig says if you don't have access to local, sustainable businesses, you can shop consciously at places like Target or Walmart instead.

"Go into your Targets, your Walmarts—find brands and products there that have Fair Trade certifications, or are made with organic materials, and use your dollars there, too," Wittig says. "Because those big chains... they wake up and they take notice."

3. Be Open-Minded

Finally, Ashlan and Philippe have a message for you: Be open-minded, and encourage those around you to be open-minded as well. Especially when having conversations about the environment, sustainability, and restoration.

That's how they've been successful in their endeavors, whether that means writing accessible texts or creating TV shows that are both fun and educational.