An exploration of connections: Q&A with Earth Day conference speaker Celine Cousteau

March 25, 2013

Environmental leaders from across the country and world will gather April 15 at the seventh annual Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference to share conservation successes and challenges in sustaining natural and cultural diversity.

Celine Cousteau
Explorer and filmmaker Celine Cousteau will speak
April 15 at the seventh annual Earth Day Conference.

Celine Cousteau, founder of the nonprofit organization CauseCentric Productions and a longtime explorer and filmmaker, is among the featured speakers, joining renowned primatologist Jane Goodall and many others. With her experience traveling the world to create documentaries, Cousteau recently launched CauseCentric Productions to help grassroots organizations increase engagement and action.

In this interview with the Nelson Institute, Cousteau identifies her sources of inspiration in using film as a conservation tool, and tells how the legacy of her family – as the daughter of Jean-Michel Cousteau and granddaughter of Jacques Yves Cousteau – has shaped her work.

You will be opening the Earth Day conference with a talk titled “People and the Natural World: An Exploration of Connections.” You’re often traveling the world in search of such connections. What inspires this work, and what do you hope attendees will take away from your remarks?

Cousteau: What inspires the work is the people themselves. Through a lot of traveling for documentary filmmaking, I have met incredible scientists, volunteers and people running nonprofit organizations, and they’re all doing work either with socio-cultural challenges or environmental issues.

My background in psychology and intercultural relations – my formal studies – is a base from which I look at the human relationships with the natural world. What my family has done for generations has become part of that, looking at the relationship between the two. By just looking at different cultures, different disciplines and different industries, I can find a lot of inspiration.

"By just looking at
different cultures,
different disciplines
and different industries,
I can find a lot of inspiration."

The storytelling aspect is what I bring back. Whether it’s a nonprofit organization in Chile or an indigenous village in the Amazon, there are always so many lessons to learn from how different cultures and different people live with or try to find solutions to problems. I’m hoping that the kinds of stories that have inspired me, that I share with my audience, can then inspire them to feel connected on a much bigger level.

Sometimes we don’t see how we’re connected to what happens in the rest of the world, although everything really does have an impact and a reaction somewhere. Hopefully the takeaway will be a greater sense of global community – a greater sense of connection with other cultures, other people and other ecosystems.

Can you share an example of one of these connections – a human story behind an environmental issue?

There are a few stories in the Amazon that come to mind. One of them was in the Brazilian Amazon. I was in Vale do Javari in 2006 working on a film with my father called “Return to the Amazon,” which was going back to a lot of the places my grandfather had been to in the early 1980s.

While we were there, we were doing interviews with leaders from different indigenous tribes. One of the questions was “How do you live sustainably with your environment?” Through this conversation with an indigenous tribe leader, he looked at me as if he didn’t quite understand the question. I then realized that there was no such word for sustainability there because it was the only option – to live in balance with the environment. So to even define it almost seemed absurd. In our modern times, we have created this entire industry around sustainability, which to me looks like we have forgotten what our roots are.

It was a great lesson for me that it really is all about perspective, and that has to be translated to an audience that doesn’t have that kind of experience or relationship with the environment or with species.

I will be visiting these same tribes for a full-length documentary right before I come to Wisconsin. The Amazon is the place I keep going back to.

How has your family’s legacy as aquatic explorers influenced the work you do today?

Celine Cousteau scuba diving by dolphins
Cousteau free dives with spinner dolphins in the
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary.
© Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED

My family’s work has influenced me a lot, between my grandfather and father as the more well-known components. But both my grandmother and my mother were part of that legacy for me. They were in the field before women being in the field was as common as it is now – though it’s still not the norm.

They influenced me to really feel like I could do this work as a woman, and it influenced me because I’m giving back with what I’m working on now, and it wasn’t imposed or forced on me. It was just a natural progression of my own studies and my own interest that I came back to this. It goes back to the old question of nature versus nurture, and in this case it’s both.

At the Earth Day conference you will also be part of a panel examining film as a conservation tool. What do you see as the opportunities and challenges of film?

Film as a conservation tool is key. It’s a tremendously powerful and efficient way to communicate with an audience. When you create short content, you can attain people at their attention span – jumping on and off the Internet. On a much bigger level, in creating full-length documentaries, you can really get into in-depth details. I think those kinds of visual communication storytelling tools are necessary, because we are visual creatures and we respond to that.

The challenges are that we have an increasing number of choices and visual content, and as the Internet gets more and more crowded, the competition to get in front of people gets more and more complicated. It poses a big challenge, and at the same time it is a game of strategy. I think for all of us it’s a learning process as we go forward, and we have to utilize all those tools.

What have been some of your favorite film projects?

I have so many favorites, but there are two that come to mind.

The first project is CauseCentric Productions, my nonprofit organization that we just launched the website for two weeks ago. We have growing content about the work of other nonprofits and grassroots organizations. CauseCentric is creating a platform not only to watch content, but to take action either by sharing the information through social media networks or by donating to the organization that is being profiled in the film. That is to really utilize the power of visual communication to inspire and motivate action.

The second project is what I’m going back to Brazil for, and that’s a full-length documentary about the health issues of the indigenous peoples in this area. I have begun the momentum to tell the whole story and create an engagement campaign to accompany the film, because I think now, as documentary filmmakers, we are obligated to provide more.

Here at the Nelson Institute we host a biennial environmental film festival, Tales from Planet Earth. If you were curating such a festival, or if you were simply providing recommendations to a friend, what would you consider must-see films?

There are a couple films I haven’t seen yet, but that I would love to see. I just watched the trailer for “Trashed” with Jeremy Irons as narrator; the other one is about the history of the environmental movement, “The Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet.”

A short film that I worked on, called “Polyps in Peril,” is about four-and-a-half minutes and you can see it online. It’s about what is happening within the ecosystem of coral reefs, the threats, and ways we can protect the ecosystem.

Register by April 8
to see Cousteau at
the Earth Day

There’s a lot of tremendous work coming out of Latin America. “Home” is beautifully shot and very aesthetic. The music is extraordinary and I think that makes for a great part of a film festival – to sit there, overtaken by the music.

I also really believe that we need to promote each other’s documentary films because the more, the better if it can help motivate and inspire the audience – something very difficult for filmmakers. How do you get the audience to act? We don’t know what they do when they leave the theatre and it’s very hard to measure.

Any final thoughts about the upcoming Earth Day conference?

I think these kinds of gatherings are important to be able to personally share information and answer questions. We can do all the visual communication we want over the Internet, but there’s nothing like being there in person. 

Amanda Lucas is a senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.