A Megaphone for Global Causes
BY NIKKI D. ERLICK SPRING 2015
Born into the First Family of ocean exploration, Céline Cousteau was helping her father with the logistics of his documentary series on great whale migrations when she found herself unexpectedly pushed in front of the camera.
This brief stint as a host of the PBS series Ocean Adventures launched Cousteau onto a circuitous path to her current profession. After earning degrees in psychology and international and intercultural management in the hope of gaining a greater understanding of human behavior, Cousteau eventually channeled her diverse interests into a multifaceted career as a public speaker, corporate consultant on conservation efforts, and the founder and executive director of CauseCentric Productions, a non-profit seeking to amplify the voices of grassroots organizations tackling environmental and socio-cultural issues.
STRENGTHENING CAUSES THROUGH STORYTELLING
Cousteau carries with her a family legacy of ocean exploration and conservation work. Her grandfather, Jacques Cousteau, was a legendary French filmmaker, ocean explorer, and host of the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau from 1968 to 1976, and her father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, followed suit. This multigenerational passion continues today, and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored Céline Cousteau alongside her father and brother Fabien with the Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking in January 2015.
“There are a lot of assumptions that come with the family name, which are completely understandable,” said Cousteau, explaining that people often expect her to have pursued marine biology or oceanography, when in fact her work encompasses a much broader reach. Overall, though, Cousteau said she has found that her heritage is not only a boon to her own projects, but it also allows her to take advantage of her family name for the benefit of the groups she now helps through her production company.
Cousteau’s own global travels, in addition to the time spent accompanying her adventurous family members on their expeditions, brought her into contact with people who were struggling to launch worthwhile projects with insufficient means.
“I just felt that creating visual communication tools for them was a way to give back and help support the work that they were doing,” she said.
CauseCentric Productions supports groups and individuals with limited resources by assisting in the production of multimedia content to consolidate and spread the organization’s message. CauseCentric’s short films have documented the grassroots efforts of groups like the Melimoyu Ecosystem Research Institute, which seeks to preserve the diverse region of Chilean Patagonia, and the non-profit Amazon Promise, which delivers healthcare to remote Peruvian villages.
Cousteau sees immense value in short films as platforms for advocacy, since human beings are essentially “visual creatures.” CauseCentric capitalizes on the burgeoning array of outlets for distributing digital content, and Céline Coutseau’s CauseCentric: Season One, a sampling of the organization’s micro-documentaries, launched on Hulu in July 2014. Yet Cousteau cautions that the new challenge for filmmakers and activists is discovering how to stand out amid a growing amount of content.
For Cousteau, the answer lies in the truly human nature of every story she tells.
With many of the causes she espouses stemming from remote corners of the world, Cousteau said she hopes to make each movement relevant and relatable by emphasizing the common humanity across cultures and continents.
“It’s very hard to accomplish all of that in three to five minutes, so the best we can do is just try to inspire people to feel that this is a worthwhile cause or a person that they can relate to, or something they might want to care about, or at least share with somebody else if they found it inspiring for one reason or another,” she added.
THE CHALLENGE OF DOING GOOD
Cousteau’s livelihood is comprised of overlapping balancing acts: a balance between the non-profit and for-profit fields, between helping others’ promote their respective causes and dedicating time to her own projects, and between her creative work as a filmmaker and her business role as an entrepreneur. Cousteau’s unique profession requires her to develop her storytelling skills and her business acumen in tandem. Yet she admits that, at times, it becomes necessary to sacrifice one element for the sake of the other, referencing the current state of her office in which her crafting table has been recently neglected in favor of her computer and desk.
In addition to striking the optimal balance between the two facets of her job, Cousteau encounters many of the challenges faced by activists and non-profits today in securing sufficient funding, assembling the best team, and simply finding the time to conduct her in-depth, overseas projects.
Reflecting on these challenges, Cousteau recalled a conversation in which a businessman approached her after she had delivered a speech. He wondered aloud to her, “I don’t understand why you have to struggle so hard to do good.”
For Cousteau, that effort to “do good” extends to her work as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Oceans, which directs the global dialogue on ocean conservation and sustainability, as well as specific issues such as deep-sea mining. The committee is composed of corporate and non-profit leaders, and Cousteau views her objective on the Council as bringing together the voices of various international industry executives to produce effective communication on the relevance of oceans in all of our daily lives.
“My role really is to synthesize what we’re doing and try to create a common message, and push our Council to really think about the communications aspect of our common work,” she said.
In 2014, President Obama placed ocean conservation on the political agenda by creating the world’s largest marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean. Cousteau said she hopes that individuals and industries will understand the relevance of the oceans in all aspects of the economy and everyday life.
“To this day, I really think oceans have been much more of a conservation interest than anything else,” she said, “but if we’re to look at the economic value of our oceans, then we realize that, at all levels, industries have a vested interest.”
In addition to pressing concerns like climate change and food security, Cousteau sees the overarching hurdle faced by activists as the challenge of changing people’s consciousness of their relationship with the environment. Even those who are already educated about the human impact on the environment may still require further information or incentives to act.
“But I think that it goes on a much bigger, global level and on a deeper, human level to understand that everything we do – from the moment we wake up, go to sleep, and even while we’re sleeping – has an impact, and that matters because our wellbeing depends upon the wellbeing of our natural resources, whether it’s on land or in our oceans,” she said. “And we’ve seen what happens on land. Now we’re really looking at the future of our oceans, and how can we change that future in a positive way?”
Cousteau’s fieldwork with CauseCentric has taken her below oceans and across continents to share the stories of farmers in Uganda, manatees in Florida, and the educational non-profit Healing Seekers in Papua New Guinea, to name just a few.
Her success depends upon her immersion within foreign cultures in order to effectively tell the stories of those who live there. She cites an open mind and a respectful attitude as key tools when travelling to an unfamiliar society, adding that it is important “to not have expectations that things are going to happen a certain way, but rather follow the lead of the people that you’re visiting.”
The role of a visual storyteller, for Cousteau, relies heavily upon the powers of observation, making it necessary to hone one’s skills of perception and instinct, including the ability to interpret body gestures in the presence of a spoken language barrier.
Her work brings her back to many of the same locations, but she finds herself returning to the Amazon in particular time and again.
“I have a deep-rooted connection there,” she remarked, having first visited the Amazon with her grandfather as a young girl. “But you discover something new every time you go.”