Jacques-Yves Cousteau was ahead of his time. Well before today’s media mavens, Cousteau used cutting-edge technology, pioneered reality TV and in the process became an iconic brand.
But Cousteau was of his time, too.
“It’s a different time, a different era in our human life on the planet than when my grandfather was around,” said Céline Cousteau, executive director of CauseCentric Productions. “When he started in the 1950s, people had not gone where he was going, not recorded the underwater world. We are now at a time of needing to impact positive change and not just explore, but actually influence and protect the places where we are going.”
Céline, her brother Fabien and father Jean-Michel will speak at “An Evening with the Cousteau Family” next Thursday night at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. Their visit is timely, given the concern over ocean and sea life and, closer to home, headlines like “So. Minn. water crisis rises” in Thursday’s Star Tribune. Carrying on Cousteau’s work, his family educates new generations, just like Jacques did.
People like Chris Johns, the National Geographic Society’s chief content officer (who attended grad school at the University of Minnesota and “loved it”) was one of many inspired by the intrepid Cousteau. “Growing up I would watch the ‘Jacques Cousteau Specials,’ and he captured my imagination and made me want to engage and to explore,” Johns said. “What a gift.”
It’s a gift National Geographic gives, too. (Jacques might like this month’s cover story on “Thinking Like a Dolphin.”) But modern media methods — “from the iPod to IMAX” — all need to be used in this “golden age of storytelling,” Johns said.
Yet these media also create cultural clutter challenges, said Céline Cousteau. “Navigating the new landscape of storytelling is an advantage and a challenge. We can reach a wider audience. … but there is an infinite amount of content.”
And an infinite number of possibilities.
Will Steger, the polar explorer who is founder of Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy (formerly the Will Steger Foundation), interacts with many media forms in his activism. One — a 2002 Star Tribune article (“Page 9, on March 9,” he recalled) about ice shelf disintegration — “was my wake-up call.” Steger — who along with Jacques Cousteau is one of just 19 recipients of the National Geographic Society’s John Oliver La Gorce Medal for accomplishments in geographic exploration, in the sciences, and for public service to advance international understanding — has spent a lot of time really far off the grid. But he said the Web is great because “not only can you share your adventure, but you can show interrelationships.”
Still, despite the Internet’s advantages, the best tool isn’t virtual but real “adventure learning,” as Steger terms it. “It really drew people into the climate issue — the eyewitness account still rivets people more than reading a flat paper or a screen.”
Some riveted are young people, and “the opportunity to bring the world into the classroom or get the students out into the world is one of the most important things we can do as educators,” said Aaron Doering, an associate professor and director of the Learning Technologies Media Lab at the University of Minnesota. Doering, an Arctic explorer who is a Royal Canadian Geographical Society fellow, spoke from New Zealand and added that adventure learning is more popular than ever, in part because of the power of social media.
“It’s opening the world to the students and giving them the motivation to understand the issues that are taking place in this changing world,” Doering said, “and [it] might motivate them to go into a profession they might never imagine.”
And yet like Céline Cousteau, Doering acknowledges that environmental activism, which is collective, sometimes benefits from singular figures like Jacques Cousteau. “We need to have a face behind it, that quarterback pushing the issues forward, because there are so many people pushing to have their issue in the media.”
Steger agrees. “We definitely need more programs like ‘Jacques Cousteau’ — people thirst for real, authentic learning and firsthand experience woven in with adventure — those are the magic ingredients.”
In recent years, however, the magic for media purveyors portraying the environment has sometimes been more exploitation than exploration, with so-called reality shows like “Naked and Afraid” more skin than skin diving, and at times a lot louder than “The Silent World,” Jacques Cousteau’s bestselling book and Oscar-winning documentary.
Survival shows are relatively successful, and of course there’s room for every genre. And PBS and some other networks still stalwartly create compelling programs about nature. But programmers perceiving that shows about the natural world are eat-your-peas TV make a mistake, and might miss a market. Because the wonders, and woes, of the natural world make for great education — and entertainment.
“That audience that is watching, quote, reality TV, will hopefully come back to understanding that reality is exactly where we are right now, and that’s living on this planet,” said Céline Cousteau. “I believe everything is cyclical and there will be a time when more of the general population will turn their attention back to the human relationship with the natural world, and why it is important for us to care and protect it. Because at the center of it, it’s not about hugging a tree, it’s about our own survival.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.