Cousteau: We all have an echo in the world

Conservationist delivers a hope-filled message at opening session
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"I'm thrilled to be here, certainly in a room with kindred spirits committed to animal welfare like myself, of course," keynoter Philippe Cousteau Jr., a leading champion of the environment and conservation, said July 16 at the AVMA Annual Convention opening session sponsored by Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc.

Cousteau connected with the veterinary audience, saying he and his mother combed through old photograph albums for pictures only his family had seen before that he could share with attendees. They show him growing up with assorted animals—including deer, a runt pig, a raccoon, snakes, a prairie dog, poultry, and a squirrel that chose to become a family pet—being cared for by his mother, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. "We spent a lot of time with vets," he said.

People must keep their eyes open, Cousteau said. He described how his famous grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, dreamed as a young man of becoming a pilot until an automobile accident forced him to change course. Swimming in the Mediterranean every day during his recovery opened his eyes to nature and led him to co-invent the scuba tank.

Phillipe Cousteau Jr.
Philippe Cousteau Jr. (Photo by Matt Alexandre/Robb Cohen Photography)

"Learning about AVMA … you share this idea of looking at the world in a different way, especially (through) 'one health,'" Cousteau said.

As a teenager accompanying his grandfather to remote Papua, New Guinea, he saw "an example of how the golden threads unite everyone on the planet" when, while walking down a dusty jungle path, his group encountered tribesmen in native dress—except for a few who wore L.A. Lakers T-shirts.

"We are all connected. We all have an echo in the world around us," he said. That's why Cousteau and his sister, Alexandra, named the nonprofit they founded EarthEcho International. Its mission is to empower youth to protect the planet's water.

Today a billion people don't have fresh water, and the first genocide of the 21st century—in Sudan—was over water, he said. Cousteau said the world's population of 7 billion is projected to grow to 9 billion by midcentury, bringing water and energy challenges and a need to increase food production by 70 percent. "We're eating 1.5 Earths a year," he said.

No one has the right to sacrifice the clean water and air of the next generation, and whatever one's views on climate change, being open to knowledge is important, Cousteau said, offering evidence that "unprecedented changes" are under way.

Cousteau previewed a clip from the CNN "Extreme Science" documentary in which he joined scientists searching for answers about climate change in the Arctic.

Sometimes environmental change happens slowly, outside today's fast-paced news cycle, he said. To show the extent of just two decades of damage and species loss in the Florida Keys, he contrasted footage of the world's third-largest barrier reef taken by divers in the late '80s with recently shot video. "Ocean acidification will be called the other carbon problem," he said. Species such as coral, shrimp, and oysters can't extract calcium carbonate to make their shells. "A lot of this is caused by us," he said.

Asked what an individual can do, he suggested baby steps such as eating less meat, looking closely at political candidates, and being open to new ideas.

"If there's a universal truth we say at EarthEcho, it's not that you can make a difference; the truth is that everything you do makes a difference. Our choices have consequences. That's a hope-filled message," Cousteau said, "because it means every single one of us has the power to change the world."