What would you say a city needs to qualify as a good city?
Cousteau: Personally speaking, I’d prefer a city that represents the world, one that represents multiculturalism. On an environmental level, a good city would give as much back as it takes from the planet. Naturally, this is a very difficult concept because we make an impact just by breathing. This impact, however, can be mitigated or sculpted in a way that promotes give and take. I think that Germany is one of those countries and Berlin one of those cities that are making strides towards this equilibrium. We still have a very long way to go, but the solutions are very simple.
And they are …?
Cousteau: Just think about it – the problems we are facing today arise from our everyday bad habits and actions. So, we simply need to switch those bad habits for good ones. This is something we are going to have to do, anyway, if we envision a long-term and happy future for our species.
What about you, Mr. Stevens?
Stevens: I am addicted to New York. I always seem to want to leave, but I just can’t seem to get out of there. I have been living in New York since I was 12. My mother, a painter, wanted to leave Chicago and move to a big city. We arrived when it was a very dangerous place – I was mugged as a child. It was a very dysfunctional city, but at the same time, it was alive. It was breathing. The island of Manhattan was the pulse. And although it has changed a lot, it is still like that, in a way. It is a city full of different flavors that is very culturally accepting of many people. We both live in Brooklyn, which has become a cultural hotbed. And Berlin is what everybody is talking about these days.
Is that true?
Stevens: I think there are parallels between these two cities. People are talking about leaving and moving – not to Paris or Rome, but to Berlin. I was here when the wall came down, coincidentally. It was my first day in Germany. We climbed over the wall at Brandenburg Gate, got yelled at and climbed back. And now you see a city that has been completely rebuilt. People here have an open mind and it feels like there is a lot of energy and collaboration around.
Could New York be a role model for the city of the future?
Stevens: I think it always has been. Manhattan itself I am a little down on because it has become very money-oriented. Money has taken over the city. We have a billionaire mayor who has done a good job. But Wall Street has infiltrated in a very unhealthy way, I believe. There has been too much money too quickly in New York. It has hurt it. Whereas in Berlin the rents are still affordable. You can be a student and live well without sleeping on a table.
But the city is bankrupt. There is no money here. Schools don’t look very nice …
Cousteau: That is a good point. In New York City, it is always a huge thing to find a good school. But education is the key to everything we are talking about today. Without education you can’t advance issues like equal rights, sexual equality, or environmentalism. How could people address what they don’t understand?
Stevens: That is what we are doing with our movies. I used to eat all kinds of fish and I had no idea that I was getting mercury poisoning and that they are almost extinct. But you just don’t know. I used to drive an SUV in 1990, at 10 miles a gallon. I just did not understand.
What made you change?
Stevens: You wake up, you get educated, you read. You realize that you want your children to be able to drive a car and breathe the air.
Cousteau: And it’s not sexy to drive an SUV anymore.
Not even in the States?
Stevens: It’s changing. Of course there are people who need a pick-up truck to work. But there has definitely been a huge shift in the cities. Citi Bike (bike sharing) has just started in New York and it’s a big deal.
Pollution and traffic are two of the biggest problems cities have to face in the future, right?
Stevens: Have you been to Beijing recently? It is horrifying – my nose bled, my eyes watered.
Cousteau: You have to understand that cities – like the planet – are not a closed and locked system. If we keep on throwing garbage into this system and taking all the resources out, it should not surprise us that things like this are happening to ourselves. It comes back to us, whether we like it or not.
Do you think that cities all over the globe should collaborate more to promote change?
Cousteau: Cities are concentrations. They have to lead the way. From what I understand – and from what I have seen in reports and studies – cities are more efficient. Per capita, they have a lower negative impact. But they are also highly concentrated, leading to correspondingly higher concentrations of pollution and related aspects. So, they need to lead the way in terms of environmental issues.
Stevens: I think that cities are learning from each other in a certain way. The crime rate in New York dropped a lot because they learned from another city. They brought in Jack Maple from New Orleans and he transformed how people were caught. A whole new system of fighting crime was created, learning from New Orleans.
At the same time, climate conferences usually host many government representatives, but never really achieve very much.
Cousteau: The system is fundamentally flawed because these representatives only hold office – or this particular position – for a short term, leading to equally short-term thinking. The planet, however, does not work that way. It works long-term. This is something that past cultures, indigenous cultures mostly, understood only too well. They understood implicitly that they might not live to see the positive impact of their decisions, but that their children and grandchildren would. This was the premise for their decisions. We need to start thinking like this again. We are way too addicted to short-term results.
Stevens: I know a lot of very wealthy people who say that they really want to help the world, yet keep on fuelling their private jets. It is a great life if you can afford it. I sometimes wonder what I would be like. At the same time, the wealth is growing in China and India and people over there are saying: “Hey US, you guys did it. It is our turn now.”
Which only seems fair from their point of view.
Cousteau: You have to lead by example. You cannot lead by finger-pointing. The United States are the world’s largest consumer. Five per cent of the world’s population is consuming 20 to 25 per cent of the world’s resources. And while the balance is shifting, we are still responsible for changing our ways and leading by example.
Because it is the only thing we can do?
Cousteau: We can make suggestions. We can share ideas and technologies. Encourage others. But we have to do it ourselves as well.
Stevens: There is something really interesting about making environmentalism sexy. After all, what do people want? They want to be entertained and I think that deep down everyone of us really wants a better place for everyone else. But people get distracted. You have to grab their attention and you can get it with beautiful people. So, promoting environmentalism at Fashion Week could be a disaster, but I think that it is a good idea.
Cousteau: Let’s be very honest – human beings are selfish. We care about ourselves, which could be seen as a bad thing, but since this implies that we are self-preservationists, we are also by default environmentalists. We just need to be able to tap into a language that people understand.
Interview: Reinhold Koehler and Alexandra Schade
header image: goegi/ photocase.com