Green Room

Earth Chats: Edward Norton

On an interconnected globe, small daily actions matter—and can be changed.

Slate invited actor and activist Edward Norton, host of the National Geographic TV series Strange Days on Planet Earth, to chat with readers on about the changes to the earth’s eco-systems and what to do about them. An unedited transcript of the chat follows. See the schedule of Slate’s upcoming Earth Chats.

Edward Norton

Edward Norton: Hello. Thanks for your interest. Strange Days on Planet Earth airs two new episodes tomorrow night (Wed) on PBS. We’re all very excited about them and hope you’ll tune in. I should start by saying that I think the spreading consciousness of environmental issues is very encouraging. It seems to me that it is starting to transcend traditional political agendas and be recognized for what it truly is…a challenge that engages all of us.


Boston, Mass.: In light of the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, there has been significant media attention on China recently. Accelerated growth combined with a large population is causing growing concerns amongst environmentalists throughout the world. How can we respectfully reconcile China’s right to develop with the need for environmental controls? How can we convince the Chinese that we are not against them, but instead that the nature of their development bears a direct effect on the health of the world.

Edward Norton: My father founded the Nature Conservancy’s program in China, which is one of the most ambitious conservation management programs ever undertaken in terms of scale. He spent 7 years living and working in China and I supported his work and spent a lot of time over there. I think most people in the West would be surprised at how many people in China are focused on these exact questions and very concerned about them and working hard to advocate for sensible solutions. One significant positive shift is that the government has definitely started paying close attention to the warnings of its own scientists and stopped politicizing any science that was ‘bad news’. In certain areas China actually seems capable of leapfrogging some of our own worst mistakes but in other areas, energy production especially, they are creating an infrastructure that will pollute horribly.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Can you give us one of the more compelling highlights from one of the episodes?

Edward Norton: I think that the investigation that ultimately linked declining sardine numbers to potentially catastrophic releases of methane gas (one of the worst greenhouse gasses) from the ocean floor is just an amazing story. Like an episode of CSI.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: First, I would like to thank the Washington Post for creating the Green Section. Finally, some ongoing action!

For Ed: why do we continue to produce mass quantities of items like plastic bags and plastic water bottles and plastics in general that are so destructive to the earth? How can we quickly strengthen the laws against such huge pollutants of all kinds? We are drowning in trash. Thank you.

Edward Norton: I’ve actually only recently become fully aware of the intense damage that plastic waste is doing, especially in the ocean ecosystems. I learned a lot about it working on the episodes in this series. It blew my mind. I just don’t think most of us are aware how much of what we throw away ends up in the ocean, for starters. Plastic bags are among the worst. The US is actually falling behind the curve on that score. China and many other countries have already banned the production and use of thin plastic bags. It’s something I hope we follow suit on. Obviously plastics have served very important purposes and been incredibly convenient but as we begin to witness the long-term consequences of the chemical components leaching into our water and our bodies, we’re going to be forced to look for alternatives to how we package goods and food. There is a lot of interesting product coming to market already. Bags and bottles and cups and such made of potato starch and other fully biodegradable materials. In some sense, plastic is more chemically complex. We ought to be able to simplify.


Washington, D.C.: First, I have to say you are one of my favorite actors! The 25th Hour was an amazing film and one of my favorites.

Now to my conservation question: I feel one limitation of the eco movement is a disconnect between what we do as consumers and the environmental impact. For example, people don’t make the link between the resources needed (and subsequent pollution) to make their plastic water bottle, their purchase of the product (most likely including transportation waste), and what happens to the bottle once they are done. Is that topic something addressed in your new show, or is are additional shows needed to get in that deep?

Thank you.

Edward Norton: One of the things I like about Strange Days is that at the end of each story showing the hidden interconnections between global events, the writers tie it back to our small daily actions and offer simple, clear ways that we can alter our daily choices and affect these dynamics. Most of it is genuinely easy, requiring little sacrifice or extra effort.


Louisville, Ky.: Do you know how many panels the Solar Neighbors Program has placed thus far?

Edward Norton: I can’t give you a total number of panels. We’re getting close to having donated over 100 kW worth of free systems to low-income families. About 50 families have received systems and we’ve done two large systems on affordable housing rental buildings or homeless SRO projects. This doesn’t count the celebrity participation which is probably another 100-200 kW worth.


Dude, You’re an Actor: It’s great that you care about the planet and all, but you’re an actor. Is acting just a sideline from your academic research career, or is there some other reason you think you should be telling us what to do?

Edward Norton: I’m not telling anybody what to do. Do whatever you want. I’m just interested.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Norton, thank you for holding this chat. The simple truth is that rarely does the public or science community have a chance to rebut the very public assertions of actors and other ‘big’ names in regard to environmental and other political issues. Do you think the public should consider the lack of peer review and its impact on the reliability or credibility of the information you disseminate?

Edward Norton: I’m not personally asserting anything. These are simply issues that interest me and that I think are very worthy of broad discussion. I think informed debate is absolutely crucial. If you watch the series you’ll see that nothing that is presented is not peer-reviewed science. It’s all peer-reviewed, which I agree must be the standard. What’s interesting to me is when the American chemical companies try to rebut extensive peer reviewed science about Bisphenol-A by citing NON-peer reviewed, industry paid scientists. The tobacco companies did the same thing for years. Those are the assertions that should be critiqued most fiercely.


New Orleans, La.: Some times actions speak louder than words or seminars. Will you agree to arrive at every red carpet awards event for the remainder of 2008 and all of 2009 in an energy efficient vehicle, instead of a stretch limousine?

Edward Norton: I haven’t ridden in a stretch limo in years. I can’t stand them. I’ve used only a company in LA called Evo Limo that has a full fleet of low-emission vehicles, including CNG SUV’s… there are two good companies in NY too…a bunch of us have pushed the studios to use only these companies and the pressure has apparently made some of the big commercial companies like CLS and BLS start buying efficient cars. It’s a drop in the bucket but it’s a step in the right direction.


San Antonio, Tex.: What are your feelings on bio-fuels?

Do you see them as a viable energy alternative or do we need to invest in some other technologies?

Edward Norton: I don’t have nearly enough expertise to judge how much bio-fuels can accomplish in the grand scheme of things. I’m trying to learn more about it. It does seem to me from what I’m reading that corn-based ethanol is a bad choice because it’s extremely energy inefficient. Brazil seems to have had a lot of success becoming energy independent by utilizing their sugar cane cash crops for biofuel/flex fuel.


Anonymous: Edward, as a consequence of hosting and narrating the Strange Days series have you altered any of your personal habits and if so which ones?

Carmel, Calif.

Edward Norton: The series definitely tuned me in to how much I was using plastic bags. I’ve tried to cut down on that.


Freising, Germany: Have you and your team ever looked into the effect that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are having on the oceans?

According to an article in Mother Jones Magazine The Fate of the Ocean (Mother Jones, March/April), “Among the most frightening news for coral reefs is the increasing acidity of the ocean as a result of rising levels of carbon dioxide”. Apparently, the CO2 absorbed by the oceans changes its pH level, which will eventually cause the shells and skeletons of reef-building corals and mollusks to degrade.

Edward Norton: Yes, this gets discussed very specifically in the series. There’s a whole storyline on it. I agree, it’s terrifying. Check it out…they present it really well. In addition to average ocean temperatures rising, they think ocean acidification from carbon loading is likely to be one of the most serious threats to reef health and zooplankton populations.


Edward Norton: Time’s up apparently. Sorry I couldn’t answer more questions…so many good ones. To be clear, I don’t assert any kind of personal expertise as to the science behind these issues…I’m just interested and concerned like many people. The series provides some very penetrating insights by peer-reviewed scientists and is really worth checking out.
Thanks for a cool dialogue.