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‘Vote the Environment’: Edward Norton on How to Be an Effective Climate Activist

Edward Norton found activism at an early age. He also directs and stars in detective story “Motherless Brooklyn,” opening Nov. 1. Variety caught up with him as he prepared to hit the festival circuit with the adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel.

Where did your interest in environmental issues spring from?

All of the roots of my engagement with the challenge of environmental conservation lie in my upbringing and the inspiration of my father’s passion for that work. My father is one of the great conservation strategists, activists and doers of his generation, and to a significant degree, it became our family’s unifying work.

Do you think the entertainment industry could be doing more to address the climate crisis?

I think all industries need to participate in both communication about environmental sustainability as an urgent priority as well as committing to leveraging their businesses in every way possible to mitigate the negative footprint of their business model.

What’s the challenge with creating content that includes environmental messages?

Of course not every film or TV show can have an environmental message per se, but it’s wonderful when an ethos of respect for nature or themes about the consequences of heedless behavior are woven effectively into our narratives. Especially children’s programming, because we literally are programming the worldview of young minds.

What content has been successful in doing that?

I think what Jim Cameron achieved and is continuing to pursue with “Avatar” is truly wonderful. Contemplate that the highest-grossing film in history features as its central dramatic tragedy the felling of a giant tree … and that it aligns heroism and spiritual transcendence with protecting the planet and living within its magical natural systems … and makes villainy out of rapacious extractive assault on those systems.

This is the kind of mythic ethos we desperately need new generations to adopt and align with, and Jim did a truly masterful job at promoting environmental consciousness at an unprecedented scale. It’s very inspiring.

What more can the industry do right now? 

Every TV and film studio — indeed every major media conglomerate — should take the easy step of quantifying the air travel undertaken not only by their executive teams but of all the productions they mount, and then directly purchasing verified REDD+ carbon credits from projects all over the world to offset that air travel. And they should lead the charge to rationalize the carbon markets by buying those credits at a price that actually mirrors the costs associated with offsetting the carbon, meaning $15 a ton at minimum. If the entertainment/media industry did this, the carbon markets would be significantly affected very quickly.

This would be real leadership. And it would cost very little on a balance sheet basis … an amount totally reasonable relative to the corporate social responsibility message it would send.

What’s the most important thing individuals can do?

I think right now the average person needs to vote the environment. Vote out politicians not committed to aggressively confronting the drivers of atmospheric carbon loading and climate warming.

We are in the midst of a painful regression at the exact moment we need bolder leadership than ever. We’ve got to get these nihilists out of the way and in the rearview mirror of history.

Who is doing effective work in this area?

I work with a terrific organization called Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust that’s working on forest preservation via carbon credit brokerage — we have 2.5 million high-grade credits to sell to any of the studios who want to pursue this angle! — biodiversity protection and sustainable economic development for communities in southern Kenya.

I’m also on the board of a terrific U.S. organization called the Conservation Lands Foundation, which was started by my father, Ed Norton — still my conservation hero. 

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