National Geographic
Menu

Edward Norton On Wastewater, Eco-Tourism and His Day Job

There was no b.s. in actor Edward Norton’s introduction of himself at the recent SLOWLIFE Symposium in the Maldives: “Films are now my sideline,” he said. “Waste is my business.”

He admitted of course that what he referred to as his “day job” had provided him with the “storytelling skills” that aid him in his variety of non-acting pursuits, from CEO of Baswood Inc., a green wastewater treatment alternative he and his partners are currently selling and building around the U.S. and abroad to U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. He’s also a board member on a handful of non-profits, including the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which gives him direct insight into sustainable tourism and eco-system preservation.

Photo by Six Senses

The move from fulltime acting to mixing it up in a diversity of projects focused on social good does not strike Norton as unusual. In a long interview with author and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mark Lynas (Six Degrees, God Species) while in the Maldives, he sees it as more obligation than option.

“I think the defining challenge of the era right now is that we have recognized that we are living our lives and operating our civilization in a way that will not sustain life as we know it on the planet,” said Norton. “I don’t think an artist any less or more than anybody else should stay out of that conversation. I think artists, if they are serious about what art can do, are trying to engage in the times they are living in.”

Norton’s wide-ranging level of professional curiosity can easily be traced to his father, Edward Norton Jr., an environmental lawyer who has worked extensively in Asia, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter Administration and has close links with the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society and the National Trust for Historic Conservation.

During the three-day symposium Norton’s emphasis in private conversation with various Maldivian government officials and local U.N. workers focused on how Baswood might bring its recycling expertise to island states, like the Maldives, where coasts and reefs are at great risk due to the tendency of dumping waste and wastewater just offshore.

For a full interview with Mark Lynas, adviser to the President of the Maldives on climate change, click here.

Photo by Six Senses

Excerpts on Norton’s take on the power of storytelling, the real impacts of tourism and the greenwashing of travel journalism are below:

The conventional image of tourism is that it’s quite environmentally destructive. We’ve worked out for the Maldives that the carbon cost of all the flights of people coming in is pretty much equivalent to the domestic emissions of the country, so that does beg the question of whether tourism can ever be a net benefit environmentally.

When people talk about the ‘extractive industries’ they mean forestry, fishing, mining, the industries that clearly extract from the environment . We don’t tend to think of tourism as one of the extractive industries, but the more I learn about it the more I think that tourism should be judged on the same types of metrics that many of those other extractive industries are judged. Because tourism is an industry that uses the environment as its draw to give an experience but yet may at the end of the day be depleting the very resources upon which it is based in an unsustainable way.

Right now we are in a beautiful resort called Soneva Fushi, surrounded by these bright blue ocean waters and fringing coral reef, and I’m sure its appeal to visitors is that it’s some sense located in nature, yet it’s hardly a wild environment.

Look, the thing about tourism is that it is based on the allure of having an experience in a beautiful environment, and perhaps even on interacting with nature in a certain way. Those used to be experiences, which were accessed only by a very privileged few. In the last 25 years the number of people who are traveling further and further abroad to more remote places to have these types of experiences has just gone up exponentially. So places that just a decade or two ago were truly remote indigenous communities are suddenly having to grapple with having to balance that sudden economic benefit of new waves of tourism and yet figure out how they do that without destroying the very thing that’s bringing the people to them.

You’ve done work with the Maasai in Kenya, and in other parts of the world. Have you got any lessons that you’ve taken away about how to manage tourism sustainably?

One is sustainability of operations – how are you actually operating your business, and are you operating it in a way that will maintain the natural resource capital that your business is based on. Number two is community benefit. How do we assess community benefit, to what degree is a tourism business representing a micro-economy where actual benefit is penetrating meaningfully into the local community, as opposed to a vortex where all the benefit is coming in through the business and then going out of the country.

People talk about carbon footprint but I think the thing that gets less often assessed is water. In many of the most remote places, whether they are beach resorts or safari lodges, the way that these places use water is a fundamentally problematic issue. Guests are looking for luxury, so tourism operators are afraid to ask the guests to change their narrative of what luxury is they are visiting. But I think that it needs to happen more. I think if you ask most people if they want to ruin a place during their visit of it they would say no. I think most people don’t want to feel that they came to a place and trashed it.

I also think the ‘tourism media’, the travel writers, and actually the travel agents too, have to do a better job. There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ in the industry… resorts claiming to be ‘eco’ and ‘green’ and promising ‘community benefit’ that are really doing very little. And the writers just buy the marketing and assist the lie. They need to investigate deeper.

This also depends perhaps on the cultural background of the tourist. I think this year for the first time the majority of the visitors to the Maldives have been from China. So no longer is this primarily a Western market.

Yes, that’s fascinating, because then you’ve got people coming out of a completely different narrative in terms of familiarity with even those concepts. Tourism operators have to be courageous in the sense that they’ve got to be a part of introducing people to that value system, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s in their best interests economically in the long term.

The thing I can’t get my head around, and I hope you’ll forgive me for this, is to talk with someone who’s had such a high-profile, successful Hollywood movie career about the economics of waste management, and the peculiarities of certain septic systems. Isn’t that a weird combination?

I think the defining challenge of the era right now is that we have recognized that we are living our lives and operating our civilization in a way that will not sustain life as we know it on the planet. And if we are living in the moment when that kind of clarity has been reached, then I look at that as a generational sort of mission. I don’t think an artist any less or more than anybody else should stay out of that conversation. I think artists, if they are serious about what art can do, are trying to engage in the times they are living in.

But do you find it difficult to be taken seriously? People might think it’s some celebrity fad.

I think people should never throw generalizations about those types of things. I mean, look, I think that these particular issues are ones that everybody should get involved in. I don’t think anybody should look down their nose at an actor or a musician any more than a lawyer, or a doctor or an economist. People are starting to engage with these issues from all sorts of different angles. For instance, what can someone who works in a storytelling medium bring to the equation? I’ve sat with lots of climate scientists, or biodiversity specialists who are just absolutely incapable of articulating a narrative of why that matters to the average person.

So when I got asked by the UN to be an ambassador for the biodiversity program I don’t engage with something like that flattering myself that my qualifications come in the category of biology or science, but I do think that I am in some ways more capable than some of the scientists in the field of explaining that story to other people – of taking examples, case studies, things that I’ve learned about and helping rearticulate them in a way that a new generation of people can begin to see what’s the connectivity between a very abstract idea like biodiversity and me and my life. And that is storytelling.

That’s actually how humans actually receive information successfully, isn’t it, storytelling?

Absolutely, and that’s part of the story we’re living in now, we need a new narrative. We need a narrative where we relocate ourselves literally within the biosphere. We have looked at ourselves for a long time as exceptional, as disconnected from the natural systems on the planet that support us, and we need a new narrative in which people on a broad global level become conscious and aware of their interconnectedness with those systems. So helping to get that story out there, helping people reframe their sense of themselves in the world in a way they understand that they are reliant – and their children are reliant – on the health of these systems, so they care about it, is important.