Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Edward Norton
Edward is also helping change the field of philanthropy by co-founding CrowdRise, a social fundraising site that makes it easy and fun for people to raise money for their favorite causes.
Mark Tercek is president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s leading conservation organization working around the world to save the lands and waters that sustain all life. The Conservancy uses a science-based, collaborative approach to solve complex global challenges: conserving critical lands, restoring the world’s oceans, securing fresh water and reducing the impacts of climate change.
Before joining The Nature Conservancy, Mark was a managing director at Goldman Sachs, where he played a key role in developing the firm’s environmental strategy. He headed the firm’s Environmental Strategy Group and Center for Environmental Markets, which worked to develop and promote market-based solutions to environmental challenges. Mark also headed various business units at the firm, including Corporate Finance, Equity Capital Markets, Consumer/Healthcare and Leadership Development. Mark also led Pine Street -- Goldman Sachs' leadership development program for the firm's Managing Directors and clients.
Mark is a member of several boards and councils, including Resources for the Future, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the National Petroleum Council and the Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Since joining The Nature Conservancy, and over the course of writing Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, I’ve been fortunate to benefit from the perspectives and advice of many leaders of the environmental community. To continue the conversation on the ideas in Nature’s Fortune, I recently spoke with leading conservationists, CEOs, scientists, academics and activists about the environmental movement — what’s working well, what we could do better and what they see as the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead.
You can follow the entire series here.
Next in the series is my conversation with Edward Norton. While I’ve long respected Edward’s work in film, I have even greater admiration for his commitment to conservation and community development. Edward is president of the US Board of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which protects the landscapes and biodiversity of East Africa through conservation that directly benefits local Maasai communities. In 2010, he was appointed United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Edward is also helping change the field of philanthropy by co-founding CrowdRise, a social fundraising site that makes it easy and fun for people to raise money for their favorite causes.
Mark Tercek: Of course you're well known as an actor, but you are also an exceptionally engaged and influential environmentalist. How and when did you become so involved in environmental issues?
Edward Norton: Most of what I know about environmental conservation I learned from my father, who has been a leader within the movement for over 30 years.
When I was growing up he was the Policy Director for the Wilderness Society; he went on to found and run the Grand Canyon Trust; was one of the founders of the Rails to Trails Conservancy; chairman of the Board of the Wyss Foundation; and of course, as you know, he oversaw the inception of The Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan Great Rivers project in China and was a senior advisor to the Asia-Pacific program. Now he's the sustainability chief for one of the largest private equity firms in the world. So he's literally come at these issues from every imaginable angle and I've been learning at his feet since I was a kid.
He's still my main guru and all of my interest and involvement in these issues is rooted in his spiritual love of the outdoors and wild places married with a very prescient intellectual certainty that environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse was going to be the most significant threat to civilization in the next century.
I'd say that, in addition to actually taking my brother and sister and I camping and hiking and river rafting all our lives and introducing us to the power of natural landscapes, his biggest impact on my thinking has been to always argue that the “spiritual case for Nature” was not going to outweigh the needs of 7 billion people and to insist that law, science and economics were the critical frameworks through which we had to defend the value of nature.
Mark Tercek: Very prescient indeed. From your vantage point, are we making good progress demonstrating the value of nature through those frameworks? What is the environmental movement doing well, and where do we have room for improvement?
Edward Norton: I think that the environmental movement is wisely moving away from a largely emotion-based argument for the spiritual or intrinsic value of Nature with a capital “N” and evolving toward a very hard-nosed case for the economic value of natural capital, ecosystem services, biodiversity, etc. Most of us still believe in the intrinsic value of nature, but I think the first century of the environmental/conservation movement demonstrated pretty clearly that this value cannot compel a civilization-wide shift toward sustainable behavior and enterprise when stacked up against the urgent economic and social needs of 7 billion people, most of whom are struggling to get out of poverty.
So the “environmental movement” is becoming an economic movement, is joining the social justice movement, is becoming a sustainability movement. It’s leaving behind the “People's Needs versus Nature's Needs” conflict in favor of making the case for environmental health as the essential underpinning of prosperous and stable human civilization. The best news is that the data, the math, the science...it all supports what environmentalists have been saying for decades, which is that we mess with the complex mechanics of the biosphere at our peril.
I think we have to do a better and speedier job of pressing this perception shift forward though. Too many people, too many governments are still getting away with indulging in the delusion that the market is, or ever has been, an honest one. Too much of the external costs have been left off the books and it's up to the environmental movement to force them internal. That's going to change everything. Much more than people changing what kind of light bulbs they use, frankly.
Mark Tercek: Speaking of change, at TNC we are working to inspire and engage younger, more diverse, and urban audiences. What advice do you have for us here? How can we bring more people into the conservation tent?
Edward Norton: That's a very complex challenge. Most people don't relate to and can't generate concern for something they don't encounter personally or feel personally affected by. People have to have the palpable negatives in their lives dissected for them in ways that let them understand the root causes of unhealthy, unhappy conditions in their lives and then be allowed to really see and feel the positive alternatives. That's why I get involved with some very humble but incredibly effective groups like Harlem Grown or Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust as well as with larger global players like TNC and Conservation International.
Mark Tercek: In Nature's Fortune, I argue that focusing on nature as an investment opportunity can do a lot of good. It can get people who may have been viewed as opponents of the environmental movement on our side, provide a source of capital and an opportunity to scale up. What risks and opportunities do you see in this approach?
Edward Norton: The opportunity lies in the fact that the “value proposition” for the existing corporate/industrial/finance community is real. There are preferential financial outcomes for companies and investors that focus on efficiency, sustainability of supply chain, mitigation of external costs that will surely be climbing and align with customers and consumers whose values are moving toward those bonafides. It actually does make better economic sense to operate sustainably, certainly in the long term but even in the short term. And as our understanding of complex systems gets more sophisticated we're going to see more and more competitive models emerge that take innovative approaches to old industries and out-compete the unsustainable ones.
Ecotrust Forest Management's funds are, to me, a really exciting example of this. Their model for extracting multi-dimensional value out of landscapes that were traditionally just clear-cut for boardfeet is really exciting and impressive. They will outperform the averages in the hedge fund industry over time and with much less risk, it seems to me.
What's sad is how slow on the uptake some institutional investors are. Places like big universities with their endowment funds should be the first ones looking to move into these “triple bottom line” type of investments, but they remain slow to adopt the values and practices that they are engaging their own students in on an academic level.
To cite my own alma mater, it's shocking to me that Yale University can teach what it teaches at the Yale School of Environmental Studies and utterly fail to mirror those values in any way in its investment practices.
Students all over the country should get on this. It’s not just about carbon divestment but an insistence on environmentally sound investment portfolios.
Mark Tercek: I've long believed, as I argue in Nature's Fortune, that business, when properly incentivized, can be a constructive ally to the environmental cause. This can be difficult terrain for conservationists. Many companies have huge environmental footprints, and some are more sincere than other in their efforts to do the right thing. But I think that businesses can be constructive allies when we work together to change their practices. Do you agree? What can we do fully leverage this potential?
Edward Norton: This is sort of the same question, but the incentive for business is not, and cannot, be anything other than the root incentive for all business: they must profit. I think the new environmental economists—people like Pavan Sukhdev—have to keep showing that operating unsustainably will be increasingly anti-competitive as governments wise up to the public costs and subsidies implicit in allowing businesses to degrade the environment. The regulatory environment will only get tougher and resource scarcity is only getting tighter. So good luck to those businesses that want to try to keep doing dirty business as usual.
The biggest liability or risk seems to me to be time—the fact that we need this shift to happen a lot faster than it's currently evolving. And also that there are places, species and scenarios that won't have an easy “market solution” and need protection right away. Interventions are still going to be necessary.
Mark Tercek: If you had my job leading TNC, what would you make your top priorities?
Edward Norton: Tough question! As a member of the The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Advisory Board, I'd have to say: “advance the principles and case studies of the TEEB Report within national governmental contexts as rapidly as possible.”
And from my own experiences working on specific efforts to implement these ideas in developing world scenarios, I'd say I think one of the most important investments an organization like TNC can make is in helping build local capacity—supporting the growth of a global network of small community-based entities that advance these programs at the local levels. Help people who live within critical ecosystems help themselves and their neighbors to design a better future relationship between themselves and their natural resources.
A critically acclaimed filmmaker and actor, Edward Norton is also a passionate advocate for conservation, community development, global health and the arts. In 2010 he was appointed United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. He is also president of the US board of Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust; Chairman of the Conservation Lands Foundation; co-founder of the online social fundraising platform CrowdRise; and member of the US President’s Committee for Arts and Humanities.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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