Edward Norton’s Approach to Environmentalism

Actor, filmmaker, and co-founder of CrowdRise Edward Norton speaks on stage during We Day at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington.
Actor, filmmaker, and co-founder of CrowdRise Edward Norton speaks on stage during We Day at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington.Mat Hayward / Getty Images

Edward Norton’s approach to environmentalism is a cut above the sometimes surface-level advocacy that emerges out of Hollywood. His father is a lifelong environmentalist, and instilled in Norton an approach to conservancy that is as much about rational economic stability as it is about saving iconic species. 

For the past 15 years, Norton has worked closely with Samson Parashina, a Masaai warrior, on the development of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. The MWCT moves away from both ineffective notions of “preserving nature for Nature’s sake,” as well as obsolete conceptions of economic assistance, by empowering native communities through sustainable stewardship. The key to effective environmentalism lies partially in revealing the economic benefits of conservation.

Unlike many places in the world where traditional communities have been disenfranchised and surrender their high value natural resources, the Maasai communities in southern Kenya own entitled land deeds to millions of acres of critical and valuable ecosystem. “For the MWCT, it’s actually a situation where you are not trying to broker, you are working with a community to maximize benefit with the resources that they naturally own. That is a dynamic situation. In some ways it makes it more of a true partnership and less about antiquated notions of charity,” says Norton.

Norton thinks the Maasai community is an example that other traditional communities — like those in the Western United States — can look to. “Drought is being intensified by climate shift and the impact that that has on the economy of cattle raising people is severe. These are the same issues that people are having in Iowa. Dependence on the ecological systems that support us binds everyone across cultures.” We must work with the ecosystems of local communities, according to Norton, to “Build the best long-term retirement portfolio.”

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Norton admits that his celebrity gives him a megaphone. “Being well-known has its downsides, but on the positive side it has the power to get people interested,” says Norton. The key, he says, is to get people interested in a genuinely effective way. One such effort is the Nature is Speaking campaign from Conservation International. In this video series, celebrities lend voices to the forces of nature. Norton is the voice of Soil. Instead of approaching conservation through the exhausted “Nature needs all of us to save it” rhetoric, the campaign flips the approach on its head — essentially, “we all need nature, or we’ll die.”

With that recognition, Norton is reaching across cultural boundaries to create frameworks for conservation that are free from Romantic idealism. Though Norton feels we must disband the sentimentality of old approaches, his action is not without a spiritual recognition. “It’s not that unnatural when you have encounters with other people of your generation who share the same concern to recognize that there is this grand puzzle that we need to work together. It’s consciousness expanding to recognize there is a sameness or oneness to what we are all experiencing,” he says.

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