Slate invited actor and activist Edward Norton, host of the National Geographic TV series Strange Days on Planet Earth, to chat with readers on Washingtonpost.com 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: 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?
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?