We continued the Garrison Institute Forum on Pathways to Planetary Health with a conversation between Edward Norton, renowned actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, and Jonathan F.P. Rose, Co-Founder of the Garrison Institute. These interactive sessions aim to expand our understanding around how we can each play a role in supporting a regenerative, just, and prosperous world for all life.
Norton, a third-generation conservationist, has dedicated much of his life to environmental issues. He currently serves as Board of Directors President for The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust in Kenya and he has been widely recognized for his work in developing collaborative strategies for sustainable ecosystems.
In discussing how to achieve both economic and planetary flourishing, Norton and Rose emphasized the need to account for environmental costs in financial reporting and measuring GDP. They both cited Pavan Sukhdev, an environmental economist and former Garrison Institute board member, whose work and research has demonstrated that:
“If we try to calculate GDP while externalizing degradation of natural resource capital, we are lying, we are lying to ourselves economically. We are giving ourselves credit for GDP growth when in fact we may be creating impoverishment.”
When people celebrate the glories of the free market, Norton urges environmental advocates to point out costs, like pollution, that often go unaccounted for. Because passing costs on to the rest of the world, and often to poorer communities, is socializing those costs.
“Too often, there is a privatizing of profits and a socializing of costs. If you kick environmental costs down the road, what you’re really doing is borrowing from the future to make your balance sheet look better in the present.”
Rose pointed out that the selfishness of privatizing profits while socializing costs is the antithesis of all spiritual traditions, as “all traditions really ask us to make the whole our beloved.”
Norton acknowledged that the feedback loop of these malpractices and greed is intensifying, posing a dire threat to planetary health. But at the same time, “holistic knowledge and understanding are at an absolute peak. And the speed at which this knowledge is growing is so exciting. We’re starting to see these things more clearly.”
One reason to hope is the potential for economic alternatives that benefit both the earth and human communities.
“Nature is not worth preserving just as a spiritual value. It is, in effect, our economic fabric. Nature and ecosystems are literally infrastructure.”
In realizing and demonstrating to others how nature is intertwined with economics, and how sustainable models will outperform traditional ones, we have a new sophistication in our defense of natural systems.
Norton pointed to the American timber industry as an example of how this is playing out in real-time. The industry is collapsing, and its returns are diminishing because it has unrestrainedly degraded its own asset. “They have literally cut their business model into the ground and they are already walking away from their own distressed assets, and others are going to come in and turn those distressed assets into profitable, healthy forests. The players in the timber industry that don’t start to get serious about restorative ecology will fail.”
From timber to energy to waste treatment, Norton believes that “we’re approaching an era where we can show, even in the short term, that legacy industries give preferential returns when restorative models are practiced… we can win on the pure economics of it.”
Part of reimagining economics includes rethinking philanthropy. There is noble work being done in the conservation world, Norton remarked, but it suffers from being funded in the non-sustainable model of philanthropic grantmaking.
“Our philanthropy is built on a model of people building wealth and then tithing something like 10 percent back. You can’t earn wealth through non-sustainable, extractive models and then tithe back 10 percent of that in a corrective matrix and expect that to work. We have to flip it. The 90 percent has to be restorative or we’re not going to get there.”
One challenge Norton identifies is the need to figure out how to underwrite community stewardship of ecosystems in non-philanthropic ways—a challenge he has explored extensively with Maasai communities in the Chyulu Hills of Kenya, who he has partnered with for over 20 years. Inspired again by Sukhdev, Norton has begun looking at natural resource management as a portfolio of alternative livelihood models for communities, asking: “How can communities become innovative portfolio managers of the resources around them?”
One effort to do this resulted in the Chyulu Hills REDD+ Carbon Project, a collaboration between the Maasai communities, United Nations, and other partners. REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, recognizes that the main drivers of forest destruction are economics and poverty. REDD+ prevents deforestation by creating economic incentives and alternative livelihoods for local communities. The Chyulu Hills REDD+ Project now issues finance-grade carbon credit assets, which they sell to corporate buyers.
With initiatives like REDD+ and others, Norton underscores how critical it is to have local community buy-in and leadership. “We have to have community-scaled implementation capacity,” he shared. “We need local expertise and people who know what the community needs.”
As the conversation came to a close, Norton answered several audience questions. In response to the simple question “what can we do?” he emphasized voting and getting involved on the local level. There are advocates and organizations in every community that always need help, support, fundraisers, and champions.
Norton also answered a question about the arts, saying “there is a feedback loop between the arts and society.” Sometimes the arts reflect the moment, amplify a theme, or crystallize or advance an idea. He cited documentaries and the novel the Overstory as examples of such powerful illuminators, and the film Avatar as an inspiration for creating a world in which “respect for nature has a heroic value and destruction of it is defined as villainy.”
Our identity, values, and politics are shaped by storytelling, Norton reflected. “The way we understand ourselves in the context around us really is a function of storytelling… So, we have to keep trying to tell stories that help a younger generation see themselves and advocacy as heroic.”
To attend upcoming Forum Conversation, visit the Garrison Institute website.
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Edward Norton is a celebrated actor who has starred in, produced, written, or directed over 30 films. He has been nominated for three Academy Awards and has won the Golden Globe, an Emmy, an Obie, and numerous other awards. He has a substantial parallel career as an entrepreneur, investor, and activist in both environmental sustainability and technology ventures. He is the co-founder of CrowdRise, a crowdfunding platform that eventually merged with GoFundMe, and EDO, a data, measurement, and analytics company. He is currently the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, a Board Member of Harlem Grown, and the President of the Board of Directors for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust in Kenya.
Jonathan F.P. Rose’s business, public policy, and not-for-profit work focus on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world. Jonathan and his wife Diana Calthorpe Rose are the co-founders of the Garrison Institute. He serves on its Board and leads its Pathways to Planetary Health program.
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