Published: June 13, 2008
Edward Norton: The Green Giant
The Incredible Hulk actor talks about being green, his greatest adventures, and giving plastic bags the sack.
Text by Mary Anne Potts

These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find many Hollywood celebrities who don't lend their star power to some kind of environmental cause. Then there is Edward Norton. The son of a pioneering environmentalist who grew up hiking, paddling, and diving in some of the world's most beautiful spots, Norton is relentless in his commitment to the planet. Besides owning a small, solar-powered home in L.A., the actor also started Solar Neighbors, a project that brings solar power to low-income families. He sits on the board of a sustainable travel initiative in Kenya. And, this spring Norton partnered up with National Geographic and PBS for a second year to host Strange Days on Planet Earth, a program examining how human actions can be linked to unexpected environmental changes across the planet. Here, Norton talks about bringing some green practices to the silver screen, his greatest adventures, and giving plastic bags the sack.

ADVENTURE: The Hulk is, of course, green. But did you manage to sneak some green themes into the film?

EDWARD NORTON: I don't want to pretend that it is an environmental film. But I wrote the script, and I would definitely say that there are themes embedded in it about the arrogance of believing that we can monkey with very sophisticated natural systems that have evolved over billions of years and that it's not going to have a certain blowback on us.

A: This film broke new ground by introducing some environmentally friendly practices to the set. What did you do?

EN: We worked with carbonfund.org on offsetting some of the carbon footprint of the production and to figure out how to calculate the carbon footprint for a production. We also tried to reduce paper use by doing more electronic paperwork. We made a lot of the film in Toronto, where there are good low-sulfur diesel rules and no idling rules with vehicles. But, in all honesty, as much as I thought we did some good things, we have a long way to go in this industry.

A: Everything is green these days—Hulk included. Do you think there's a risk of people getting "green fatigue"?

EN: I don't think so. You're always going to have cynics and people who are extremely apathetic. But ultimately, in the balance, I don't think things are going in that direction. Things are trending toward much more focus and engagement on these issues.

A: What's one lifestyle change we can all make?

EN: Among the many things we do badly, one of the worst culprits is actually disposable plastic bags, which a lot of countries are starting to recognize how intensely negative they are. Americans use a staggering 100 billion plastic bags a year.

It's horrifying how much plastic being dissolved in the eco system, especially into the ocean. Tiny, tiny pieces of plastic are actually more plentiful than zooplankton. Fish are actually eating as much plastic as they are eating biomass, and that has a lot to do with heavy elements and toxins gathering up the food chain.

My contribution to the plastic bag problem is a tiny drop in the bucket, but I'm trying to be aware and not use so many plastic bags. There are lots of little things that you can do. And it's true, if we were all doing these things, in the aggregate, they would make a difference.

A: You're a city guy—you live in New York and L.A. How'd you get interested in the outdoors and the environment?

EN: Throughout my life, as early as I can remember, my dad was always taking us into wonderful natural places, whether it was the White Mountains in New Hampshire or the Grand Canyon or hiking in Montana. My father was a professional environmentalist. He was the head of public policy at the Wilderness Society and founded the Grand Canyon Trust and he helped found the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. So being out in nature was very much a part of who he and my mom were.

One of my absolute passions in life is scuba diving. When I was 16 or 17, my father, brother, and I took a resort diving course together in the Caribbean—and I got totally hooked. My father ended up being a senior advisor for the Nature Conservancy's Asia Pacific region, running a reef program down there. Even there, dive operations and dive resorts have started to realize that they have to run sustainable businesses. They have to protect the resource that brings people to them.

A: Do think about sustainability when you travel?

EN: Yes, absolutely. I don't go to resorts much, but I do find myself much more compelled by opportunities to experience a place that's either ecologically sustainable or contributing to the local communities in important ways.

I have traveled a lot in East Africa, and returned there again and again not only because of the ecology and the biodiversity, but because of the ethos of what was going on there. My sister used to be an Africa travel planner at Geographic Expeditions. She would scout the lodges and climbs over there. Occasionally my brother and I tagged along. After all those trips, we decided that Campi ya Kanzi, operated by the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust in the Chyulu Hills of Kenya, was at the top of our list for the simple reason that it was much more than a tourism experience.

There are lots of fancy tented safaris out there. But you're traveling, in many cases, where locals are employees only. But here, the people working at the lodge are the owners, literally. That was really meaningful. It affected the whole spirit of the place. It's an incredible example of not just protecting an area but engaging the people who live there in the long-term preservation of it. I'm now on the board of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust.

A: So do you have an all-time favorite adventure trip?

EN: I am very lucky to have done a lot of fun traveling in my life. I've been blown away by many places. I've never seen biodiversity on a reef like in Indonesia's Komodo National Marine Park. The underwater experience is mind-boggling with coral and fish diversity. It was unparalleled.

A: What else are you up to this summer?

EN: I remain involved with the project to renovate the High Line, which is a favorite of mine as an urban activism project. On a community level, it's just wonderful. It's been a beautiful examine of civic activism by regular New Yorkers. They guys who founded that project are incredible. They are my heroes.