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Edward Norton On Wastewater, Eco-Sustainability and His Day Job

There was no b.s. in actor Edward Norton’s introduction of himself at the recent SLOWLIFE Symposium in the Maldives: “Films are now my sideline,” he said. “Waste is my business.”

Photo by Six Senses

He admitted of course that what he referred to as his “day job” had provided him with the “storytelling skills” that aid him in his variety of non-acting pursuits, from CEO of Baswood Inc., a green wastewater treatment alternative he and his partners are currently selling and building around the U.S. and abroad to U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. He’s also a board member on a handful of non-profits, including the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which gives him direct insight into sustainable tourism and eco-system preservation.

The move from fulltime acting to mixing it up in a diversity of projects focused on social good does not strike Norton as unusual. In a long interview with author Mark Lynas (Six Degrees, God Species) while in the Maldives, he sees it as more obligation than option.

“I think the defining challenge of the era right now is that we have recognized that we are living our lives and operating our civilization in a way that will not sustain life as we know it on the planet,” said Norton. “I don’t think an artist any less or more than anybody else should stay out of that conversation. I think artists, if they are serious about what art can do, are trying to engage in the times they are living in.”

Norton’s wide-ranging level of professional curiosity can easily be traced to his father, Edward Norton Jr., an environmental lawyer who has worked extensively in Asia, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter Administration and has close links with the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society and the National Trust for Historic Conservation.

During the three-day symposium Norton’s emphasis in private conversation with various Maldivian government officials and local U.N. workers focused on how Baswood might bring its recycling expertise to island states, like the Maldives, where coasts and reefs are at great risk due to the tendency of dumping waste and wastewater just offshore.

For a full interview with Mark Lynas, adviser to the President of the Maldives on climate change, click here.

Excerpts on Norton’s take on the power of storytelling, the real impacts of tourism and the greenwashing of travel journalism are below:

The conventional image of tourism is that it’s quite environmentally destructive. We’ve worked out for the Maldives that the carbon cost of all the flights of people coming in is pretty much equivalent to the domestic emissions of the country, so that does beg the question of whether tourism can ever be a net benefit environmentally.

When people talk about the ‘extractive industries’ they mean forestry, fishing, mining, the industries that clearly extract from the environment . We don’t tend to think of tourism as one of the extractive industries, but the more I learn about it the more I think that tourism should be judged on the same types of metrics that many of those other extractive industries are judged. Because tourism is an industry that uses the environment as its draw to give an experience but yet may at the end of the day be depleting the very resources upon which it is based in an unsustainable way.

Right now we are in a beautiful resort called Soneva Fushi, surrounded by these bright blue ocean waters and fringing coral reef, and I’m sure its appeal to visitors is that it’s some sense located in nature, yet it’s hardly a wild environment.

Look, the thing about tourism is that it is based on the allure of having an experience in a beautiful environment, and perhaps even on interacting with nature in a certain way. Those used to be experiences, which were accessed only by a very privileged few. In the last 25 years the number of people who are travelling further and further abroad to more remote places to have these types of experiences has just gone up exponentially. So places that just a decade or two ago were truly remote indigenous communities are suddenly having to grapple with having to balance that sudden economic benefit of new waves of tourism and yet figure out how they do that without destroying the very thing that’s bringing the people to them.

You’ve done work with the Maasai in Kenya, and in other parts of the world. Have you got any lessons that you’ve taken away about how to manage tourism sustainably?

One is sustainability of operations – how are you actually operating your business, and are you operating it in a way that will maintain the natural resource capital that your business is based on. Number two is community benefit. How do we assess community benefit, to what degree is a tourism business representing a micro-economy where actual benefit is penetrating meaningfully into the local community, as opposed to a vortex where all the benefit is coming in through the business and then going out of the country.

People talk about carbon footprint but I think the thing that gets less often assessed is water. In many of the most remote places, whether they are beach resorts or safari lodges, the way that these places use water is a fundamentally problematic issue. Guests are looking for luxury, so tourism operators are afraid to ask the guests to change their narrative of what luxury is they are visiting. But I think that it needs to happen more. I think if you ask most people if they want to ruin a place during their visit of it they would say no. I think most people don’t want to feel that they came to a place and trashed it.

I also think the ‘tourism media’, the travel writers, and actually the travel agents too, have to do a better job. There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ in the industry… resorts claiming to be ‘eco’ and ‘green’ and promising ‘community benefit’ that are really doing very little. And the writers just buy the marketing and assist the lie. They need to investigate deeper.

This also depends perhaps on the cultural background of the tourist. I think this year for the first time the majority of the visitors to the Maldives have been from China. So no longer is this primarily a Western market.

Yes, that’s fascinating, because then you’ve got people coming out of a completely different narrative in terms of familiarity with even those concepts. Tourism operators have to be courageous in the sense that they’ve got to be a part of introducing people to that value system, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s in their best interests economically in the long term.

The thing I can’t get my head around, and I hope you’ll forgive me for this, is to talk with someone who’s had such a high-profile, successful Hollywood movie career about the economics of waste management, and the peculiarities of certain septic systems. Isn’t that a weird combination?

I think the defining challenge of the era right now is that we have recognized that we are living our lives and operating our civilization in a way that will not sustain life as we know it on the planet. And if we are living in the moment when that kind of clarity has been reached, then I look at that as a generational sort of mission. I don’t think an artist any less or more than anybody else should stay out of that conversation. I think artists, if they are serious about what art can do, are trying to engage in the times they are living in.

But do you find it difficult to be taken seriously? People might think it’s some celebrity fad.

I think people should never throw generalizations about those types of things. I mean, look, I think that these particular issues are ones that everybody should get involved in. I don’t think anybody should look down their nose at an actor or a musician any more than a lawyer, or a doctor or an economist. People are starting to engage with these issues from all sorts of different angles. For instance, what can someone who works in a storytelling medium bring to the equation? I’ve sat with lots of climate scientists, or biodiversity specialists who are just absolutely incapable of articulating a narrative of why that matters to the average person.

So when I got asked by the UN to be an ambassador for the biodiversity program I don’t engage with something like that flattering myself that my qualifications come in the category of biology or science, but I do think that I am in some ways more capable than some of the scientists in the field of explaining that story to other people – of taking examples, case studies, things that I’ve learned about and helping rearticulate them in a way that a new generation of people can begin to see what’s the connectivity between a very abstract idea like biodiversity and me and my life. And that is storytelling.

That’s actually how humans actually receive information successfully, isn’t it, storytelling?

Absolutely, and that’s part of the story we’re living in now, we need a new narrative. We need a narrative where we relocate ourselves literally within the biosphere. We have looked at ourselves for a long time as exceptional, as disconnected from the natural systems on the planet that support us, and we need a new narrative in which people on a broad global level become conscious and aware of their interconnectedness with those systems. So helping to get that story out there, helping people reframe their sense of themselves in the world in a way they understand that they are reliant – and their children are reliant – on the health of these systems, so they care about it, is important.

The Mighty Colorado: Trickling Down to Nothing

Floodwaters and winds wreak havoc on the narrow ravines and shallow-rooted forests of Vermont and New York; wildfires torch the desiccated Texas plains that have gone 300 straight days without rainfall; buckets pour down on the Gulf Coast once again, drowning ecosystems, hopes and dreams; and the great rivers of the American West are running dry. Sounds downright Biblical in its apocalyptic-ness, doesn’t it? Blame whomever you like, from heaven to hell to politicians to the Army Corps of Engineers to mall developers, but this is the reality of our environment in the first decade of the 21st century.

Photo by Pete McBride

Among all that doom and gloom, who would have predicted that those big American rivers—especially the granddaddy of them all, the Colorado River—would today be so imperiled. Yet tapped for the past 80 years for farms, drinking water, urban growth, suburban sprawl and recreation by a human population of more than 25 million, the Colorado currently no longer even reaches the sea. The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.

Thanks to the work of two Colorado-based journalists, writer and adventurer Jon Waterman and photographer Pete McBride, the Colorado’s near-demise and its future were the subject of a seven-month-long descent and new accounts in a pair of books, photos and a short film.

In June 2008 Waterman—an experienced wilderness guide, park ranger and writer—set out to paddle the length of the Colorado, from its headwaters to south of the Mexican border; McBride joined him for parts of the descent and spent months capturing powerful photographs of its length from a small plane (often piloted by his father John), often from just a couple hundred feet above.

The river’s complex history of dams and diversions, the construction of massive canals to further drain it down, and its natural power and beauty all lend drama to their modern-day stories. But it is the anecdote about where the river runs dry that is the most powerful of all.

The conclusion of the descent in January 2009, in Waterman’s words, (from an essay for the Patagonia company’s fall catalog), paints the harsh reality: “Two miles into Mexico, my hopes of a complete 1,450-mile descent ended in a foamy pond of congealed fertilizers, distillate of countless American lawns and 3.4 million thirsty farm acres. I splashed out in bare feet, worried that our most iconic white water river would make me physically ill. (Pete) stayed clean by climbing out through the tamarisk trees. We tried to wipe the river shit off our pack rafts with tamarisk fronds, cursing the system that has diminished the Mighty Colorado to a stinking cesspool.”

“The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.”

What happened? “Engineered to death” is Waterman’s conclusion, detailed in his book Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River: “…more than 100 dams and 1,000 miles of canals divert its water to most every farm, industry and city within a 250-mile radius of the river. Each year, seven western states and northern Mexico take 16.5 million acre-feet (enough water to supply 33 million American households) of river water. Amid the 12th year of drought in the Southwest, climate models show that conditions will continue to dry the snowmelt-fed river. Add explosive population growth, increasing the demand for water, and the river’s future becomes a ticking time bomb.”

McBride’s dramatic book of photos and film (Chasing Water) are bringing the river’s sickness to an ever-bigger audience across the West. An exhibit of words and pictures—“The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict”—is currently on display at Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Having grown up on a cattle ranch near Aspen, McBride admits to having taken the river’s abundance for granted; now he’s an advocate for its continued protection, “alarmed” by what he’s seen.

Like most of our environmental messes, parts of this one are reparable. The Tucson-based Sonoran Institute is leading an effort to save what remains of the Colorado River delta and has specific steps for how individuals can help. Cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. would be a big help and is being encouraged by the International Boundary & Water Commission. Patagonia’s yearlong “Our Common Waters” campaign points to a handful of organizations working on water-related clean-up projects.

For the full story, check out Waterman’s book-length account and the pair’s book of photo-and-text.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to

Photo by Pete McBride

Photo by Pete McBride

Photo by Pete McBride

Photo by Pete McBride

5 Ways the Ocean Can Help Us

It’s easy to understand why many smart people around the world consider the ocean to be at great risk today, thanks to a well-known handful of threats ranging from overfishing to the impact of climate change to acidification to plastic pollution.

Photo: bredgur/Creative Commons via Flickr

But a variety of those same smart people have some new thoughts on how we might better protect the ocean and its marine life and even tap it as a resource to improve some other planetary needs.

A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pinpoints four percent of the planet’s ocean which—if set aside as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)—would sufficiently protect the most at-risk marine mammal species.

Scientists from Stanford and the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico identified which four percent by layering maps of where the planet’s 129 marine mammals (seals, dolphins and polar bears) are found in most abundance and identified 20 ocean regions where they live. They went on to suggest that by protecting just nine of those 20 regions, locations with the highest “species richness,” 84 percent of the planet’s most at-risk marine mammals would be living under some kind of protection. The areas they encouraged to be protected were off the coasts of Baja, eastern Canada, Peru, Argentina, northwestern Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
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Meanwhile, over at the On Project (sponsored by the Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation), some clean thinkers are seeing the ocean less as one big mess and more as one big problem solver. Here are five ways they think the ocean can be tapped:

1) Clean Energy: Considered by some as “the other white meat” of alternative energy, ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is now available to harness the power of the ocean and produce clean base-load (24/7) energy.

2) Clean Drinking Water: According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 8 people do not have access to clean drinking water. Every day patients suffering from diseases associated with dirty drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene occupy half of the world’s hospital beds. Through desalination, powered by clean electricity from an OTEC plant, the ocean can provide clean drinking water for people around the world.

3) Aquaculture: The ocean offers great potential for food production in many areas of the world. With sustainable practices, food security and environmental costs can be balanced.

4) Unemployment: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), approximately 1 of every 6 jobs in the United States is marine-related, including careers in the fishing, tourism, recreation, energy and ocean transport industries.

5) Air Conditioning: Using cold, deep seawater in place of polluting standard refrigerants, the ocean supplies a clean method of air-conditioning that reduces electricity usage by up to 90 percent when compared to conventional cooling methods.

Currently less than one percent of the planet’s ocean is protected by MPAs; it’s clear that the more ocean we set-aside in protected areas—just like we do on land, in parks and wilderness areas—the better for endangered species and wild fish. And maybe if we begin to think of the planet’s one big ocean as a resource rather than a giant trashcan, it can actually help us.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to

Marine Life Faces ‘Mass Extinction’

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse ….

A new report to be released via the U.N. this week strongly suggests that the ocean is in far worse shape than we even imagined (“a shocking decline”) and that marine life is entering a phase of extinction “unprecedented in human history.”

Earth has already experienced five “mass extinction events,” going back some 500 million years, thanks to catastrophes like asteroid impacts and various big bangs. But it has long been considered fate that the next extinction, the sixth, would be thanks to man’s heavy footprint, as we continue to alter the planet’s physical landscape, overexploit a host of species, introduce alien species and pollute.

According to the panel comprised of 27 of the world’s top ocean experts – coral reef ecologists, toxicologists and fisheries scientists, assembled by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) — if trends are accurate this particular extinction will happen more quickly than previous ones.

Its conclusion does not mince words: “The findings are shocking,” says Alex Rogers, the group’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized.”

When it comes to scary reports, this one even outdoes the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 2007 report, surpassing even its worst, worst-case scenarios.

The new panel took a big, collective step backwards and looked at the whole ocean scene at once. What it saw was not pretty. It was not one particular abuse or man-influenced evolution that was most worrying but the cumulative impacts of the combination of melting sea ice, sea level rise, the release of methane trapped in the sea bed, the amount of plastic in the ocean, toxic algal blooms (dead zones) caused by nutrient-rich farm runoff, ocean acidification, warming of the seas, a myriad local pollutions and overfishing.

Rather than criticize-only, the report makes some specific – if broad – recommendations necessary if ocean life as we know it is to be preserved:
1. Stop overfishing … now!;
2. Map and then reduce pollutants, particularly plastic, fertilizers and human waste;
3. Make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” said Daniel Laffoley, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and co-author of the new report.

“And we are also probably the last generation that has enough time to deal with the problems.”

Four Reasons to Worry About the Future of Water, One Hope

I’ve just read Charles Fishman’s well-reported and frightening new book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.

Fishman’s new book—he is the author of The Wal-Mart Effect and a three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award for business journalism—focuses on a clean water crisis that he says has already arrived. A primary factor impacting our one ocean is endangering drinking water as well: Too many people. The planet will reach a population of 7 billion this year; one out of six don’t have access to clean drinking water.

“In the next 15 years, by 2025, the world will add 1.2 billion people,” writes Fishman. “By 2050, we will add 2.4 billion people. So between now and 40 years from now, more new people will join the total population than were alive worldwide in 1900. They will be thirsty.”

Four reasons Fishman gives for worrying about the future of water, and one sip of consolation:

1. Water is in everything, thus in huge demand. “Water is the secret ingredient in the computer chips that make possible everything from MRI machines to Twitter accounts. Indeed, from blue jeans to iPhones, from Kleenex to basmati rice to the steel in your Toyota Prius, every product of modern life is awash in water.”

2. Even the essential ingredient in man is … water.  “Everything human beings do is, quite literally, a function of water, because every cell in our bodies is plumped full of it, and every cell is bathed in watery fluid. Blood is 83 percent water. Every heartbeat is mediated by chemicals in water; when we gaze at a starry night sky, the cells in our eyes execute all their seeing functions in water; thinking about water requires neurons filled with water.”

3. Like many natural resources, humans take water for granted. “For Americans, flushing the toilet is the main way we use water … more water flushing toilets than bathing or cooking or washing our hands, our dishes, or our clothes.”

4. Given the abuse of the Colorado River system, rather than for casinos, Las Vegas may soon be known as the driest place on earth. “The Las Vegas area has 2 million residents and 36 million visitors a year, and its water source in January 2011 was lower than it had been in any January going back to 1965. At that time, Las Vegas had about 200,000 residents; today, on a typical day, there are twice that many tourists in town.”

5. Doing more with less water, in other words conserving, is possible. But keep an eye on India and China. As the two biggest populations on the planet grow, so will their water needs. “The United States uses less water today than it did in 1980. Not in per capita terms, in absolute terms. Water use in the United States peaked in 1980, at 440 billion gallons a day for all purposes. Today, the country is using about 410 billion gallons of water a day. That performance is amazing in many ways. Since 1980, the U.S. population has grown by 70 million people. And since 1980, the U.S. GDP in real terms has more than doubled. We use less water to create a $13 trillion economy today than we needed to create a $6 trillion economy then.”

(For the rest of my dispatch, go to

Posted in Water Crisis

Made in China: The World’s Worst Water Crisis

China is running out of water. Fast. Which is troubling for a nation of 1.3 billion people … and growing.

While there are lots of water-poor nations out there, today the average Chinese exists on one-tenth of the amount of water as the average global citizen.

Some see water shortages as China’s No. 1 long-term problem; the World Bank warns of “catastrophic consequences for future generations.”

Though China is criss-crossed by giant rivers, most of them are already dammed or diverted. Fifty-one reservoirs across the nation have already run dry.

Thanks to a combination of drought, overuse and pollution is forcing the Chinese to invest in a variety of hi-tech industries focused on cleaning and creating drinking water. Over the next decade its government intends to spend $600 billion in efforts to provide drinking water for a population that should top out around 1.4 billion by 2020.

How bad is it?

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Posted in China, Water Crisis