Ed Norton Speaks About Environmental Reform in China


The Red Panda

Ed Norton, HLS ’71, spoke to a standing room only crowd in Hauser Hall Tuesday night in a presentation entitled “Environment and Law: Lessons from China and Indonesia.” Norton spoke about his work with the Nature Conservancy in China and Indonesia, particularly China’s Yunnan province, where he had worked to establish a system of nature preserves and to strengthen the protections on already existing reserves.

The Yunnan province is considered one of the world’s key biodiversity hotspots, and is home to such animals as the Red Panda and the highly endangered Yunnan Golden Monkey, as well as some half of the plants used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Norton began by showing a short film entitled “Voices of a Sacred Land,” which outlined the biodiversity of the region, threats to its conservation (including logging and unplanned tourism), and the Nature Conservancy’s goals in the area. Norton then told the audience that this film – made fairly early in the project’s life – was not inaccurate, but “half-accurate,” the “romantic version of the China project.”

The film, he said, described the first and easiest phase of the project which involved collating and making use of the tremendous amounts of information that scientists, particularly Chinese scientists, had already gathered about the region in order to develop an Ecoregional plan. That plan ultimately recommended the creation of new protected areas as well as that managerial protections on several existing areas be strengthened.

He then spoke candidly about the challenges of enforcement in China, particularly in a setting in which environmental activists are still jailed on vague charges or forbidden from leaving the country or traveling widely within it.

Ultimately, however, Norton was optimistic about legal developments in China, saying that “the trend of the movement is in the right direction.” The legal system is vastly expanding – the country now has some 400 law schools, a unified bar exam (with a pass rate of only 7%), and produces more than 200,000 lawyers a year.

Furthermore, Norton stated, even in the six years he was there, the range of opinions in government and among the public diversified and expanded enormously, even spreading, in a limited way, to the press.

Norton also spoke about his discomfort at being a Western reformer in China, musing about what would happen if a Chinese man tried to tell the U.S. government how to run their public lands policy in Idaho. While China has a long history of taking and accepting ideas from the West, he said, Western reformers had never been successful, ultimately, when they attempted to offer scientific knowledge wrapped up in an ideology.

Norton also mentioned his work in Indonesia, which also involves a series of protected areas.

The talk was introduced by a long-time friend of Norton, HLS Visiting Professor John Leshy, who told the audience that he has “had the kind of career that most of us would kind of die for.”

After leaving the law school, Norton worked briefly in corporate law, then as a federal prosecutor. As an environmental lawyer and advocate, he has worked with the Wilderness Society, co-founded the organization “Rails to Trails,” which converts abandoned railroad tracks to hiking trails, and founded and served as the first executive direct or the Grand Canyon Trust, which Leshy praised as the model of regional environmental advocacy.

Norton is the father of actor Ed Norton (Fight Club).

This was Norton’s first visit to HLS since he graduated in 1971. He commented that he was worried about the talk’s dry title, as the only talk he attended while he was there was one given to a packed room in his first year by Ralph Nader, HLS ’58, entitled “The Socratic Method at Harvard Law School: Intellectual Arrogance Transformed into a Pedagogical Device.”

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