Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The organic market was this past Saturday, an almost huge success. . Between 2:30 and 5 we had a constant stream of Chinese and foreign guests interested in organics and the different environmental tables we had set up. All of the farmers and organic food venders who participated were satisfied with their sales and responses from the community, and we sold almost all of the re-usable canvas bags that we had printed.

In fact, other than the blazing sun over our heads all afternoon, the only problem Ashley and I faced was the Chinese media coverage. We each had several interviews with local newspapers throughout the day, and people just couldn’t understand the collaborative effort of the event. Ashley and I tried to impress upon the reporters that we had worked together, that the event was about environmental lifestyles and community supported agriculture, about the innovation of the farmers, and the opportunity for the community to get involved. What we ended up with however, were three headlines that read, “pretty American girls support organic farmers” with pictures that literally cut out our Chinese partners.

Now, although the fact that that phrase does translate into a slightly catchy slogan, “meiguo mei nu…..” I found this disappointing. After so many attempts to engage all of our contributors as equals… a list serve, multiple meetings, lots of encouragement to innovate and develop everyone’s ideas, everyone kept deferring to Ashley and I as the leaders. Why was no one taking credit for their hard work and ideas for the community?
To be honest, I have asked myself this question a few times through some of my project with students or other NGO stakeholders in China. While competitive behavior abounds in schools and in more traditional areas of work, I think where new ideas are concerned, people are more timid. I’ve been told many times that this is a residual effect of the cultural revolution (!) and the modest Chinese cultural heritage, which seems reasonable… But it’s hard to gauge how much everyone is buying into your ideas, when the ideas are based in group ownership and community growth, and people are reticent to take responsibility.

Lastly, even though I was disappointed with the reporting, what is the impact of this framing. Does using a foreign face attract more Chinese people to the market? Or, is it a repellant to the kind of environmentally conscious consumer that we are trying to target? I really have no idea. Hopefully we can find answers next month when we try it again. At least my local fruit vender recognized me from the pictures however, and, in a few minutes of laughing and exaggerated hand movements, made it clear that he now understood the connection between my refusal of plastic bags with environmental protection.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

So, I just posted an article that I wrote for Chengdoo magazine after attending a two day conference in Chengdu about "Chinese Green Cities". The local NGO community was lured by promises to

Discuss environmental, wildlife, & nature protection strategies

Devise a plan to promote harmony between humans and nature

Mobilize all walks of society to participate in greening China

Discuss successful models & experiences in environmental and wildlife protection

and equally, if not more important that All speeches will be translated into English.

Well, after counting 78 chandeliers in the grand ballroom, studying all of the characters on the stage backdrop, and feeling like suckers in the "foreign expert" made for TV row, my friend Ashley and I conspired to actually discuss and act on the four points above: (in English with translation)

Join us for the launch of the
Chengdu Organic Market at The Bookworm

Farmers markets are known for bringing healthy and fresh produce and products from the countryside into the city and fostering direct relationships between people and farmers. Although Chengdu has excellent access to fresh local produce in fruit and vegetable stands and on the streets, it is very difficult, if not impossible to find environmentally friendly or organic produce. The general dearth of organic produce can be attributed to a number of barriers which include the small perceived willingness to pay for value-added produce, mistrust/false labeling, lack of infrastructure, and lack of understanding on the part of both producers and consumers regarding the logistics and importance of organic production.

Fortunately, there are many NGOs and entrepreneurs in Chengdu working to grow community supported agriculture (CSA) models to bring organic produce directly to the consumer. CSA is a socio-economic model of food production, sales, and distribution that allows small scale farmers to reduce potential food loses and financial risks of producing organic. This model also provides an avenue to build trust between producers and consumers, resolving the issue of false labeling, especially false organic or “green” labeling that is so common in China.
We believe that creating an organic farmers market in Chengdu provides an avenue for expanding existing CSA projects in Chengdu while demonstrating the demand for organic produce and willingness to pay the added costs of production. This will in turn support the expansion of organic production to a greater number of farmers, improve the local soil and water quality by reducing pesticide and fertilizer use, and support a growing movement towards sustainable and “green” lifestyles in Chengdu. Already, many local NGOs are engaged in projects that support organic production and environmental lifestyles. The Chengdu Organic Farmers Market could provide a direct and constant consumer link to support and expand these activities.

The market will not be limited to the sale of organic produce; it will also provide a forum for educational activities such as urban composting, windowsill gardening, pet care and neutering, kids activities, etc. This will attract more diverse participation, and provide a platform for the greater local environmental community to gather.

First Chengdu Organic Market will be held
Saturday June 23rd from 11-3pm
outside The Bookworm

Call for Contributions:
The Chengdu Organic Market is looking for contributors who are interested in hosting tables for: organic produce, educational activities and demonstrations. Financial donations, and any other contributions are also welcome of course.

For more information, please contact Kat Cooley and Ashley Murray at

This is an article I just wrote for Chengdoo Magazine, a slightly more formal 'zine' for the hipster ex-pats in my neighborhood.

Greening the Grey.

May 9th and 10th marked the 4th Forum on Chinese Green Cities hosted by the Chengdu municipal government, and attended by government officials from many Chinese provinces, international forestry academics, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and NGO representatives from Chengdu and abroad. The conference was designed to celebrate China’s “greenest” cities while addressing issues of sustainable development and the importance of urban green spaces. It also included an afternoon showcase of Chengdu’s many green spaces…although they may have appeared a bit more gray than expected on that ironically smoggy afternoon.

Since arriving in China, the word green has become synonymous with a vague sense of some “environmentally friendly” qualities. There are “green foods” in the supermarket, “green buildings”, “green lifestyles”, the clothing brand, “Nature” whose bright green sign clashes with almost everything inside, and now “green cities” popping up everywhere. But what exactly does “green” mean? In relation to green cities for example, are we literally talking about the number of leafy plants in side the second ring road?

Greenery is obviously important. Green areas and wildlife have measurable positive impacts not only on aesthetics, but also on local air, water, and environmental quality, as well as mental health. The right mix of species in an urban environment will serve multiple functions. Removing carbon from the atmosphere, emitting volatile organic compounds that reduce the formation of dangerous ozone and carbon monoxide, helping to control runoff, and stabilizing microclimates are just a few of their positive environmental effects. At the conference, one speaker from the University of Copenhagen also pointed out that in Denmark, proximity to green spaces is directly correlated to level of fitness, and that recovery of hospital patients with a view of greenery is significantly faster that recovery of those who view a brick. It’s these kinds of findings that have encouraged many Chinese cities to promote more proactive urban and rural tree-planting initiatives.

But “green” has to go deeper and address sustainability in a more holistic sense… or all the trees we plant will shrivel and die in a bone-dry city full of smog and acid rain. When we label something “green”, we also need to consider every kind of input and waste involved in its creation and day to day use. Clean, renewable, and efficient energy supply, effective and sustainable use of resources, comprehensive waste management, and implementation of the “3 Rs” reduce, reuse, and recycle are all concepts must go hand in hand with a “green” label. Where “green cities” are concerned, these concepts are beginning to prevail, with China host to the foremost global example of sustainable urban planning. Right off the Chinese mainland on Chongming island, where the world’s first sustainable “eco-city” is in its first phase of development. ARUP, a British consulting firm, and the Shanghai Industrial Investment Company (SIIC) are masterplanning the city, which, by 2010, will house 500,000 people, and provide the opportunity for people to lead an integrated and truly sustainable life. The island city will use recycled water, cogeneration and biomass energy sources, while remaining “as carbon neutral as possible”. Ecological sensitivity is a priority as the island that is mostly used for agricultural activity and is adjacent to a critical wetland, but sustainability has also been expanded to include social, cultural, and economic frameworks. It’s this type of comprehensive and innovative thinking that we should expect from everything green.

So, do not accept the nebulously green. When a product or event claims, “green!” require specifics: the basic whats, whys, and hows, or it’s a wash. It’s your role as consumers and as dwellers of whichever place you go to keep a critical eye on green, (and any other vague adjectives for that matter). If there is no one verifying that the eggs really are free range, organic, or bringing you and your friends to the farm in the back of the hybrid pick-up, you should assume that the chickens dyed their feathers last weekend at a party cause it’s so totally hip to be green right now. Or better, be conscious of the fact that although talk is perhaps the first step towards decisive commitments, right now there’s still a lot of grey in our greens.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

It’s 8:20, Marie and I are going to the airport in an hour and a half to fly to Bangkok. Absurdly, we’re feeling mellow. Probably because our work and social lives have not afforded us much sleep this past week. It’s also been cloudy and raining in Chengdu for three full days, so my backpack is full of dirty clothes that I haven’t been able to wash, or, wouldn’t have been able to dry. I think it’s ok, they will dry so much faster on the beach (!!)

I found Cedric dead on the tiles upstairs this morning. He had been sneezing and losing weight for the last three weeks, not cleaning himself as often as he should, and looking a bit dazed in general. By no means was this loss a surprise, but we’re all a bit upset.

I realize I haven’t written in this blog for some time, and haven’t shared that in February I moved out of my room with the Wang family and into an apartment nearby the Sichuan University campus. I now live with Nick, Tenaka, and Marie, who are American, Japanese and Swedish respectively, inside the “Institute of Biogas of the Ministry of Agriculture” on the 6th floor of the first faculty building. It’s part of a traditional concrete block-building neighborhood, but is surprisingly green, with trees, potted plants, and roof gardens flowing over nearly every ledge. We’re the only foreigners in the complex, and I think our neighbors think we’re a riot.

Cedric, hoppy and snuggly, as we will remember him, was one of the three bunnies we bought upon moving in to live in our roof garden. As with all pets in China however, we bought them when they were very tiny, and have since lost two of them to an illness that we think can be attributed to having been taken from their mother too young. Anyone who has roamed the stalls of a Chinese pet market can attest to the infancy of many of the animals, and the tight quarters in which they are kept, and their often sickly conditions. Thankfully we still have Buddy, who was the only rabbit of the three growing, and has more than doubled in size since we got him. We also have about a dozen fish in our roof pool, 2 roaming lizards, a few mice, and a giant cage that our landlords used to raise geese…

Monday, February 26, 2007

First and foremost, I owe the Chinese New Year an apology. Turns out, fireworks are both horribly addictive and wonderful to scare bad spirits away, and most of the excessive eating and seasonal dishes have special meanings. I actually decided to break with my vegetarian self for the evening and try at least a little bit of every food that had some meaning. I tried some of the home-made sausage that is hnug outside so that the community can feel the holiday approaching, new years fish to bring me wealth, a chicken wing that young women eat so that they can fly away to beautiful places, a dumpling with a coin inside which thankfully didn't break my teeth, and "long life noodles" first thing on the morning of the new year. I'm forgetting a lot here as dinner was before an evening of firework warfare... In my last post I mentioned fireworks in on three sides... I don't think there was a square meter free of explosives between dusk and midnight on New Years Eve. Also, on the 18th, the Xupings invited Randy, Weihe and I to come watch them pay homage to their ancestors at a nearby mountain temple, where Spring festival is the busiest time of the year. So, as much as television and development has interferred with tradition recently, in the countryside at least, much remains intact.

After the holiday in Dayi with Randy and the Xupings, I took off on a weeklong adventure through Guizhou and Guangxi, two provinces that are southeast of Sichuan. For the last few days my friend Nick and I have been hiking around in the pine forested mountains and Miao minority villages Eastern Guizhou. A few days ago we spent half a day snaking down a paddied mountain to a cluster of houses for lunch then walked along the river back to Xijiang, where we were staying with the family of a woman we met on the bus. The Miao are also famous for their embroidery, which is incredibly colorful and elaborate...I asked a woman in town to teach me, and should have a dragon ready to go by the time I get home. We're expecting it to be "cute" a.k.a. horribly botched, so I bought a few more authentic examples to share.
Yesterday we went to a bull fight (which directly translates from chinese as "cow fight") in another small community downstream and spent the day hanging over a bridge with a bunch of kids watching what we think are actually water buffalo ram eachother in a crowd of crouching men.

Now I'm in Sanjiang headed to Guilin tomorrow morning to meet my friend from GreenSOS who is from the area. We had about a dozen near death experiences on the bus careening alongside bottomless cliffs and sharing seats with ducks, chickens, and vomiting children on the way over, and there is absolutely no going back for me. Thank god for trains, planes, and the "supernaturally lovely karst topography" that awaits!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Happiness Upside-Down.

The Chinese New Year is tomorrow, February 18th, and the city is decorated with red lanterns, flowers, ornaments, bustling with traffic, packages, people, and exploding at every corner with excitement, or more literally, with sparklers, and fireworks. Traditionally each spring festival, everyone goes back to their hometown to spend the weeklong holiday with their families, and since the end of January when school got out, people traveling en masse across the country. The Wang’s daughter has come home from Singapore, where she has been working for eight years, and everyday, relatives, classmates, and neighbors have been stopping by for tea or meeting us for banquet lunches all over town.
That said, Spring Festival is also about food. A few months ago, people started preparing thick red sausages to celebrate prosperity on the New Year, and strings hang at every market, and in every house, frequently rubbing up against the days drying clothes on the clothesline. This afternoon I noticed a coat rack outside someone’s door where two whole chickens were hanging upside down, tanning with string of sausage, and a dog patiently waiting for disaster. Does this seem absurd to anyone else? There’s meat everywhere.
In my house we’ve also been eating a lot of different rice combinations wrapped with cornhusks and string. Some of them are stuffed with meat, but others are sweet with brown sugar and red bean paste or corn. There are also a variety of different small cakes and treats that I think are for the New Year, and a “New Years Fish” that is actually a bowl of about a dozen whole fried fish soaking in a spicy soup that you have to poke around for with your chop sticks. A spring festival banquet isn’t complete until everyone was stuffed out of their minds before eight more dishes arrived on the table for mandatory sampling. Both yesterday at lunch, and dinner this evening, the table was overflowing with food and plates were stacked on top of each other in heaping pyramids of meats, soups, vegetables, rolls, with the constant clink of cheering glasses above.

But to be honest, amidst all of this excessive festivity, I feel like we’ve all gone a little insane. So much of what historically must have been meaningful Chinese heritage, I feel, has been lost in the insatiable consumerism that is storming over this nation. Millions of cheap plastic disposable lanterns clutter every commercial overhang and window clashing with yesterday’s advertisements, and box upon box of processed individually wrapped cakes replace homemade goodies. Grandparents are abandoned in their rural villages, and there just aren’t enough trains to get the migrant workers back home. The rising middle class shares new opportunities for travel, leisure, and living room TV extravaganzas while the poor are left to their own devices when only children can’t get stuck somewhere else. Also, with firework explosions on three sides, post-trauma car alarms, smoking card board launch pads, and the cops belatedly buzzing the crowd with lights ablaze, it’s not hard to confuse these drunken, lantern littered streets with some kind of violent combat zone.
Maybe it’s just my foreign disconnected self refusing to be swept away in the celebration and watching wide-eyed as two young boys duel with giant roman candles, and the waitress clears away yet another untouched bird or fish. Or maybe with China’s new eye towards the American dream, it feels like my country’s biggest flaws are perverting traditions and cultures everywhere. It’s one thing when we replace Jesus with Santa and presents, but when our outsourcing and obese consumer culture displaces millions and buries Chinese traditions in so much product that young generations can no longer find the meaning, it’s hard to celebrate.
One of the most popular Spring Festival decorations is the character for happiness written on red paper cut outs and decorated with fish, pigs, and other symbols for prosperity and wealth. In Chinese, the pronunciation of “upside-down” is the same as the pronunciation of “arrive”, and a lot of the decorations for happiness, on my door for example, are upside-down, as a play on words to mean that happiness will arrive, or has arrived. When this was first explained to me, I thought it was clever…now I’m wondering if at some magical threshold number, all of the red glittered arriving happiness doesn’t just become tacky decorations hung upside-down.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Step by Ittsy Bitsy Step

I’m writing from my hotel room in Ningxia, where I arrived with ECOLOGIA on Tuesday. We’re here to continue working with Canadian Aluminum (ALCAN) on the community project component of their local Environment, Health, and Safety program. It’s about eight o’clock in the evening, and from my desk, through my closed windows, I can hear the public speaker working through its evening routine from its perch in some poor tree across the street. It rotates through a series of dialogues, which I assume include news, public service announcements, messages from The Party, as well as orchestral space- odyssey interludes, and static chaos, all of which, to me, is incredibly irritating and creepy. Isn’t the land, air, body, and eye polluted enough in this industrial desert town?
Actually, in what I hope to look back on as a low point in my experience with culture shock or cross-cultural understanding, I can’t help but wonder if the speaker persists only to render anyone within earshot intellectually useless in the evening hours when independent or creative thought is most fruitful! Quick, turn on the television to drown the propaganda! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It’s now 8:45, the speaker is finished (until tomorrow morning), and I can feel the brain fog lifting. It’s amazing how peaceful quiet can be.
Anyways, after our workshop last September, the ALCAN Sustainability Team went to work on three community projects. Right now we’re reflecting on the experience of the first three, and inviting local community members to participate in the next round. On a local level, these projects addressed issues of elderly health, rural school deficiencies, and traffic safety respectively. On a global level however, ALCAN’s endeavor to engage local stakeholders and facilitate community development represents what I hope is a sea change in international corporate culture.
Last week, for example, I was in Sydney for the fifth working group on ISO 26000, which by 2008 will be a new standard for social responsibility. ISO, the International Standards Association, traditionally deals in technical specifications for everything. Essentially, making international criterion to ensure that all the nuts and bolts of the world are compatible; so that a watt is a watt etc. anywhere you are in the world. Regardless of what happened at this working group, (which I’ll be sure to share asap) just the fact that ISO has initiated the process of creating a standard for social responsibility represents a monumental shift in priorities and vision of not only the organization, but the world. Just twenty years ago, corporate social responsibility was a brand new idea. Actually a colleague told me that just three years ago in Chengdu, mention of corporate social responsibility wouldn’t receive cognizant response from anyone. Now, in Chengdu, CSR front page, and sustainability reports are the new black. Internationally, here are so many documents addressing the issue that there is demand for a gold ISO standard to clarify what exactly businesses are supposed to do. Imagine packaging the Global Reporting Initiative, the UN Global Compact, the Declaration of Human Rights, resolutions from the International Labor Organization, the Earth Charter, and more into one easy-to-read and easy-to-do guidance standard for all organizations all over the world. The impact could* be world changing, pointing to proactive companies like ALCAN as role models, and making holistic and responsible business ethics a social norm.
Tomorrow I will help take one more step towards what I envision as a refined 21st century corporate-consumer-capitalist cultural Eden, working with ALCAN staff and local elementary school teachers to design a project about food safety.

*see future post about Sydney ISO working group. As optimistic as I’m being now, at points last week aggressive industry reps, blind experts, inhibiting politics, and squelched opportunity had me crying behind my poker face.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sun, Surf, and Standards

This is just a quick note to say that I've safetly arrived in Sydney and and am already completely intoxicated with the city. The public transportation is incredible, people are contagiously friendly and laid back, and there are post-card beaches in walking distance that I'm sure will be baiting me away from ISO meetings come Sunday.

Carolyn and I have also managed to arrive just in time for Australia Day, so it's even more festive than usual, with boat parades, surf races, and picnics all over the city. I'll be sure to write more over the next few days. just not while the suns out and the waves are big.. or while I'm in meetings.