Why do athletes train in conditions that are harder than game conditions? Because it makes them better at what they do. Likewise, environmentalists could learn a thing or two from successful activists in countries where the going is harder. In this sense, China makes a great environmentalist training ground. Here, you’ll find both daunting challenges and inspirational environmental activists.
Protip #5: How to create win-win situations and gain popular support
Pan Wenshi was recently featured by the International Herald Tribune for his success working with locals in a small Chinese village to protect the white-headed langur. But it wasn’t until Pan lent a hand to help locals that he began to realize success. After Pan helped a villager to get clean drinking water, the villager freed a langur from a trap and brought the animal to Pan, who learned from the experience. Now, Pan advocates for new schools and health clinics in the area where the langurs live. In return, he gets local support. “When you help the villagers, they would like to help you back,” says Pan. “Now, when outsiders try to trap langurs the locals stop them from coming in.”
Pan’s success grew when he won an environmental award that allowed him to install biogas collectors. The villagers could now cook without the toil of chopping firewood and the langurs benefited by slowed deforestation. Serving the needs of others has allowed the langur population in Pan’s nature reserve to expand from 96 to over 500. “This [serving the human community] is the most important thing we can do,” says Pan. “If the villagers can’t feed themselves, the langurs don’t stand a chance.”
Where to start: If you’re planning an environmental or community service project, read six secrets to successful community activism, then consider what’s needed in the community before you begin. With the same tip in mind, learn how to volunteer abroad. If you want to help a particular species, learn where the species lives and then find out how to help the people who share the ecosystem. One option in many parts of the world is to make an investment through Kiva.
Protip #4: How to speak out with confidence
Dai Qing has been called “one of the most courageous, controversial figures on the Chinese cultural and intellectual scene today.” In the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown, she was jailed for speaking out against the government’s proposed Three Gorges Dam. Her publication, Yangtze! Yangtze!, which criticized the dam, drew international attention, won her the Goldman Environmental Prize and helped to delay the dam’s construction. Still a committed activist and writer, Dai says, “The highest expression of dignity can be summed up in the single word ‘No!’ - being able to say ‘No!’ when you disagree.”
Where to start: Speak out about what matters to you by contacting your local representative, or let your wallet talk for you by “voting” with the way you shop or spend money. If you’re handy with a keyboard, consider applying to become a writer at Green Options Media.
Protip #3: How to work within the system
China already has many well-intentioned environmental laws in place. But without proper enforcement, these laws might as well not exist. Local officials, who hope to mimic the economic miracles of Shenzhen and Beijing, are quicker to side with industry than the locals who suffer from factory pollution. “From a traditional perspective, China isn’t completely a nation of laws,” said Wang Canfa, director of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. “So when it comes to environmental protection [laws],” some local officials wonder: “What kind of law is this?”
Wang fights legal battles to enforce China’s existing environmental laws and protect locals from industrial pollution. Although he grew up poor, Wang worked his way up within the system, and today he’s using that same system to protect those who share his humble roots. Among his victories was a $730,000 ruling against a Shandong paper mill that polluted local fish farms. These victories have turned Wang into something of a legend to those seeking protection from harmful environmental practices.
Where to start: Before you can work within the system, you need to know how the system works. Learn more about environmental law, environmental politics, or environmental economics (Europe, USA), then apply your knowledge to generating the maximum positive effect.
Protip #2: How to publicize, network and get connected
Liao Xiaoyi, one of the most influential women in Chinese environmentalism, makes sustainable development in local communities a top priority. As president of Global Village, she promotes public transportation, recycling and eco-tourism, to name a few causes. She garnered attention through film and journalism, and in 2008 became a consultant in greening the Beijing Olympics. Liao says, “This is a media era. Somebody said, if you cannot show up in the media, then it is not different from not existing. Maybe it’s to extreme, but I know how important media is.”
Another top Chinese environmentalist, Wen Bo, told CNN that the new generation of Chinese youth activists are using the media to become more empowered and more effective. Says Wen, “[Young people] use this new media to publicize, to network, to get connected with people who are not in the same region. So, they can share ideas, share information instantly over the Internet, through email, and blogs.”
Where to start: If you think others would like to read about green news, projects, or achievements in your community, tell us at Green Options Media and you may see your news in the media.
Protip #1: How to teach others why the environment matters
“Sometimes it’s very lonely [being and environmental activist],” says Wang Yongchen, a journalist with China National Radio. “People support the environment, but say there’s nothing you can do about it.” If this attitude sounds familiar, learn how Wang is confronting it in her native China.
In 1996, Wang and co-founded Green Earth Volunteers as a small tree planting and bird watching NGO. The aim of these projects was to teach young people about their place in the environment. Since then, 50,000 people have joined the group’s programs. In 2005, Wang won the Condé Nast Traveler Environmental Award.
“Environmental protection and economic planning are longtime national policies. But while economic planning was managed really well, environmental protection was just an empty slogan,” says Wang. “I felt that if we really want to have environmental protection, then people have to learn about the environment.”
Where to start: Teachers, parents and educators can get lesson plans and grant information at the EPA Teacher Center, the North American Association for Environmental Education, Environmental Teaching Resources and a wide variety of other websites. One of my most successful exercises for teaching youth about habitat loss is to take a group of 5-50 students and use sidewalk chalk to draw a large circle on the ground where everyone can comfortably stand. (For inside a classroom, put scratch paper on the floor and tell students they must be standing on a piece of paper.) Explain that if each student were a species, then everyone has the room they need to live well. Then draw a smaller circle and have kids race to get inside. Continue with smaller circles until not everyone can fit in. The students have a great time and really get a great hands on understanding of the importance of habitat preservation.