New Internationalist

Green Odyssey

Issue 313

new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

Green Odyssey
Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg get on their bikes and set
out across Southeast Asia in search of green cities.

The authors overlooking Lamma Island power plant.
We’re city kids. And just like most people in the Western world we grew up on
a diet of stories dished up by the corporate media. The news of doom and gloom
was getting us down, so we hit the road on an ecological odyssey we call Greenspiration.
Our mission: to track down, document and share inspiring ecological stories.
With our bicycles, laptop computer and video camera we first traversed North America.
Then, aiming our handlebars eastward, we jetted to Japan
and began a six-month odyssey in Southeast Asia.

Ultra-green Hanoi cyclist. JAPAN: Escalators for bicycles
As Canadian bicycle activists from a country where less than one per cent of trips are made by bike, we were tickled to see Japanese of all ages riding jitensha (bikes) as if it were the most natural thing to do (it is!).

Multi-story bicycle-parking garages at many train stations protected thousands of cycles from the elements. Specially designed bicycle escalators – like magical moving carpets – made it easy for cyclists to climb stairs. Car traffic moved at bicycle speeds through narrow streets.

There’s not much green space in Japanese urban communities. In Osaka we visited a gymnasium designed with a roof that doubled as a hill. This allowed for great savings in energy while creating a much-needed park within this dense city.

Kyoto is an ancient, beautiful city of a thousand temples and elaborate gardens. Nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains it retains much of its traditional charm. As host city for the international United Nations Climate Convention in 1997, it may be remembered as the place where 10,000 bleary-eyed delegates helped the world move away from the ecological brink. For the first time the global community agreed to limit our production of greenhouse gases.

We pondered the Japanese word kiki, or crisis. When written it contains two words: danger and opportunity. Global warming is a looming crisis, but there is opportunity too – opportunity for bikes, urban agriculture, mass transit, conservation, renewable energy, local economics and green jobs.

We left the frenzied city life behind and hopped on a boat to the subtropical Amami islands in southwestern Japan. Grunting over mountain passes, we swooped through thick green forests that stretched unbroken to the sea. It seems unjust that these forests are intact while Japanese corporate giants like Daishowa and Mitsubishi clear-cut Canada’s boreal forests for chopsticks and fax paper.

In the land of the rising sun much of the electricity comes from nuclear power. But we were impressed to see that almost every tenth roof was adorned with solar panels for hot water. The Japanese Government underwrites much of the cost.

TAIWAN: Slow boat, no hurry
After 36 hours rocking and rolling through the East China Sea from Okinawa, Japan, we were glad to touch land at the port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Bicycle as workhorse in Guangzhou. Bikes and boats are a natural combination: neither are too fast, they’re ecological, sociable and pleasingly relaxing. No need to unload the bike as you wheel it into the boat. Grab what you need, climb the stairs, and stare out at the endless blue horizon. Arriving at your destination you just untie the bike, roll down the ramp and presto – you’re in the heart of the old city.

As we pedalled into Kaohsiung a pack of lawnmowers descended upon us – or at least that’s what it sounded like. It was a horde of scooters, whizzing, belching, swarming and surrounding us. By the end of the day we were covered by a thin layer of grime from the unburned sooty fuel.

In the town of Chiku we visited a wetland slated to be transformed into an oil refinery and steel mill. If the project proceeds, the livelihoods of 20,000 fishers will be destroyed, as will much of the last remaining habitat of the black-faced spoonbill. Only 400 of these gorgeous, egret-like wading birds remain in the world, and three quarters of them winter here. Too bad spoonbills can’t vote.

Being a vegetarian in Taiwan was a shock. As we roamed the bustling streets we were confronted with heaps of octopus tentacles, piles of dead frogs, boiling pools of entrails, and hanging carcasses. But vegetarian restaurants are also common. How do you recognize them? A swastika, believe it or not. To us it symbolizes evil and extermination. But Buddhists have been using the swastika – actually its mirror image – long before the Nazis appropriated it.

Pedestrian power on Lamma Island. HONG KONG: Island of the walkers
Close your eyes and imagine your neighbourhood without all the cars. That’s what we discovered on enchanted Lamma Island. It’s just 40 minutes by ferry from Hong Kong. With a population of 6.5 million Hong Kong is the densest place on earth, jammed with towers shooting up like a bamboo forest.

Pedestrians in Hong Kong are herded off the street on to elevated walkways, jammed shoulder to shoulder in a heaving mob of humanity. Underground, during rush hour, a subway train snakes by every minute swallowing up thousands of people at a time. Sardines would find it cramped.

But there are signs of sanity. The most unusual but elegant of public conveyances is the pedestrian escalator to mid levels. From the centre of Hong Kong a series of covered, outdoor escalators snake up the mountain. Such conveyances – escalators – are common in private buildings. Hong Kong proves that they can work well in public spaces too.

The drone of the beehive fades into a hum as we escape on the breezy ferry ride to Lamma. As the boat pulls away a postcard downtown view of Hong Kong appears. Roughly translated, Hong Kong means ‘fragrant harbour’. These days the fragrance is more likely to be a whiff of industrial effluent and sewage.

Down below in the not-so-fragrant water a small remnant population of bubblegum-pink dolphins slowly succumbs to the churn of boat propellers and pollution of their watery home. A couple of hundred still survive in the region, but their population is dropping precipitously by around 15 per cent each year.

As the ferry snuggles up to the pier on Lamma Island, the sound of shoes replaces the drone of cars. It is generously quiet. The only cars around are the toys that children play with. And no cars means lots of safe space for kids.

Over 7,000 people live on this hilly 14-square-kilometre island of scarlet hibiscus blossoms and towering banana plants. Clumps of jungle host hooting birds, moaning frogs, giant night snails and butterflies. Handcarts haul heavy goods around. Stores and restaurants are serviced by the four-wheeled trolleys which can handle a thousand pounds, no sweat.

Curious, friendly kids everywhere. As the climate cooks and species disappear under pavement, it’s a relief to know that without cars other things happen. Why not have car-free, island neighbourhoods within Western cities? With a mix of escalators, hand trolleys, shoe canvas, and wild green spaces our cities could be liveable again. We know it. We’ve walked there, and it’s magic.

But even paradise has wrinkles. Three towers, each 70 storeys high, vent the exhaust from the mammoth coal-fired power plant. Three-and-a-half million tonnes of coal – 10,000 tonnes a day – are burned annually to supply electricity to Hong Kong. Now the utility is planning to expand, and perhaps also build an incinerator to burn garbage.

The challenge for Hong Kong and other industrializing countries is to leapfrog polluting, inefficient technologies and invest in energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy that don’t cost the earth. Many power companies around the world have switched on to a more sustainable path, allowing us all to breathe a little easier.

CHINA: Food for thought
Travelling by bicycle in China you are not alone. With a population of 1.2 billion, everybody seems to be riding. Often a single bike will have a couple and a child perched atop it. Towering piles of cardboard for recycling, huge bunches of cooking wood, and all manner of goods move around by pedal power.

While riding in Guangxi province in southern China, we noticed the absence of the cyclists’ bane – chasing dogs. Here dogs are rarely pets – they are more likely to be dinner.

Cruel supper in Guangzhou, China. It was heart-wrenching to roam through the Qing Ping Market in Guangzhou (Canton), packed with live animals awaiting slaughter: some for sustenance, others for alleged medicinal power. Sixty-year-old turtles would be boiled for their shells and stomachs. Cats, rabbits, birds, snakes and beetles awaited their fate. Guangzhou people have a reputation of ‘daring to eat anything’.

What really turned our stomachs was to see tiger paws, bear gall bladders and rhinoceros horns on sale as ‘traditional medicines’ – all highly illegal.

In the Chinese calendar this past year was the Year of the Tiger. With this glorious animal on the verge of extinction, now might be a good time to heed the wisdom of animal-rights organizations like Hong Kong’s Earth Care. With so many species being pushed towards extinction Earth Care is promoting the use of herbal alternatives to replace animal parts’ derivatives used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And they maintain that herbal medicines are cheaper and more effective than those derived from animals.

Though we never actually saw the white dragon, we heard of its tale. The story goes that US satellites spotted a white line snaking through parts of China. After investigation it was shown to be a stream of Styrofoam litter along the main train line.

Polystyrene foam containers are a common nuisance world-wide: they cause pollution in their production, they are a waste of resources since they are used only once, they don’t biodegrade for hundreds of years, and they release toxic gases when burned. The styrene may even be a health concern as it can leach out of the packaging and into human fat tissue.

The embarrassed Chinese officials decided to eliminate the problem by banning the use of Styrofoam take-out containers altogether. Production of alternative, disposable boxes made from bamboo, sugar cane stock, straw or hay is well underway. A dozen Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing have already banned the use of Styrofoam take-out food containers.

CHINA: New age for sewage
China is getting its shit together.

Throughout China biogas is actively encouraged by the state. In the southern city of Yulin, Guangxi province, farming households are being equipped with biogas units. Each unit transforms human and pig waste into gas for cooking, lighting and heating water. Already 400,000 people use biogas in Guangxi province alone.

Each household, along with their four pigs, produces enough biogas for all its cooking, lighting and hot water. And since electricity is expensive, a biogas unit can save money. Biogas is a lot more convenient than other energy forms, such as collecting firewood for cooking. By using the biogas instead of wood, fewer trees are chopped down.

State employee Zhuo Youxing had this to say: ‘Of course I am happy with the success of the project. I am serving the people.’

Through a swarm of butterflies in Vietnam's Cuc Phuong National Park VIETNAM: War in the streets
The US military, during the war in Vietnam, inaugurated a new form of war. It became known as ‘ecocide’: they attempted to destroy the ecosystem by pouring massive quantities of herbicides from the sky to force peasants to abandon the countryside.

Three decades later, the battle against nature continues. Now the war is in the cities: cities which survived decades of war are now suffering under a pallor of exhaust. The streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are being strangled, slowly, by aggressive, honking motorized vehicles. One might call it ‘urbicide’.

Early in the morning, the streets are so calm you can hear birds singing from cages hanging in the trees. By 8 am, under the shady trees of the Old Quarter, the streets are full to capacity as activity bursts forth. Motorcycles are everywhere, weaving, accelerating, and swerving within a hair’s breadth of each other.

Through this anarchic traffic jumble, cone-hatted women amble carrying bouncing baskets of bananas and pineapples, bread, or ready-to-eat sticky rice, and more. Everything glides by in woven bamboo baskets elegantly balanced on a bamboo pole. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of shopping: instead of going somewhere for the goods, the ‘basket of goods’ comes to you.

Make-shift restaurants, complete with a few stackable stools and a coal-fired stove, line the sidewalks. Kids play soccer, weaving around the pedestrians. Peddlers hone in on tourists, trying to sell postcards or army-green pith helmets.

Another type of peddler pushes a ride in a cyclo – the ubiquitous, three-wheeled, pedal-powered taxi. This unique Vietnamese vehicle is custom-made in small shops around the country. It is a popular mode of transport for tourists and locals alike. And when required, a cyclo can as easily be used for transporting large, bulky and heavy freight.

But everybody seems to want a motorbike. One of the more popular brands is the Honda Dream. But with everybody driving their Dream, the city is turning into a nightmare.

Not everyone is happy with the rapid motorization. Nguyen Linh, of the Vietnam Women’s Union, told us: ‘Many people feel regret with the current situation that the Vietnamese are forgetting the bicycle... Many people miss the romantic past; it was quieter and less polluted. And of course, bicycles are good for the environment.’

It is hard to imagine what Hanoi was like just five years ago when there were virtually no motorcycles. Or ten years ago when streetcars still plied the leafy boulevards.

In the countryside, the bicycle is still commonly used. Once we rode in a special lane reserved for bicycles and water buffalo. They may have horns, but at least they don’t honk.

Hong Kong with its clean trams and escalators. Piecing it together
We witnessed the tragedy of millions of motorcycles roaring down Asian streets and sickening the atmosphere. We pondered upon the last of the tigers’ paws being taken from the wild and sold in Chinese markets.

On the other hand we found powerful and inspiring initiatives that the over-industrialized world can learn from. If the bicycle can play such a prominent role in Osaka, why not in Mexico City? How about biogas for Boston or London?

We were touched most deeply by the persistent generosity we received. Although we were strangers as we pedalled through Asia, peasants would freeze and then try to talk to us or write things down in characters we could not understand. But with some pointing, laughter, and patience we were able to bridge barriers of language and culture.

Intuitively, people wanted to be helpful. Perhaps, as we all become aware of the damage we are doing to our home planet, such generosity will blossom. And if we learn from each other’s innovation and creativity, the pieces of a whole and healthy planet can fall into place.

Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg live in Edmonton. They are currently traversing Canada on a millennial Greenspiration Odyssey.
You can reach them at: greenspi@web.net and read their exploits at: www.greenspiration.org

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