In pod we trust An unlikely trio adopts a fun approach to spread the green message on the mainland
LIFE Dinah Gardner Apr 14, 2008
Take a geeky-looking US student, an idealistic young mainlander, and an actor from Toronto, mix in video, some naff rap lines - "Wind energy, hey/ Reduce emissions, hey/ It's green energy/ Hey! Hey! Hey!" - and the result is the China's Green Beat website. Calling themselves the Green Brothers, the unlikely trio of John Romankiewicz, Zhao Xiangyu and Rene Ng have been highlighting efforts to tackle China's environmental crisis through quirky videos that they post on their site, and now hope to persuade young people that it's hip to be green.
A visiting Fulbright scholar, 24-year-old Romankiewicz says they got the idea for the podcasts while he was tutoring Zhao in English. "Each time we met, we ended up spending all our time discussing China and the environment," he says.
Green Beat started last September as a blog funded with remaining money from Romankiewicz's scholarship, but has since grown into a website (chinasgreenbeat.com) with five podcasts posted so far. Made in Putonghua with English subtitles, the earlier videos by Romankiewicz and Zhao, 20, featured topics such as Beijing's recycling system, solar water heaters and biomass power plants.
The more recent addition of Canadian actor-director Ng, 32, who runs the Beijing International Theatre and Entertainment stage group, has injected more polish and humour into the productions. Take the episode titled Sun Zhe's Transportation Adventures, in which the Green Brothers (kitted out in urban streetwear and comically dazzling bling) rap about the merits of public transport. The hero finds he becomes attractive to girls as soon as he starts taking the subway.
Such humorous efforts have won the brothers a growing number of fans, increasing respect and, more recently, international sponsorship. Last week, with help from China Dialogue, an international NGO with an environmental focus, they conducted a two-day workshop to teach university students how to make Green Beat-style videos.
The 30 participants came from all over the country - each representing a green group from their university - with 10 from Beijing and the remainder ranging from Xinjiang in the northwest to the manufacturing city of Wenzhou on the east coast.
Lacking the flash adopted by some larger NGOs, the workshop took a down-to-earth stance: the venue was a two-star hotel in the university district of Haidian and speakers were volunteers and students who took the bus to a recycling depot to practise shooting video.
Warming to Romankiewicz's Putonghua efforts, Ng's humour and Zhao's enthusiasm - "This is just my passion," he says - the participants exchanged real-life experiences and many came away fired up with ideas for producing their own podcasts.
They have a month to finish the assignment and the best short will win a 1,000 yuan (HK$1,115) prize.
Gao Wei-wei, a first-year law student at the University of Hong Kong, was touched by mainland participants' tales of how their home villages had been poisoned by pollution. "My blood is boiling ... to listen to these people's stories from all over China," she says. "Their stories took my breath away."
The 19-year-old is already planning a video on excessive consumption in Hong Kong. "Hong Kong people are so materialistic. They waste so much," says Gao, who views unsustainable consumption as the biggest threat to the environment in the region.
China Dialogue estimates there are now about 2,500 student environmental groups in the country. The number has grown steadily over the past decade, ranging from tiny groups such as Green Eyes, which was founded by a 17-year-old schoolboy eight years ago, to the sprawling China Youth Climate Action Network, which links climate change activist groups across the country.
Although the authorities tend to be wary of student movements, the green groups survive because they're apolitical - there's nothing subversive about picking up litter or encouraging people not to use plastic bags. "Green student groups don't do anything controversial ... it's a pretty safe arena," says Romankiewicz, who also researches renewable energy issues as an intern for information provider New Energy Finance.
And Green Beat is careful to keep it that way: at the workshop, students are told to avoid political comment when making the podcasts. "There's no need at this point to make this political," he says.
A graduate in materials science and engineering from Northwestern University, Romankiewicz says he was spurred into starting Green Beat by the pessimistic tone that foreign media took in covering environmental problems on the mainland.
Western reporters give the impression that the situation is hopeless, but there are good things going on, he says. "And the best way to inspire and encourage people to lead greener lives and make greener investments is through smart, fun and optimistic media."
Romankiewicz rejects suggestions that Green Beat's podcasts might lack bite. "You should be somewhat balanced and in the next few videos we'll just be straight up," he says. "But you can't just make a video about pollution, saying it killed 20 people and then leave the viewer with no answers about how to solve this ... there must be something people can do."
The podcasts help show a more rounded picture of mainland efforts to heal environmental scars, says Zhao, who grew up in the coal-mining town of Qitaihe in Liaoning province. "We're sick of western media only showing part of the truth with the environment story," he says. "If you are a country with 1.3 billion people, how can you deal with this situation?"
Workshop participants such as Hou Xiaoting reckon Green Beat's wacky methods work. "They're doing really cool stuff, it's a new way to promote the environment and it can attract a lot of people's attention because it's funny," says the 23-year-old from Fudan University in Shanghai.
But given the gravity of China's environmental woes, what can a group of students on a shoestring budget hope to achieve? The mainland is now the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and contains 16 of the world's most polluted cities. Expanding deserts now cover about one quarter of land surface and, despite the central government's enthusiastic initiatives, local officials obsessed with growth and wealth rarely take heed.
Zhao reckons the answer lies with young people. "Maybe these students can't change the situation now, but in the future they will get jobs, they're the future."
The students agree. "A lot of Chinese people, including many young people, feel frustrated, but I have hope in this country," says Zhao Yue, a 22-year-old from Liaoning now studying earth sciences at the University of Hong Kong. "I believe change is around the corner."