Friday, 20 February 2009

We Still Don't Get It

I thought I would have great morning. I dressed appropriately - cotton T-shirt, jeans and my old pair of shoes. The intention was to do some exploring in our Durian Valley. There was to be a press conference at our EcoHub about the sighting a rarely seen migratory bird named Malayan Night Heron in our Durian Valley followed by tree-planting around the valley.

When I got there I was told VC wanted me to compute how much CO2 the 120 new trees would absorb. Yah, OK. Those trees were donated by the Forestry Department and reportedly valued at about RM20,000. Fantastic. So we had the press conference and the briefing and Anwar Fazal told some fascinating stories about Ipoh men who must marry Kulim ladies. Apparently the Ipoh tree has a poison (used by the orang asli in their blowpipes). And the antidote for that comes from the Kulim tree.

And then I decided to get out slightly ahead of the crowd for the tree planting. Then I noticed the other side of the building and walked through it. On the way out, I peeked into the pantry and saw a whole crate full of plastic bags. Inside the bags was packages of food for the guests. I was flabbergasted. Why all this plastic bags, I asked the staff? Didn't get a satisfactory reply. I was getting irritated.

I walked out of the building and there on the table was another big stack of blue plastic bags with food for the guests. I pointed it out the the PR people - "the organisers did it!" was the reply. By this time I had lost interest in the tree-planting. I really hope the Press picked it up and write about it. "EcoHub - No Yet Eco-friendly"

In fairness, the guys of the EcoTeam are a truly dedicated bunch and I take my hat off to them. They have done a splendid job cleaning up the Durian Valley of rubbish and now trying to create or extend our urban forest. This is a humble old building which has been given a new lease of life. I look forward to the Eco Trail they are working on.

This is the fringe of the Durian Valley where the sewarage plant is. They used to dump construction debris here. I made several complaints to the very top but they persisted in the dumping. This morning I saw a couple of excavators levelling the ground and planting grass. I was really hoping that they would plant trees and extend the Durian Valley instead of a grass valley. But all the same, thank you, Jabatan Pembangunan for finally cleaning up the area.

This was my ultimate nightmare - huge pile of plastic food.

I am not sure whether I was the only one who walked to the EcoHub. But I am very certain that all the top management who were there including the VC and three DVCs were dropped off in their cars. And their offices are just 3 minutes walk from EcoHub. Talk about going carbon neutral. Yes, I know, it's hot, you'll sweat and become smelly. Go take bath after that. You can't have your cake and eat it.

P.S. Whoever is in charge of that food catering, please don't come and tell me you don't know or you don't have any control over the caterer. This week alone, I spend several hours talking to at least three groups of students and answering emails about how to make their events more green or sustainable.

P.S.S. My good mood is back. It has just started raining after, what? 3 or 4 weeks without rain? Maybe I will go run in the rain.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Are you green enough?

How Green is Green? Above, packaging made from sugar-cane waste.

Am using the "free" wifi at a coffeeshop, waiting to pick up my daughter from school. All you have to do is buy a drink, and its a cool white coffee for me. Just got my time screwed up but thank god for free wifi at coffeeshops.

Yes, we have been made famous for the apparent successes achieved with The White Coffin campaign. "Apparent" because to many observers, and very rightly so, we still see many students and staff bringing food using polystyrene containers. And the use of plastic bags is still rampant. And now that there seems to be a problem with the supply of EcoPak, our canteen operators have resorted to use of plastic bags. I have written about this previously on this blog.

There are those who insist that we must provide an alternative before we implement any ban on certain types of packaging. I guess they are not ready to go cold turkey, cutting off disposable containers completely. To me providing an alternative packaging is the lowest of my priorities. But that is the tension you encounter and who is to say they are wrong.

And so what's the alternative now that EcoPak can't meet demand? Some one suggested a similar eco-friendly packaging made of sugarcane waste. To all intents and purposes, it is the same except this looks white because it uses a food-grade bleach. On the initiative of someone in authority, this alternative was sent for testing. Horrors, they discovered some toxic chemical, though they are not sure whether it is within permissible limits. As far as I am concerned, I don't care what the permissible limit is. It should be zero. And then some supplier proposed a paper-based packaging and this too "failed the test". We did send EcoPak for testing before launching the campaign and was told that there was nothing to be of concern even though there was some spike in the chart of some unknown substance.

So here's the crunch. How eco-friendly or health-friendly are all these products? I am told that these manufacturers have some secret formula which they don't devulge. So who's responsibility is it to make sure that we stay healthy? And friendly to Earth?

Maybe some of our green activist students have the answer. I now get alot of request to support student's greening activities - sometimes they just what to chat and get ideas, sometimes to give talks, often to get some funding. Great. But you might ask : are they just jumping on the bandwagon because it is fashionable? Put it another way, how green are they, in their lifestyle? Yes, there are students who have come to me wanting to implement some green project but admit they have no or little idea what sustainable development means. I tell them that the project will be a great opportunity to learn.

I asked Serene, a final year mass comm student, a little while ago when she came to chat with me in my office : How green are you? She and her 23 buddies are doing a project called "Kick off Green Generation". I wanted to know if there are more students who are green or leaning towards green compared to those who blatantly don't care. She thought for while and said "more are green". But yet we SEE only all those who openly and blatantly have no regard for the environment. We need to make a bigger effort to recognise the greens. One story Serene told me should inspire others. She and another friend was walking back to the hostel with another friend. This third guy was eating burger as they were walking. When he finished eating, he just threw the wrapping into the roadside drain. Serene and friend gave the guy, a junior, a big earful about not caring for the environment. They insisted that he picked up the rubbish but he refused. They persisted and eventually the litterbug succumbed to peer-pressure.

Yes, many don't care. But many more do. They are what Anwar Fazal labelled as Penang's infamous Keh Por Chee (or busybodies). We all need to be busybodies. We need to make it our business because we can't achieve sustainability by waiting for others to make it their business.

Serene has promised to write about her stories. Kumutha, if you are reading this, you promised to write too, remember?

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Adelaide 2.0

Yeah, this is my second trip to Adelaide. This time at the invitation of Steve Hamnett to deliver a keynote at the 60th Anniversary Planning Education Celebrations at the University of South Australia. There were 6 keynotes and it turned to be very stimulating. I talked about the megatrends and what planners should do about it. Matthew said it was a roller-coaster ride (my presentation) but it was meant in a good way. It was fun for me, stirring things up a bit.

Now at the Adelaide airport waiting to be allowed into the departure hall. I guess the place is too small to have too many people in. Or perhaps they have deal with the concessoinaires to keep the passengers outside to patronise the shops. Well at least the free wifi is working. I couldn't use the KLIA wifi on the way here.

Talking about KLIA, remember to wipe your hands dry when you come out of the toilet (you do wash your hands everytime after going to the loo don't you? apparently many don't). Well, I normally just shake my hands rigorously to get rid of most of the water - don't want to use the paper towel or the air blower - yah, the little things; do you think they count? will it help to save the world? Probably not, but its really about habits. You gotta start somewhere.

OK, why dry your hands? Well, you will never know who you bum into when you come out of the toilet with you hands wet. It's polite to shake hands with people you meet, especially friends or people you know. Guess who I bummed into? My big boss. "Hey haven't seen you in a long time". Well, yes and no. "You have lost weight". Yes, I have. "Where are you going?". Adelaide, planning conference. "That same 'planning' ..." Yeah, same. "How long?". Three days. "Well, enjoy yourself". And all the while I was trying to wipe my hands off my jeans. But you know jeans and I didn't want to offer a damn hand. So I had to apologise for not being about to take the offered hand. Could be a tricky situation under the wrong circumstances. People could misinterpret.

Which brings me to the grand celebration dinner the other night. Friendly polite speeches which were really entertaining. But even in public, it could get a little hairy. I detected some kind of tension between a couple of the people making speeches. Like an veiled attempt to slight. I thought I detected them and it was subsequently confirmed. But this is tension in all organisations, especially universities. Bureaucrats and administrators just often don't agree on some things. This something we in USM also needs to serious think about. We want autonomy from the Ministry. But people are asking about what does autonomy meaning down the line. The other day I talked to a group of students leaders over lunch and asked them to think what autonomy means to them. I asked my students whether we should abolish the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU). Six students said no, because they are concerned subversive elements would lead the students astray. Only 3 said it should be abolished because they thought it inhibits students' development.

Can't we trust students?

The line is now open to go into the departure hall. Gotta go make a contribution to the local economy at the duty-free shop. 2.20 pm

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Garden of Eden?

Had enough of the Niu Year? (For the uninitiated, "niu" is cow in chinese). Last night (eve of the 9th Day of Chinese New Year), the Hokkein's in Penang prayed to the heavens. I remember my in-laws used to do it in Air Itam and we would stay up and have mee suah soup with one hard-boiled egg each, courtesy of my mum-in-law. Around my house, several families had huge joss-sticks (which are still burning now) and altars. Usually at midnight there would be helluva noise from the firecrackers. Last night was pretty quiet. A sign of the times.

We did go to the CNY celebrations at the heritage enclave in George Town on sunday night. Will try to post some pictures. The amount of garbage everywhere was just horrendous - polystyrene containers, paper cups, plastic cups. We didn't buy any of those, in fact, we brought our own drinking water in a sports bottle. And we chose to eat at a heritage restaurant so that we don't contribute to the problem.

Here's Eden-in-the-making. Am trying not to use fertiliser but my compose heap is still not "bearing fruits" yet. Also trying to avoid pesticides but I get a lot of fungus attack and there's a species of moth with is too productive leaving cocoons all over hanging from the leaves and sucking the plants to death. My solution? Surgery. I just trim off the affected leaves until sometimes the plant is almost bald and let it grow back. So far so good. With biodiversity, hopefully this problem will be less. Everyone loves the beautiful bamboo but I have be vigilant and trim it so that it won't encroach into my neighbour's territory. Well, at least not below that roof overhang which the neighbour has built right to the property line. Sigh. Had a tiff with the neighbour about that. Can you imagine if I did the same?

A closer view. Am trying to create an informal feel to it. See the white "pebbles"? They sort of light up at night so you can walk on the path without any lights.

Found these "love birds" in my backyard on my Pinang Tree. So which is the dominant sex?