The Quaker Campus

Environmental symposium astounds students

The Quaker Campus
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“[Environmental conservation is] my passion,” said Gary Marcuse, director of Waking the Green Tiger, “and it’s fueled by the kind of enthusiasm and passion that I see in you guys [students in the audience].” Marcuse, along with Shi Lihong of Wild China Film, and Dr. Michael Lau, Director of WWF Hong Kong,  discussed—in front of a little over 50 students—environmental conservation, journalism, documentary filmmaking, and environmental advocacy at last week’s “Symposium on Environmental Conservation, Journalism and Advocacy.”

The concept of the symposium—which took place on Tuesday, Sept. 26—developed, as Associate Professor of Religious Studies Jake Carbine describes, from “ongoing conversations and partnerships with Shi Lihong, Dr. Michael Lau, and Gary Marcuse [with Whittier faculty] … [and] after many conversations and planning sessions with several people and campus constituencies, things worked out.” The symposium provided Poets with a plethora of perspectives on environmental protection. Marcuse spoke explicitly about his belief that every student studying in every field should do what they can to help the environmental movement.

Marcuse is a documentary filmmaker. His film Waking the Green Tiger was shown to Assistant Professor of Film Studies John Bak’s Documentary Cinema class the Monday before the symposium. The film recounts how environmental attitudes in China have evolved from the Cultural Revolution to the modern era and shows how a proposed damming project was stopped by villagers living along the Yangzi River. Marcuse says he has “been convinced, for a good part of [his] life, that the environment is the primary [issue] that we all are wrestling with, and will be for all our working lives.” 

It is an issue that Marcuse and Whittier staff are struggling with together. Marcuse is currently working on a three-year documentary project with assistance from Professor Carbine and Professor of Sociology Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez. The project intends to both corral and create documentaries on under-reported environmental issues in Asia. As the press release states, the “project proposes to bridge the gap between filmmakers and educators by rounding up good films, editing them as needed, commissioning teaching guides and delivering the collection online.”

Marcuse’s environmental interest has lasted since his college years. In university, Marcuse went from studying fine arts to studying environmental science, but he was put off by the technical nature of the major. “I really wanted to make stories and report on things so I needed to find a way to exercise my own ability to contribute to the solution of environmental problems,” he said.  Marcuse ended his presentation by showing a series of images and quotes that he found moving, and some students, such as second-year Aimee Armosilla found sign. Armosilla said that, of the three speakers, she enjoyed Gary Marcuse best. After the symposium, she “found that what stood out most to [her] was definitely Gary Marcuse’s [presentation], when he started showing photos, and using no sound at all, just silence.”

Marcuse’s documentary features a portion of Lihong’s short documentary Voice of an Angry River nested inside it. In one scene, Lihong speaks to a cluster of dispossessed farmers searching through trash for sellable recyclables. Later in the scene, a woman breaks down, crying. Lihong narrates how, when she asked to see the woman’s home, the woman said, “I’m too embarrassed to show you our life. Our life is so poor.” The farmers had lost their homes when, as the result of a government damming project, their village was flooded. The film was shot in 2004, at a time when a new damming project had been proposed along the Yangzi River. This new project would put the homes of 10,000 villagers underwater. The project was stopped thanks to Lihong’s documentary which was passed from village to village, presenting the people with a vision of the poverty awaiting them should they allow the infrastructure project’s completion. The villagers were able to band together and successfully protest the dam’s construction. It is easy to see reflections of America’s Environmental movement within this story—a number of Americans deny the growing danger presented by climate change, much like how the villagers initially deny the danger presented by the dam’s construction. The story of the villagers ends well because Lihong’s film allowed them to understand the danger they were in. Perhaps, provided with the proper education, the American people can do the same.

In her speech, Lihong tried to teach through example. She spoke about her experiences protesting at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and interning at China Daily. She worked at the publication until she was fed up by its propagandist nature and she left. She found an interest in documentary filmmaking, and shot the previously mentioned Voice of An Angry River in 2004.

Some students, such as second-year Edward Shih, felt Lihong was “the speaker that was most compelling.” Unfortunately, Lihong could not cover her entire career in a half-hour speech, and Shih was disappointed she had to end her presentation when she did.“She had so much to say, [but] she didn’t have enough time to say everything,” said Shih.

The third speaker, Dr. Michael Lau, is the director of Water and Wetlands for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) -Hong Kong. Lau watches over the Mai Po wetlands, a marshy bird-stop along the East Asian-Australian flyway. Lau said that it is important to “maintain the Wetland Habitats because wetlands are actually a transient habitat,” meaning that the wetlands require humans to act as custodians, monitoring the growth of vegetation, and adjusting the marsh’s water levels with a series of“sluice gates,” a series of gates that operate like mini-dams which can be raised and lowered when needed. WWF’s program has proven effective, expanding the number of black faced spoonbills entering Hong Kong every year from 20-30, when the Mai Po reserve first opened, to over 200 now.  He also works as an environmental watchdog on a number of government advisory councils, where he provides feedback on the environmental effects of infrastructure projects.  Watchdog groups exist in the United States as well as China, and offer one way for citizens to aid in the conservation effort.

A common thread through all three speeches is the power of education. Lau teaches the youth of Hong Kong how to protect the marshlands, and constant research in Mai Po makes his work possible. Marcuse makes documentaries that provide a western audience a window into the environmental strife in countries outside our usual view. And Lihong’s Voice of an Angry River helped to save 100,000 farmers from losing their homes by generating awareness. Maybe the UScan learn something from China’s environmental advocates.