Going green in Taiwan

By Gordon Harper

It took a while for the environmental movement to register on the ICA screen. In my own case, I gave it serious attention only after our UN collaboration, the International Exposition of Rural Development, culminated for us in Taiwan in 1985.

In 1987, the UN and its Brundtland Commission had issued its explosive report on development and the environment, called Our Common Future. The report became a worldwide bestseller. It showed economic and social development, locally and globally, inextricably connected with the environment in which that development occurred. It argued that its impact on that environment was not tangential but a critical aspect of responsible development. Suddenly, a new term from the report, “sustainable development,” was in the air.

Like the millions who studied this report, our understanding of what we meant by development was powerfully addressed – so much so that ICA appropriated the report’s title for its international conference the following year in Mexico. There we explored how this would change what we did and how we went about it.

We brought this new understanding into ICA programs in Taiwan. Some small non-profit groups were starting to appear publicly on the island (up to then, they had been considered suspect by the government). Taiwan created its own Environmental Protection Administration. One of Taiwan’s prestigious academic institutes issued a sobering projection (Taiwan 2000) of what lay ahead if nothing were done to address a long list of critical pollution issues. The editor of these studies accepted our invitation to join our ICA Advisory Board.

At first, we found places where we could help direct attention to the topic. ICA was a member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan, and we held meetings that looked at what members might do to curb the industrial waste and pollution of their operations on the island. ICA helped form the Chamber’s environmental committee, which brought in speakers and programs to inform the expatriate business community of the new regulations that were coming and how it could work with rather than against these winds of change.

We also decided we needed our own programs in this arena. Our first venture was to create an Environmental Roundtable, a monthly gathering of ICA colleagues, local environmentalists and expatriates for discussion of aspects of the topic. With the help of a local computer users group that otherwise mostly distributed counterfeit software, we started an electronic environmental bulletin board for posting environmental information, discussions, news items and a calendar of upcoming events. We helped to publicize Earth Day and organize clean-up workdays in local communities. The international radio station in Taipei became our partner in interviewing our environmental speakers and recording and broadcasting the events that we sponsored or co-sponsored.

In 1990, ICA asked Taiwan to host its next international conference. The program would focus entirely on ways of caring for the environment. We were fortunate to obtain support from the Taiwanese government, which provided the venue. We invited speakers and workshop leaders from the public and private sectors as well as non-profit organizations across the Asia Pacific to share their efforts and plans for combating pollution and preserving our natural world. Daily email reports linked people as far away as the United States and Europe to the conference, and we shared their responses with the participants. One of our small contributions to changing our own ways was to distribute the final reports to participants at the closing plenary entirely on floppy discs – what we would refer to as the first paperless ICAI conference.

The father of deep ecology
When you focus on something, amazing things just seem to fall in place. We were given the opportunity to partner with our local radio station in inviting an internationally respected scholar widely known as “the father of deep ecology.” Dr. Arne Naess from Norway was then in his seventies, with many books and honours, and a remarkably engaging speaker. ICA was privileged to host him and arrange his schedule with the many groups who wished to hear him during the week he spent with us.

The most delicious of these events for me was one we arranged with Taiwan’s EPA itself. Dr. Naess was the guest of honour at a session with the director and his staff, all EPA department heads being on board. They came to the meeting with three-ring binders full of information, ready to discuss any topic and answer any questions their distinguished guest might ask. Dr. Naess began with a question, but one that no one in the room had anticipated. He gently inquired of the EPA officials, “What are you doing to help people here move away from seeking a higher standard of living to seeking a greater quality of life?”

The shock in the room was palpable and followed by utter silence. I no longer recall what the director at last managed to say, but everyone there knew they had had their lives addressed by this visitor and that question.

One of the last environmental ventures we initiated while I was in Taiwan was again the result of a fortuitous accident (or synchronicity, if you will). We had invited Dr. Jean Houston to Taiwan for a week-long series of workshops, ending, at her request, with an island wide bus trip to visit some of the aboriginal and indigenous (non-Han Chinese) communities in the mountainous interior and hear their stories. The experience was an eye-opening event that brought together scenes of great natural beauty and the ways in which traditional cultures profoundly storied, honoured and cared for that environment.

Following Jean’s visit, and with the help of a colleague anthropology professor, we set about arranging and conducting what we called eco-cultural tours. A series of these would follow over the coming years, each with a mixture of Taiwanese and expatriate participants, and all of whom would subsequently perceive and engage the environmental and developmental challenges they faced from a new perspective.

These are some of my memories of how in Taiwan we finally embraced a critical issue that we had up to then largely ignored or seen as of secondary significance. For some strange reason, it was two Norwegians, Gro Brundtland and Arne Naess, who figured prominently in my personal transition. As always in the work that we do, this shift in focus not only changed those with whom we partnered during those years - it also changed us.

The writer, who worked with the Institute of Cultural Affairs from the 1970s and was a mentor and trainer of trainers, died in February this year at the age of 79.

This article first appeared in our August 2014 issue

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