Alden E. Habacon: Why is green so white?

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      Recently, there has been rising concern that Vancouver is the most Asian city in North America. To be honest, this is old news. Most Vancouverites over the age of 25 should already know this as “history”. Over a decade ago, Vancouver architect Bing Thom said to a packed room at the Vancouver Museum that “Vancouver is no longer the gateway to Asia. It is part of Asia.” The Lower Mainland has been connected to the Asia Pacific for a very long time.

      That connection is alive today. If there’s a typhoon in the Philippines, we are affected. If there is an earthquake in China, or some cataclysm in India, Vancouver feels it immediately. If zombies were to attack cities in South Korea, we would know about it in real time. Vancouver’s Asian-ness is visible and pervasive—from food trucks on our streets to the big names in Vancouver’s real estate industry, the faces in politics, and public consciousness of past wrongs, such as the internment of Japanese Canadians. Many of our aboriginal elders have an Asian connection. Vancouver’s Asian character is as ubiquitous as its lofty ambition to be the greenest city in the world.

      So then, why is green so white? 

      This too is not a new question. A few years ago, I received a text message from an Asian Canadian urban planner while he was attending a large sustainability conference in Vancouver, asking, “Why is green so white?” What he was referring to was an undeniable observation: only a handful of the hundreds of people at these events would be of Asian descent (including David Suzuki and his daughter, Severn Cullis-Suzuki). 

      What we have seen emerge in the “most Asian city in North America” is an environmental movement built on white privilege and the exclusion of minority cultures. I don’t believe this was intentional. These green-minded gatherings are full of good people, with huge hearts, open-minds, and compassion for the planet. As a social, political, and industrial movement, it has worked hard to intentionally include First Nations peoples, and it is the last place I would expect to experience racism. 

      However, the question remains: In a place as diverse as Vancouver, how does something so important, so critical to our future prosperity and wellbeing of the planet, evolve and grow into the establishment it is today, while missing the voices, worldviews, perspectives, know-how, and passion of Vancouver’s Asian population?

      The answer does not lie solely with the green movement. The majority of Asian undergraduate students in science programs at universities are not pursuing graduate degrees in environmental science. There are many people in the green movement who desperately want to see diversity permeate this space, but there is resistance from the community.  

      If we are to succeed at sustainability, we need all members of our communities to contribute. It can’t just be a select group of people. Our local efforts towards environmentalism needs to include, reflect, and value other worldviews. Likewise, the future sustainability of environmentalism will rely on the capacity for the green movement to adapt to, include, and provide culturally-specific solutions in ways that are the most meaningful and relevant to the cultural diversity that is here. 

      This begins by coupling what we have been for a long time—“the most Asian city in North America”—with what we aspire to become: “the greenest city in the world”. 

      So where to start? It’s not an accident that the international movement to end the serving of shark fin and start new traditions began here. This, I am especially proud of. That movement has since evolved into something more sophisticated and far more culturally-sensitive, now known as the hua foundation. All to say, it has already begun. 

      Being green in a way that reflects the Asian character of Vancouver also involves acknowledging that for many, the source of passion for living green didn’t necessarily come from growing up in Canada, but actually from one’s Asian heritage. That is definitely the case for me. Certainly, my passion for the environment was fed by decades of watching The Nature of Things and has been fostered by people like Bing Thom and Milton Wong, but that’s not where I draw my conviction. It is my late-grandfather, who planted the seed in my childhood. 

      On occasion, he would surprise us with some discarded item, like a floor lamp he had fished from a bin and fixed. His practice of rescuing what some considered garbage taught me to keep things out of the landfill. He would have loved Craigslist. 

      My earliest childhood memories of him were pillaging his cases of Pic-a-Pop. The idea of returning empty bottles in exchange for newly filled ones just made sense to him. He was always on my case for leaving the lights and TV on, or taking too long of a shower if I stayed over. He loathed wastefulness, laziness, and complacency.

      When I have climbed into my condo’s large garbage bin to retrieve someone else’s plastic containers or corrugated cardboard for recycling, I knew he would have been pleased. The Filipino industriousness, work ethic, and “waste nothing” mentality he brought to Canada fuels my conviction. 

      Over the next 10 years, we will witness the transformation of “green”. 

      It will move from being a universal Western ideal—based on the false idea that we all see green the same—to being a richer spectrum of green. It won’t just be something we talk about in English, but will be the intercultural and multilingual conversation that it needs to be. 

      It will not, however, get there organically. It will need to be intentional. Unlike nature, left to itself, the green movement in the West will not correct its course, but continue on a path towards lesser relevance to the growing cultural diversity of our Canadian cities. 

      Sounds ominous, I know. As “the most Asian city in North America”, that is the challenge and opportunity before us, if we are to also be the greenest city in the world. 

      Alden E. Habacon is a diversity and inclusion strategist and the publisher of Schema Magazine. This launches a three-month series in partnership with the hua foundation that explores sustainability through the lens of multiculturalism, immigration, and transcultural identities—including where to find the most environmentally-friendly bubble tea. Follow Habacon on Twitter at @aldenhabacon.




      Apr 23, 2014 at 2:22pm

      I don't think it matters whether we, the less pallid ingredients in the Vancouver cultural stew, are proportionally represented in any movement including environmentalism. There are only a handful of committed activists in any movement. The rest of us kind of do our thing, and hopefully try to stay out of the way of progress.

      I'm glad you wrote this though. You've observed that the Asian students aren't here to study environmental science. Let's go a bit farther, and suggest that they came to Gold Mountain for the gold, not to dumpster dive for recycleables.

      However. Let's take heart too. China is the world's worst polluter but also the largest investor in green energy. That suggests two things: the epicanthic fold is not a genetic marker from anti environmentalism; there is a huge overlap between good business and environmental stewardship, given that we have to both make a living and keep on being able to live.

      Just a Voter

      Apr 23, 2014 at 2:54pm

      I agree with RUK. Local sustainophiles should take note in particular of this statement: "China is the world's worst polluter but also the largest investor in green energy."

      China is investing in green energy because it makes economic sense - not because it looks or feels good.

      What's been missing in Vancouver is sound analysis of the cost and benefit of various approaches to green.

      The Olympic Village is a good example of "whiz bang" investments that may eventually have a return, but are likely not a good model moving forward. Planting meyer lemon trees in plastic tubs is another mis-guided example. Let's have more real sustance and less fluff.


      Apr 23, 2014 at 3:00pm

      Why assume that the local environmental movement is "built on white privilege and the exclusion of minority cultures?" The author doesn't cite any evidence of this supposed exclusion. Perhaps it's the case that people who were born or at least raised here (regardless of their race or ethnicity) are just more apt to be concerned about the environment than some recent immigrants, especially those whose life experience and cultural orientation is entirely urban. When I take part in the shoreline cleanup with my family, we don't pay any attention to the apparent racial origins of the others who have turned up, and I won't accept that we or our particular background (european)is to blame for the composition of the overall group of volunteers who've chose to turn up. Now that you meniton it, I can think of people I know who are quite environmentall conscious and are of Asian background, although it's not something I'd consider particularly important about them. Why do you think it's so important?


      Apr 23, 2014 at 3:01pm

      Let's face it, most of the new arrivals from mainland china in the last 5 years or so are simply for the convenience of having a Canadian passport. Most of them do not get involved in the community, don't live here full time, and could care less about sustainability.


      Apr 23, 2014 at 3:06pm

      One half of my family were immigrants, white but very poor and non-english speaking. The first generation had a profound sense of wanting to conform. They were extra judgmental of anyone from their ethnicity of immigrant, or any other, that didn't do everything possible to assimilate, or that "thought they were special". Maybe it takes a generation or two before people feel comfortable enough, that they belong enough, that they can speak out and be critical, especially in an area not in their direct interest.


      Apr 23, 2014 at 3:07pm

      great points - would point out that vancouver is actually dominated by East Asians... most other people from other parts of Asia do exist in metro vancouver as well, but do not necessarily benefit from the same privileges as East Asians do... hence why when we use Asian we automatically associate that word with Japanese, Chinese, Korean folks etc..


      Apr 23, 2014 at 3:08pm


      If you talk to them, many of them are also here because they are worried about their children, and the food is safer, and the environment less polluted. One guy I know went back for few months - he and his relatives packed nothing but baby food from Canadian supermarkets. Of course, he also drove an SUV, but that's more abstract.

      Mori Menat

      Apr 23, 2014 at 4:03pm

      “--environmental movement built on white privilege and the exclusion of minority cultures”

      It’s a pity this a-hole of an author can’t even write this article without adding his snarky 2 cents worth.

      White privilege" is a direct inversion of reality. The only "privileges" whites may get are those afforded by Mother Nature. Society, on the other hand, gives all the privileges it can to the various privileged minorities here.

      I wonder if he plans on going to China or Japan next, and lecturing them about “Asian privilege” ?


      Apr 23, 2014 at 4:04pm

      "it is the last place I would expect to experience racism" - maybe you should have conferred with some of those First Nations peoples you refer to. They would tell you that racism is certainly alive here, as it is everywhere else in Canada. Consider, for instance, the unconscious decision to write "our aboriginal elders" in the possessive...Aboriginal peoples do not belong to Canadian society. This patriarchal attitude is the source of much colonial violence.

      Also, why not capitalize 'aboriginal' if you would capitalize 'Asian'?


      Apr 23, 2014 at 4:11pm


      And your immigrant relatives were not wrong. It would be ridiculous for me to move to, say, Pakistan, and to refuse to learn Urdu or to understand and appreciate the Islamic faith and its variations, etc.

      Immigrants to Canada should be expected to relatively quickly master French and/or English and then the subtler cultural nuances. How else are they supposed to get good jobs, or to encourage their children to fluorish?

      However, saying that is sometimes considered insensitive, which is why many writers, especially writers of colour, are expected to understand and promote sensitivity, here defined as resistance to the monoculture.

      I think that is why Alden Habacon is talking about minority exclusion, when what is actually being shown is self-exclusion/indifference to environmental activism. Similarly, the movement is exhorted to be more open, when there is no evidence that it is closed, and indeed anecdotal evidence that environmentalism is aligned to the author's own non-white cultural tradition of thrift.