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.