image from thpt-nguyentatthanh-tphcm.edu.vn
During Earth Hour 2018 more than 100,000 people in Vietnam turned off unnecessary appliances, saving 485,000 kWh of energy.
by Mai Hoang
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In the crisp chill of a spring morning, 3,000 people gathered at Ly Thai Tho Park in Hanoi, with 100 youngsters donning bright blue t-shirts with a large earth splattered across the chest.
It’s March 3, 21 days before 2018’s Earth Hour. The group of volunteers, mostly school-age youngsters, eagerly wait to kick-start their campaign throughout the country. From Hanoi all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere, they will organize events and mobilize their networks of peers so that as many households as possible will turn off their lights for the 10th anniversary of the movement in Vietnam.
Their hard work paid off. Earth Hour 2018 was a great success, garnering the support of more than 100,000 people who turned off unnecessary appliances to save 485,000 kWh of energy, according to Electricity of Vietnam (EVN).
Throughout its ten years in the country, the movement has grown from a handful of independently organized events in 2009 to a fully-fledged State-sponsored campaign. “In recent years, millions of volunteers in Vietnam’s 63 cities and provinces have directly or indirectly joined hands to protect the environment,” said Van Phung, head of the organizing team. She stressed that Earth Hour is not just about one hour of less electricity use. “Dozens of projects have been successfully completed, including campaigns for the transition to LED lights, green renovations for schools, and calls for people to turn off their motorbike engines while waiting at traffic lights.”
Leaders, Promoters, Volunteers: The Role of Youth in Vietnam
Though Earth Hour Vietnam is now officially organized by the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MoIT), Phung estimated that the largest part of the efforts surrounding the event still come from the ground up, with the majority of volunteers being aged from 16 to 24. In the most recent campaign, they held leadership roles in brainstorming projects and called for support from the media. “We gathered all of their ideas, examined the feasibility of each one and supported them financially and logistically so that the execution phase would be as smooth and impactful as possible,” she said. “After ten years, I have seen a clear shift in the level of awareness among Vietnamese students. Thanks to their creativity and resourcefulness, they’re the ones who come up with the best ideas for activism campaigns.”
Twenty-six-year-old Ngan Nguyen first joined Earth Hour during her sophomore year in university, as Head of Media, after being recruited by a friend who knew of her journalistic skills. After seven years with the organization, she is now in charge of managing volunteers and overseeing all major projects. “Each project has its own leader,” she explained. “I come up with the ideas and then they are in charge of executing them.”
Through years working with volunteers, she is similarly optimistic about Vietnam’s younger generations. “Young people are the life force of Earth Hour; they contribute a reservoir of creativity and have since become the face of the movement in this country,” she said. As a manager, Ngan greatly admires the resourcefulness of her team members. “Take the Green Destination project this year, for example,” she said. “First, they based it on an established model of recruiting local youth to pick up trash along the Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe Canal in Ho Chi Minh City, but then expanded the project by calling upon exchange students and tourists to join hands.”
“Those born in the 1990s or after really don’t have any excuse for not knowing about environmental issues,” she went on. “In this globalized age, it’s very easy for them to gain access to information. I hope that more will actively participate in Earth Hour and other movements to protect our planet.”
For senior Minh Nguyen, meanwhile, 2018 was his first year actively participating in Earth Hour, contributing his artistic talents to the campaign by filming a promotional video that won an online contest as Most Creative. “I wanted to indulge in my passion for filmmaking while promoting a good cause,” he laughed. Using mundane shots from everyday life in Hanoi, he emphasized that campaigns like Earth Hour rely on the participation of “normal people” willing to make small sacrifices for the greater good.
Environmental Activism in the Interconnected Age
To talk about youth activism is to talk about social media. Since Facebook became popular in Vietnam, Phung and her team have been utilizing it, alongside more traditional media, to run promotional campaigns. Gio Trai Dat (Earth Hour) Vietnam, the official Facebook page, has gained more than 60,000 likes and each one of its posts is shared by hundreds of enthusiastic student-age netizens.
Upon surveying 421 young people from around the country, the writer found that 34.9 per cent first learned about Earth Hour through social media, compared to 22.9 per cent from TV and a mere 11.2 per cent from conventional newspapers. Among high schoolers from 15 to 18 years of age, the figure rises to 51.7 per cent. Facebook, the most widely-used platform, connects as many as 33 million users, or one-third of the country’s population.
Many young people, however, are somewhat skeptical about the actual benefits of Facebook, drawing a line between activism and slacktivism. “I see posers going around sharing videos of dead fish and air pollution all the time, but they still buy milk tea in a plastic cup with a plastic straw stuck in it,” said Quang Vo, a high school junior from Ho Chi Minh City. “A number of my friends actually do make an effort to cut their waste output, but they’re in the minority.” An anonymous respondent also commented: “Young people nowadays have all the information: they need about how pollution happens and know the consequences of their actions, but not many actively try to change their habits.”
Meanwhile, others worry that activism is only seen within the month leading up to Earth Hour, after which students, like many others, return to their habitual way of life.
“Though I’m a volunteer for Earth Hour Vietnam, I don’t think the movement’s impact is as large as some people seem to think,” said Linh Nguyen, a student in Ho Chi Minh City. “It is good to see so many other students as passionate as I am about this event, but their involvement usually ends there.”
Students responding to the survey also accused others of joining environmental events and organizations to add to their college résumé. Recently, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have seen a mushrooming of student-founded, student-led organizations that claim to work “for the environment” with varying degrees of success. Their motives, however, have been brought into question not only by onlookers but also by formerly active members.
Lan* is a former member of Green Hanoi-Amsterdam (GHA), one of the oldest organizations of its kind and run by students from the most selective school in the capital. Though she valued her time with GHA, she admitted that most of its projects were “environmental in name only”, while focusing more on social service. “In the year I worked for GHA, only one project, collecting scrap paper for recycling, was strictly related to improving the environment,” she said. “The other two were wrapping ‘chung’ cake for the Tet holiday and organizing a summer camp for orphaned kids.”
She also expressed skepticism about the student-led model, especially regarding the lack of training for staff members. “When I first joined the organization, I thought I would receive proper training as to how I should go about doing activist work,” she recalled. “There was none of that. I was assigned a number of tasks I had no idea how to handle.” She concluded by describing the organization as “very unprofessional”.
Similarly, Anh Bui, a junior at Dong Da High School in Hanoi, confessed that her main reason for joining the student-led environmental organization Water Wise was to “obtain a certificate.” But unlike Lan’s experience with GHA, she felt she had achieved a lot of personal growth throughout her time with Water Wise, learning to care more about the environment and other people through the training the organization provided.
Water Wise was founded by former members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) and received support from the US Embassy in Hanoi from day one. Unlike many youth initiatives, the organization has an adult mentor, Trang Pham, who serves as president.
Yet despite their inevitable flaws, it is hard to dismiss the fact that student-led organizations, even the less-organized ones, have contributed to raising awareness among young people about climate change. As have some government-backed efforts, mostly launched through the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union.
“I think young people where I live care a lot about the environment, as they spend time collecting trash and reminding tourists to do so as part of the Green Sunday initiative by the Youth Union,” said Khoi Nguyen, a college freshman in Ho Chi Minh City.
On a scale of 10, the largest number of youths surveyed (28 per cent) ranked their environmental awareness at 8 and 75.6 per cent at 7 or above. While this number might not be ideal, it is nonetheless encouraging. Nine out of ten respondents had heard about Earth Hour before, and for nearly all of them, 2018 was not their first year of turning off their lights. Watching the growth of this movement in a country of 15 million young people is indeed fascinating.
There certainly is still much work to be done. However, the fact remains that Vietnam is seeing the growth of a more educated and dynamic generation, unfazed by the apathy of climate-deniers. The dedication of these young volunteers and activists bodes well for the country’s climate future.
* Name changed to protect anonymity