It’s Better to Travel 10,000 Miles Than Read 10,000 Books

August 15, 2011

Four things Sustainable Jersey™ learned from a trip to Taiwan.

Sustainable Jersey Taiwan Trip 6

By Donna Drewes and Randall Solomon
Sustainable Jersey

Although Taipei is not quite 10,000 miles, this saying attributed to Confucius rang true for a delegation of five from Sustainable Jersey. This June, due to the tremendous success of the Sustainable Jersey program, we were invited to Taiwan to share best practices on climate and energy, and generally how to engage and support individual communities in making change.

Our first thoughts upon receiving the invitation were split between sentiments such as “Taiwan? Awesome!” and “Leave for a week? What am I going to tell my spouse and the 300 unread emails I already have?” In all seriousness, we struggle to reconcile all of the great opportunities that have come to Sustainable Jersey with our overriding purpose of helping New Jersey municipalities make progress and fulfilling the promise of our relatively new program.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was instrumental in convincing us that we had much to learn from a relationship with Taiwan. The exchange trip was supported by the EPA through an agreement with the American Institute in Taiwan. EPA explained that if we were to identify mutual needs that new funding might be possible.

The trip was eye opening. Like the new foods that we timidly approached and then eagerly consumed, the trip taught us so much more about the tenets of sustainability than we could have ever imagined.

Sustainable Jersey Taiwan Trip 5

Taiwan is new to democracy and civil society. It was only in 1986 that martial law was lifted and open pluralistic democracy instituted. Since that time Taiwan has grown into a vibrant and prosperous liberal democracy. And, for the first time, the central government has to deal with the rise of a robust environmental movement and local civic sector. One of the main reasons Taiwan came to Sustainable Jersey for inspiration was to gather ideas that could help proactively support and collaborate with their rapidly growing non-profit, environmental, and local civic sector.

Sustainable Jersey Taiwan Trip 2

Just to give you an idea, here is one small example of the vibrancy of the environmental movement and community groups in Taiwan:

In Hualien Province we went to a recycling center that was run by a private civic group. The center itself was nice, but alone not noteworthy.

However we were genuinely impressed when they relayed that this was one of 4,500 such volunteer run centers in Taiwan (which is about 4 times the population of NJ), and these were in addition to a regular government-run recycling program. On an island with limited land and rapid industrialization, the passion of the Taiwanese for sustainability and their environment greatly defied our expectations.

Here is a snapshot—four things we learned, or re-learned, from our trip to Taiwan:

1) A Sustainable Future Begins With a Strong Sense of Place

We took a small propeller plane to the eastern coast of Taiwan, to a place called Hualien. It has mountains that stretch all the way to the beach and a national park called Taroko National Park.

As we walked into the community center, a reception group sang songs and clapped their hands. At first, this type of welcome made us a little nervous, but we came to understand that this was a heartfelt earnest way to welcome us to their community and celebrate our arrival.

Sustainable Jersey Taiwan Trip 3We sat at a meeting table, and each place setting had a large green leaf from the local banana trees and four ripe yellow bananas. The town was the center of the garden belt and this place setting was just the beginning of how this community instantly communicated the importance of their place.

As the community members shared the story of their town coming together and the sustainable projects they had achieved, we held our Sustainable Jersey actions list and quietly checked off each accomplishment: Community Supported Agriculture; farmers’ market; innovative recycling; aggressive organic composting; support of the local economy; and pairing of cultural and creative expression with sustainable actions. The list was impressive. If this town was in New Jersey, we knew that it would be eligible for certification and would benefit from the structure and support that Sustainable Jersey provides.

One reason that the community has achieved so much is that the people have a strong connection to the “place” where they live. They understand the interrelationships between the social, economic, ecological and cultural history of their town, and how these things contribute to its continuous health. Moving forward, as Sustainable Jersey works with each New Jersey town, we hope to drive this point home: sustainability actions will be more successful if the community members start with a strong sense of place.

2) We Are Not Alone

The municipal official in our delegation, Pam Mount, is a ball of energy with an impressive resume. Currently she is a Councilwoman from Lawrence Township, the Chair of the New Jersey League of Municipality’s Mayors’ Committee for a Green Future, a committee that is one arm of the Sustainable Jersey partnership, and owner of Terhune Orchards. She is serious about sustainability, has developed Sustainable Lawrence, and steered her community to certification in the Sustainable Jersey program.

In New Taipei City, we met Pam’s Taiwanese twin. Borough President Chiu Mei Ying, who has tireless energy, smart ideas and chutzpah for sustainability just like Pam. Pam said, “When I met Borough President Ying, I realized I was not alone. Sustainability is a global issue, and thoughtful people all over the world are trying to figure out what to do next. It drove home that there is someone like me in every town, in every country, and will be in the future as well.”

Sometimes the hurdles, red tape and general lack of interest in the environmental work we do can seem too hard to overcome. It definitely helped to compare notes, raise our sights outside of the confines of the Garden State, and see the amazing work that our counterparts in Taiwanese communities are doing to make a difference. We are not alone, and most importantly by exchanging ideas and working together, we will make a difference. We all depend on the same air, water, and energy, and it is important that we all assume the responsibilities to care for these common resources.

3) Kindness is Powerful

Sustainable Jersey Taiwan Trip 1

Lawrence Township’s Benjamin Franklin School Principal Chris Turnbull was the lone educator in the delegation. As part of the visit, his school has developed a sister school program with a school in Taiwan.

He was reminded of the power of kindness. “I cannot even describe how genuinely nice, helpful and positive the people of Taiwan were. Not just one or two, or a few, but every single person that I met was pleasant. We work so hard on character and teamwork at Ben Franklin Elementary School, so it is great to be reminded of how important those things really are in, regardless of where you are.”

In Zong-Shen Borough, we visited a school that was very serious about saving energy, but they incorporated fun into their approach. For example, each classroom was given a bank account. The class then decided whether or not to put on the air conditioner each day. The class had to pay their part of the energy bill from their account. If there was money left, they could use it for other fun things, but if they ran out, they couldn’t get any more air conditioning for the month.

4) You Can’t Do It Alone

Similar to New Jersey, we saw passion and ingenuity from local leaders working to tackle local and global issues. But without coordination and support from other places, and higher levels of government, making progress is really hard. Obviously the Taiwanese took us to their leading examples. The challenge is to figure out how to take what works and replicate it, and to provide the regular municipalities with the tools and resources to make progress.

Sustainable Jersey Taiwan Trip 4

Here also we had similarities with Taiwan. They have recently instituted a “Low Carbon Communities Program” working with four pilot communities to learn what works and devise an island-wide program. In year two, they intend to spread the program to fifty communities, eventually reaching all 8,000. The revelation we had in New Jersey, and what we hope to share with the Taiwanese, is that to make real progress you need to have meaningful partnerships. In our case, meaningful means that you develop the actions and policies together (not top down or bottom up alone) and that everyone must pool their resources and cooperate to give communities the help and recognition they need to make progress.

Sustainable Jersey has harnessed the power of local communities in New Jersey to deliver measurable results in sustainable actions across the board. We think this model will be useful to our friends in Taiwan. Stay tuned: we’re busy developing collaborative programs and partnerships.

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Principal Turnbull’s Taiwan Adventure Page

All images courtesy Sustainable Jersey