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Clock tolls for environmental action

by Stephen Hesse

Mika Suzuki may not be a professional designer, but her keen eye and concern about the environment recently won her the top prize in a Tokyo eco-design contest.

In a larger sense, Suzuki also represents women worldwide who are increasingly worried about the state of our planet. Suzuki lives near the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture and is the mother of two young children. She is concerned that what we cannot see may be our greatest enemy.

“If our most basic surroundings, our water, soil and air, look clean, we tend to believe they are clean and don’t pay further attention,” she says. “But in most cases they are not clean. That’s what I fear most. People do not take [environmental problems] seriously until they get to the level of ‘red alert.’ “

A winning poster from Global Village’s Eco-Creatives contest

Suzuki is not alone. In a recent survey, women worldwide are “extremely concerned” about the state of the global environment. Men, however, have taken a step back from women, and now only feel “fairly concerned.”

Asked to tell the time on an Environmental Doomsday Clock, respondents from around the globe this year averaged 8:56, dropping back 12 minutes from last year’s time of 9:08. On the clock, 6:01 to 9:00 represents “fairly concerned,” while times between 9:01 and 12:00 are for the “extremely concerned.” This year women averaged out at 9:10, men at 8:52.

Concern hit its darkest hour in 1996 (9:13), then dropped back to 9:04 (1997) and 9:05 (1998), before ticking forward to 9:08 last year. Japanese have generally been less pessimistic than those overseas (an hour and 14 minutes behind in 1995, though only two minutes behind last year, at 9:07), but this year opinions converged.

The clock was part of an Asahi Glass Foundation survey of government and non-government organizations (“Questionnaire on Environmental Problems and the Survival of Humankind”) and is intended to assess environmental concerns and perceptions worldwide. This was the ninth year of the survey, and covered issues ranging from global warming to environmental education. Here are some highlights:

Respondents overwhelmingly supported environmental taxes. Those surveyed overseas were 88 percent in favor, while Japanese were only slightly less supportive (85 percent). The most popular target of green taxes was fossil fuels, followed by “industrial and noxious waste.” There was also broad support for tax rebates, particularly for “natural energy sources, such as solar” (50 percent in Japan, 60 percent overseas).

This year, more respondents supported “the development of new energy sources,” rather than dependence on nuclear power. In 1988, 34 percent of those overseas opposed nuclear reliance, as did 30 percent of Japanese. This year, opposition overseas jumped to 78 percent and hit 59 percent in Japan.

Questions on environmental education also provoked interesting opinions and differences. Among respondents overseas, 72 percent claimed that environmental education was included in their schools’ curricula, whereas in Japan only 46 percent responded similarly.

Asked at what age environmental education should begin in schools, 51 percent of Japanese said between 7 and 9 years old, while one-third of those overseas felt such education should begin between 4 and 6 years old. In the U.S. and Canada, 43 percent supported earlier education, surpassed only by Latin America, where 53 percent felt it was best to begin between 4 and 6.

The largest concern of those surveyed in Japan was a lack of “development of curricula and teaching materials” for environmental education (45 percent).

In Japan, schools were the favored institutions for promoting environmental education (23 percent), followed by national and local governments (23 percent), and the mass media (17 percent). Domestic citizens’ groups and NGOs were only favored by 10 percent, and international environmental NGOs got a paltry 1 percent support.

If averaged perceptions were a valid indicator of potential for action, the respondents’ opinions might be encouraging, but stated concerns belie a disturbing complacency, particularly in light of recent scientific findings. Take, for example, the discovery this summer for the first time of open water at the North Pole. Or the widening ozone “hole” over Antarctica that is now extending itself over inhabited regions (see the ozone Web sites below).

Far from encouraging news. Mika Suzuki may not feel a sense of impending crisis, but she felt it was time to act.

“I’ve been very aware of the environment since I became a parent,” she said. “I think it is our responsibility to preserve the beauty of our planet for the next generation.” A large leak of dioxin from a factory into a river near her home motivated her to participate in the Global Village eco-design contest.

Suzuki entered the contest because she wanted to catch the attention of “people who, deliberately or not, sweep environmental issues under the carpet and who are ignorant of our planet’s future.” She also believes alternative design is a good way to spread environmental consciousness.

“However,” she added, “there are still so many people who do not pay attention to the environment, so we need to campaign further using works from such competitions.”

Suzuki won first place in “Eco-Creatives Graphic Art 2000 Competition — Rethinking the Role of Design in Media,” a contest sponsored by Global Village, a Tokyo-based NGO. The contest was intended to encourage new and creative voices to speak out on several issues: the product cycle in our throw-away society; the safety of things we eat and wear; and, endless consumption in our society.

Suzuki’s simple but eye-catching piece “Who wants it to be dumped?” depicts the Earth in a trash bag, tossed atop a typical street-side garbage pile.

Three other contestants received honorable mention: Takuo Kitade, for his work on genetically modified soybeans; James Reich and H. Sakurada, for their piece, “You Are What You Eat”; and Yasumitsu Nakajima, whose work featured a canister of air for sale on a supermarket shelf.

Unfortunately space in the print media comes at a price, a price usually too dear for most artists and NGOs. Nevertheless, publications can, and some do, carry eco-design works as a public service. Foundations too could sponsor more works in the popular media, from photos to videos.

That done, the next step will be to ensure that life imitates art, rather than advertising.