Being aware is to be conscious, to be conversant and to be mindful. Awareness is the state of mind that makes us think. Initially while working on awareness activity programmes in the United Nations, I considered that the tools for making civil society aware of environmental issues are posters, labels, booklets, web sites, guidebooks, workshops and meetings. 12 years back, the former Environment Minister of China, Mr. Xie Zhenhua, and the former Director General of China's State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and I used a different mechanism to create awareness among the citizens of Beijing. This mechanism demonstrated the long term impacts. It clearly illustrated the point that it is not the tools that create the awareness but the way those tools reach out to society and the way the messages are communicated and understood by the recipients is of critical importance.
We decided that on International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer we would stand in the street near the huge market of Beijing and create awareness about Ozone Layer Protection. We turned the "market" into a "marketplace of ideas".
16 September 1995, Beijing's sky was being lit with the autumn morning sun; an inspiring event was unfolding at Xidan Commercial area, a major shopping complex in Beijing. Mr. Xie Zhenhua, and Mr. Liu Yi, Former Director General of SEPA and in charge of the Ozone Layer Protection unit, my colleague Jim Curlin, myself and other high government officers stood at the huge entrance of the market distributing UNEP posters translated into Chinese to the consumers who had come there for holiday shopping. The message Mr. Xie and Mr. Yi were giving with the help of UNEP was simple: "do not buy products containing Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) - they destroy the Earth's ozone shield." To attract the shoppers' attention, SEPA had arranged for a band of school children to be present to sing songs on environmental protection.
There were no international experts on communication, no speeches, no lectures, and no power-point presentations. Directly reaching the people was the point of power! The event took place on an open street and the audience consisted of everyday people. While the sun over their heads emitted powerful UV rays, the Minister emitted a more powerful message about the need to protect our ozone layer. It was an event that symbolised the beginning of 'grass-roots' capacity building in China for the protection of the ozone layer.
China has come a long way since that 'grass root' awareness raising campaign. This creative but effective mechanism to raise awareness has made quite an impact on my mind. I experienced the awareness raising activity that was action oriented, that used the real 'market mechanism', that availed the opportunity when China's economy was embracing globalisation. I found the similarity between the Chinese approach and that of some of the green NGO's activism which uses street as theatre! And is it not really a 'bottom-up' approach for the capacity building ?