At an art exhibition themed on environment protection held at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, two students display their eco-friendly bags. Deng Jia
When Julian Wong and Brendan Acord sat down with two friends for dinner in April, 2007 to talk about China's energy issues, they tossed around the idea of restructuring their meetings into an environmental group.
Since then, the Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable (BEER) has grown through word of mouth from four to 150 members - without a single advertisement or mass mailing.
BEER has outgrown its original home at Drum and Bell bar and found a new base in Sanlitun's Blue Frog Village, now host to biweekly happy hours and ecologically minded discussions.
"It really started out as a group of friends and friends of friends," Wong says.
"We thought maybe we could build up a critical mass of people, but it's more like people wanted to join up."
BEER is not the only environmental organization with a membership that has recently skyrocketed in Beijing. Greening the Beige started in March, 2007, as a group using artistic creativity to address environmental problems and grew as quickly as BEER.
"The initial planning meetings I organized for Greening the Beige attracted quite a few volunteers," founder Carissa Welton, says in an e-mail.
"Within a matter of months I was steering a decently sized event with over 30 participants that ended up becoming a full day of speakers, workshops, music, performances and films."
Bristish volunteer Paul Coleman waters a sapling at a Beijing community. He launched his "Asia tree planting walking tour" in Beijing in February, 2006. Since 1992, he has walked around the world to promote tree planting. Lu Zhongqiu
Greening the Beige now has more than 300 members.
Beijing is becoming a hotbed for environmental work and a hub for the national and, increasingly, the international environmental movement.
"I would say that Beijing is the most important place to be for energy," Wong says.
Environmentally oriented activities are becoming a more prominent part of the cityscape, with new clubs, NGOs, conferences and environmental art installations appearing every day.
"There are conferences here every week," Wong says.
Host to some of the world's worst pollution, China might seem an unlikely beacon for an environmental movement.
But part of the appeal for those with a green streak is that Beijing changes very rapidly.
"There's an idea that if you get the Chinese government onboard, a lot is possible in a short amount of time," Wong says.
New Energy Finance senior analyst and BEER member Justin Wu says: "Because China is developing, there's a huge opportunity to get these things clean from the start."
Wu believes the capital is "naturally becoming a center of renewable energy".
In addition to being the seat of government, the city is also the country's academic hub.
Institutions such as Tsinghua University are in close touch with leaders and attract many foreign researchers. BEER, for example, has several Fulbright scholars, including Wong, among its ranks.
In addition to being in the middle of the action, BEER's success also comes from the opportunities it offers members to relax and meet others working for the environment.
"Everyone who comes has their own day jobs," Wong says.
"We wanted to give them a place where they could be comfortable."
The group also largely represents the global environmental movement's newest philosophy.
"The idea was to draw people from different walks of the industry - business, government, NGO's, the media - both foreign and local," Wong says.
"Their idealism is informed by an appreciation of the structure."
Instead of coercing people to voluntarily change their behaviors, the new movement seeks market-based solutions to environmental problems.
"Sustainability is not just about being ecologically sustainable," Wong says.
"If you can't pay the bills, it's not sustainable."
One challenge both groups face is attracting more local membership.
"The aim is to operate as a fully bilingual organization," Welton says of Greening the Beige. Currently, its membership is only 20 percent Chinese.
"Of course, the idea is that (the group) was founded here, and it should serve the Beijing community, and hold a strong voice that reflects the population correspondingly and more accurately."
The residual optimism of the Olympic environmental push provides momentum for such groups.
"The 2008 Green Olympics was more than just a PR scheme to impress the rest of the world," Welton says.
"Some very radical measures have been made in terms of environmental practices and policies here."
Those interested in becoming involved with BEER can e-mail Julian Wong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greening the Beige: New members can sign up at www.greeningthebeige.org or e-mail email@example.com.