• Ideas
  • Jul 14, 2022

Echo Chambers: Eco Memes

A clownfish reading a public emergency alert about sea reclamations near East Lantau. All memes courtesy @the_selfishmemes_hk.


From sicko clownfish to short-legged horned toads, from greenwashing to Xinjiang tree-planting—@the_selfishmemes_hk blends unruly humor with tender attention to Hong Kong’s environment and ecology. Referencing Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976), the page reproduces memes almost daily, jests on the tails of developers and government officials, and has grown virally since its conception this year. I spoke with some of the page admins, including Pistachio (阿月渾子),  Crow (烏鴉), Admin 3 (衡仔), and Fish (阿魚) to discuss planting memes, anti-AC extremism, and learning to appreciate what we already have. Here is a condensed version of our conversation.

The @the_selfishmemes_hk profile picture features Hong Kong pigs and the former Secretary for the Environment.

 
 What are your backgrounds and motivation? 

P: We have around seven to eight admins. We all have conservation-adjacent day jobs and different interests like bird-watching, oceanology, or mammalogy. Working at various environmental groups, we felt the limits of corporate media channels: you can’t be unhinged or offensive. To us, our meme page serves as a gateway drug, sparking just a little interest and introducing entry-level knowledge.

I grew up in the countryside and fell in love with nature simply through exposure. As a school girl, I dreamed of becoming either a teacher or an environmentalist. When you love something, your heart compels you to protect it and speak out, especially when you’ve witnessed its destruction. Once I entered the environmental field, I realized that information is confined in a coterie—environmentalists often “gather around a stove (圍爐).” I wish to use memes to go beyond this loop.

C: Many of us love to “play on mountains and waters (遊山玩水).” I wasn’t big on conservation at first and simply found myself happier working with plant bulbs and shrubs. Over time, I’ve encountered people with different value systems. Many Hong Kongers love cute animals or enjoy taking stunning hiking photos, but they won’t bother to protect the ecosystem or understand its significance. I realized that someone needs to be an educator and impart the right mindset. Our memes cover, in a populist manner, seemingly little things that we care about.

P: What’s more, I think no one wants to read the news these days. We all have political fatigue. The world is absurd and comical. Still, we often recap the news, using them as a source in our meme-making. At least we can have a good laugh while touching on environmental topics, which usually don’t get a lot of attention.

How do your memes spread?

P: Many active, environmental KOLs follow us. Topics such as camping, hiking, or jokes about photographers swarming in popular spots can resonate with many people. Those can spread rapidly beyond the environmental bubble. Still, we insist on posting these “box-office poisons (票房毒藥).” If a topic is not even memed about, no one would bother to do the reading on it. Our memes are teasers and entry points to those difficult topics.

C: Topics about legislations get less reactions, such as the government’s proposed changes to the Town Planning Ordinance. Those are too information-dense to describe with just one image. Many viewers have no idea what is happening and won’t understand if the meme is too simplistic.

 

Left: This is a short-legged horned toad, repost to keep warm. Right: The lychee giant stink bug is nicknamed “14” for always laying 14 eggs. Both species can be found in Hong Kong.

Some of your memes touch on natural history and feature curious organisms in encyclopedic detail. What are your favorite ecological niches in Hong Kong?

F: As you learn about ecology, you’ll come to appreciate Hong Kong’s high biodiversity. From terrestrial to marine, from insects to birds, our small home is more species-rich than many other countries. Campers in Hong Kong love unique locations that are not run by the government or known to the public, referring to them as “X Locations (X位).” Yet, those niches are not necessarily deep in the mountains. You can find many of them along accessible trails or at the periphery of country parks. On a recent field trip, I roamed around a spot that is five minutes away from a bus stop. I saw 20 different species of animals in just two hours! This is truly exceptional, but not visible to many people.

A: Even within an urban area, you may find migratory birds in a green zone surrounded by asphalt roads; those are often spotted once or twice a year! You actually wouldn’t find them in country parks. Two years ago, a pod of nearly 100 false killer whales swarmed Victoria Harbour’s waters. For no reason, these magical animals appear in magical places.

Your page directly calls out Hong Kong’s landlords and developers, such as Centaline Property’s founder Shih Wing-ching, who suggested planting trees in Xinjiang as a way to compensate for land exploitation in Hong Kong. Some of the memes also point to these developers’ alleged collusion with the government in urbanizing wetland areas via the Northern Metropolis development strategy. Are developers particularly evil? 

P: The issue is with the mindset. It is ingrained in Hong Kong’s ideology that opportunities can only come from land development. Developers thrive under this value system, chasing a notional housing quota and dictating all aspects of life, including food, clothing, transportation, and so on. Perhaps exploiting land does generate huge profits, but its detrimental effects are often delayed and can only be seen on a generational time scale. Besides, are there other qualities worth considering? Are there other ways of thinking about our land?

When we are not aware of the abundance we possess, we don’t know what we stand to lose or have already lost. The developers always project a rosy vision without explaining the cost, which often includes the loss of eco-sensitive zones, wetlands, or country parks. These are riches that not every citizen knows about because no one talks about it! Yet, I think the developers do understand this. Every project requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. They know what they are up to! 

C: While everyone knows about environmental degradation, most people have a human-centered worldview. The Hong Kong dogma “so little land, so many people (地少人多)” precludes any other thoughts on the matter. Are there any preventative measures? Does a project actually contribute to the public good? These matters cannot be “a clean cut at one stroke (一刀切).” We don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. We simply want to provide more information and another way of looking at things.

Top: Shih Wing-ching’s eco-accelerationist utopia. Bottom: Express environmental impact assessment by the Bureau.

It’s a war of information.

P: Our voices are often drowned out due to the imbalance of power. Developers are able to justify the unjustifiable because they have enormous resources, pumping propaganda through social media and advertising. Likewise, the government spends a considerable amount of money on public relations. Their PR companies are quick to “pump water (抽水) ” and make sly commentaries on Facebook. Yet, they only focus on stuff that is “inoffensive to anyone and anything (人畜無害).” It is impossible for them to go against the party line.

C: The government’s PR is actually quite good. Their mascot Big Waster (大嘥鬼) is very down-to-earth, promoting simple and everyday reductions in resource demand. Yet, perhaps due to reasons of national security, they rarely mention projects like the Lantau Tomorrow Vision or they just release redacted information. It’s obvious that they must follow the government’s agenda—back when the mask mandate was first imposed, one of their posts  depicted wild animals wearing masks! 

You’ve joked about submitting your résumés to the Environmental Bureau (now renamed as the Environment and Ecology Bureau). What do you think are the most urgent tasks for the Bureau?

F: Cut Lantau Tomorrow Vision and the Northern Metropolis plan! Granted, these decisions are often made outside of the Bureau. Government-business collusion needs to be stopped with the code of law. It’s absurd that they can file endless  proposals for projects that encroach on the periphery of country parks.

P: We need a deputy secretary for environment, haha! The Bureau is very weak in political terms. We rarely see them in the media. It’s always the [former] secretary for development Wong Wai-lun or the [former] chief executive Carrie Lam in press conferences. In fact, the Environment Bureau has been silent on Lantau Tomorrow Vision! 

C: I would give continuous resources to unofficial NGOs, which have done way more than the government. Environmental work is truly an uphill battle. For example, assessments on the impacts of land reclamation require long-term research and huge human resources. It cannot be solved with just a cheque or a one-time test. In Hong Kong, environmental-impact assessments are widely regarded as a way to exonerate and sanction development projects. It’s merely a formality and a “rubber stamp (橡皮圖章).” Its function is to teach developers  cheat codes. It’s a sad state of affairs.

P: Policies aside, I’d add class hours for young kids to study and be exposed to nature. You won’t consider nature a part of your life unless you actually spend time in it. Maybe I’m being naive.

 

Left: Lam Chiu-ying writing down the names of AC users on the Death Note. Right: Annoying environmentalists: “The glass is finally rid of straws”


Lam Chiu-ying, the former director of the Hong Kong Observatory, has been a meme himself for his unyielding reluctance to turn on air conditioners. Members of the popular discussion forum LIHKG lampoon him as an “anti-AC Taliban.” What do you think about his attitude?

A: Lam is just as stiff-necked as the trolls! He never once turned on the AC in more than ten years, outlasting the old HKGolden forum! Still, I understand that not everyone can afford his lifestyle on our urban-heat island. Maybe his presentation can be improved. He once said “I would outlaw air-conditioning if I’m a dictator.” 

P: Still, he puts his money where his mouth is. You can fact-check his claim through his electrical bill, so you can’t fault him. Conversely, you can’t take the cyber world too seriously. I don’t believe those [LIHKG] jokers really keep their room at 17 degrees celsius all the time! Lam is just showing that he’s trying in his own way. People like to magnify the extremist aspect of it. 

Another derogatory slang is “eco-hypocrites (環保撚),” a reactionary term used against coercive moralists. Can environmentalism turn into emotional blackmail?

P: Sometimes I think some online comments are false flags: annoying people with extreme environmental demands and inciting repulsion. Still, it’s hard not to be emotional. You don’t speak out without feeling indignation first. Our memes are often emotionally charged. It’s a question of presentation. Lam’s presentation may divert people’s attention from the issue. He wants people to care about global warming, not his AC-free life! Still, perhaps the media wouldn’t have given him exposure if he hadn’t been so incendiary in the first place.

A: There seems to be only one approach right now, but there are certainly others! Sometimes it works to make selfish memes and appeal to human interest by highlighting hot weather or food shortages.

P: “One kind of rice provides for 100 kinds of people (一樣米養百樣人).” Everybody is receptive to different approaches. There are many different ways to get to people. Some people love to be guilt-tripped and may respond to a sea turtle with a straw up its nostril. Some enjoy laughter while some love research. The latter may consider our page a novelty act. These are not mutually exclusive—“the brothers climb mountains together, but by their own efforts (兄弟爬山,各自努力).”

 

Xi: “We need to place importance on the ecosystem. Protect it as we protect our eyes; Treat it as we treat our lives”

 

You’ve spoken against the ethos of “save the planet, kill yourself.” Are you optimistic about the future?

F: I don’t really think about this. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter what I feel. We just need to do what we can. I remain doubtful about reversing climate change, but not in a nihilistic and cynical way. I don’t want to die yet; I may as well work at a solution. Nevertheless, I think things are getting better. In the past, people have taunted me for taking reusable containers to restaurants. Like a classic LIHKG troll, some may request disposable plastics in my face, saying “I love polluting!” As time goes by, many are following my footsteps—most people do care and are not setting out to destroy the earth, it just takes motivation to think through the consequences of our actions. It takes time and patience.

A: It’s a question of probability. A light of hope is better than nothing. Caring about the environment can also allow you to have a clear conscience.

P: There’s a growing myth that individual action doesn’t matter when industrial manufacturers are producing tons of wastage anyway. Yet, we believe in the saying “Do not fail to commit good deeds just because it is small in scale (勿以善小而不為).” Perhaps I won’t be able to witness the results of my actions in my own lifetime, but you never know whether your action will affect others, and who will continue your journey. It’s not like I can save the world, but given my time and resources, I can still deal with what’s in front of me.

What are some other environmental accounts that we can follow?

@anddearhk, @befriendtheocean, @imsheeppoo, @Owlhk, @Littlewoods.hk, @mountaingirlhk, @hikingwindfire.hk, @Liberresearch, @support_hk, @Savemoneyla, @Hkbws1957, @Hokoonbio, @hokoon101

 

 

 

TFW you go birdwatching in Tai Po Kau but all you can see are red-whiskered bulbuls.

Curated by an ArtAsiaPacific editor, “Echo Chambers” is a blog that aggregates links and visual contents from the virtual realm.  


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