INTERVIEW: Ark Eden Founder & Tree Activist Jenny Quinton “You Can’t Do Environmental Education In The Classroom”

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We recently had the opportunity to speak to Jenny Quinton, the founder and project designer of Ark Eden, an organisation in Lantau whose mission is to protect the natural environment of Hong Kong. Throughout the year, Ark Eden hosts outdoor environmental education classes and camps for schoolchildren and students, and promotes eco schemes for a greener Lantau and Hong Kong. In this interview, Jenny talks about her love for Hong Kong’s wonderful nature, the inspiration behind her environmental journey, outdoor classrooms and why she believes humans will pull of saving the planet.

GQ: For our readers who might not be familiar with Ark Eden, could you tell us a bit about yourself and the work that the organisation does?

JQ: I am originally from England and I have been here for over 30 years. I came to Hong Kong as a backpacker and I stayed because I fell in love with Hong Kong’s environment. I was blown away by its fantastic nature. I then started my environmental journey here when I began thinking about how Hong Kong had no trees on the hills, which led me to a series of realisations. I realised there were no trees because they kept being burnt down by vegetation fires. It really was a big wake-up call for me about the scale of our human problem. The fires kept happening because in the dry period, just one cigarette or people practicing traditional grave-sweeping practices that are actually illegal would cause huge fires that would wipe out our wonderful trees. So from there, for 8 years, myself and a group of others started campaigning for environmental protection, and this is when I saw what a difference action from individuals could make.

Ark Eden is all about eco conservation learning. We have a variety of natural outdoor activities, which all aim to regenerate nature, such as permaculture workshops, field trips, camps, outdoor classrooms and tree-planting projects. In fact, to date, Ark Eden has planted 34,017 native Hong Kong trees!

GQ: What inspired you to start Ark Eden?

JQ: After leaving my job as a teacher, I created Ark Eden with a couple of my other friends. Huge development projects were happening in Lantau, so our idea was to develop a blueprint, an alternative plan for the island. Neil McLaughlin, who was an architect, was really the orchestrator of the project, and Paul Melsom was a horticulturalist and his passion was regeneration. The concept of the project was about creating a centre for people learn about conservation and the environment.

It really happened when Neil passed away, and I promised him I would continue the project. Myself, as someone in education, all I knew was that I could teach. During my own journey, I realised that the level of education about the environment is really very low indeed, so once I educated myself, I wanted to help educate others. That’s where it really jumped forward and the whole thing became based on eco-tourism and eco education.

GQ: As the founder of a programme that promotes teaching young people about the protecting the planet, do you believe that environmental education should be a part of the formal school curriculum? Why or why not?

JQ: When I still working as a teacher, I was doing as much as I could within the school system, but it wasn’t working in the classroom. I believe children need to be outside because we are connected to nature and we need contact with it. You can’t do environmental education in the classroom.

I believe that there is an awful lot of environmental education that can be done and absolutely needs to be done in the classroom. The umbrella of the whole education system needs to be the environment! And the whole curriculum [ought to be] interlaced with it! And then the students must go outside to experience and connect with it.  I feel there can be no ‘transformation to a life-sustaining civilisation’ without a massive scale up of high level eco-literacy for all ages. I also think that education and how we educate our children in the future is going to look very different from it does today and in fact education is already on the move. 

GQ: Do you think that the level of awareness about the climate crisis has increased in Hong Kong in the past few years? How does it compare to the movement we’re seeing on plastic pollution – more people in the city now seem to be concerned about plastic waste.

JQ: I think it really has increased. People now understand there is a huge problem. I think with the plastic movement, it was interesting to see everyone turn their heads towards the issue, and I think it was a lot to do with microplastics and the fact that it wasn’t just in the sea but we were ingesting it too. But the reality is, we can’t keep tweaking the edges when it comes to the environment and climate change. This is why when we teach about environmental problems, we can go through the issue quite quickly, but we have to spend time on what we are actually going to do about it. It’s going to require more than just awareness, we need to redesign and we need big system changes.

GQ: In your opinion, what is the biggest environmental issue Hong Kong faces and what can we all do to help solve the problem?

JQ: The biggest problem is money. But that isn’t something people are going to change overnight. We are all racing like hamsters on the wheel because we all have to pay for things like rent, which makes it difficult for us to go aerial enough to see the bigger problem. It is an internal transformation that is really needed. We need to be doing our own housekeeping to run a sustainable household, a sustainable office. Then once that is sorted, we can take it up a level. Ultimately, we need to connect with one another. We can’t spiral around on our axes and expect changes, we have to come together and create community networks, such as ethical cooperatives or setting up a community farm. And people are reluctant to come together because they want to hold the money.

GQ: What do you have planned next for Ark Eden?

JQ: What we have right now that we are putting out is outdoor classrooms. At the moment, we have this running every Tuesday and Thursday but we want to run this on more days. The idea is intensive eco education, where children can bring their work, and participate in activities like woodwork, farming, tree planting, gardening and sustainability work. It’s a host of things, it isn’t just one type outdoor education, there will be wide net of solutions-based activities coming.

GQ: Ultimately, what does Ark Eden hope to achieve?

JQ: Well, we want to save the planet! I always stand with the belief that the people of the world will pull saving the planet off, and I always work with this solid belief.

GQ: If you had one piece of advice for young activists who want to make an impact for the planet, what would it be?

JQ: A very good thing is to read Paul Hawken’s book called Drawdown. It is full of fantastic solutions for climate change, and I’d say to start acting upon them. The key would really be to focus on regeneration and I’m not just talking about forests, but regeneration of ourselves. We need to transform our minds and be well – unless we are well in ourselves, we can’t help very much.

GQ: Final question – team rice or team noodles?

JQ: I love noodles!


Lead image courtesy of Jenny Quinton / Ark Eden.


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