[#FutureGenerations series] Activist Duong Dang: “The biggest challenges must now be tackled at a local, micro-level”


#Future Generations is a series of interviews in which we discuss with individuals working in different fields their visions of the world we will leave for our future generations. We will be discussing the biggest challenges in their opinions, their hopes, and why not, a little piece of advice. 

These individuals are chosen among our network of colleagues and friends, who are experts and specialists in their field. 


Duong Dang is one of the most notable environmental and social activists in Hanoi, Vietnam. We met 10 years ago at our university in Hanoi by joining the same student organisation (Enactus) in freshman year. Duong majored in Finance and I in Business Administration. None of us end up having a “career” in our majors. Instead, our top-of-mind concerns have always been leaning towards climate change, biodiversity loss and social injustice. 

It has always been a pleasure to sit down with Duong and talk about our shared concerns, back when we were 19 taking a tea break between classes, or now in our late 20s discussing via Zoom with 10,000 km apart. 


Anh (A): What are the biggest challenges for our future generations in your opinion?

Duong (D): I think we need to be very specific here. Future generation, but where exactly? The reality of a young person in a big city is very different from that of a rural young one. And not to mention the different realities of different regions in the world. 

I personally think we’re not stressing enough the importance of micro-politics, case-by-case situations, and while having the tendency to treat any problem at a large scale, which hasn’t worked out en masse

So let’s take the future generations of Vietnam in big cities as an example. In that case, I guess [the biggest challenge] is the Fourth Industrial Revolution or industry 4.0. 

(***Author’s note: industry 4.0 is a big concern in Vietnam, which is discussed in every corner in big cities. As an emerging country, Vietnam has a great interest in grasping the essential technologies and processes of this industrial revolution in order to make an enormous economic and social leap).

Why industry 4.0? I mean even for a young person like me, I’m having troubles understanding crypto money and Python and the likes. And I don’t even know if I really MUST acquire all of these new skills? If I don’t, will I be able to function in this society later in my life? 

And that’s for our generation. But for future ones, will the kids in big cities have better opportunities and equipment to learn these new skills rather than the kids in rural areas? Will this deepen the gap between the two populations? Will the rural population be left behind, with much more limited opportunities in a future society?

This can already be observed during the Covid-19 lockdown: kids in the cities have better access to online courses (i.e the wifi and the computers are available). Will the already marginalized populations get even more marginalized?

The second biggest challenge, in my opinion, is energy. Vietnam does not have a clear energy policy for the future, despite its increasing demand for energy. It’s a “no” for nuclear power so far. We have not acquired the technology for renewables yet. Coal is imported now, which leads to the dependence of energy on China.

(A): It’s quite crazy to see that you have no clear clean energy roadmap for a country of 90 million people, with increasing energy demand…

Talking about energy, have you read the IPCC’s second report just published on the 28th of February? What is funny is that in France there is absolutely no media outlet that discussed the report and its suggestions (i.e the potential irreversible damages of climate change on human lives, and the suggestions to fight against it). It definitely made me think about the “Don’t Look Up” scenario.

(D): Indeed. Like my mom said, “oh it’s gonna be in a long time the damages, and we’ll be dead by then already.” I think a big part of the reasons [why people neglect climate change] lies in the fact that it is not something you can SEE with your eyes. It’s really the scenario of the frog that cannot sense a slow change in the temperature of the water and will be slowly cooked to death. 

And sadly, it has to be something VISIBLE so that people will care. Like Covid-19 with an increasing number of cases and deaths.

In Vietnam, there is also this narrative, in which we claim that the share [of carbon emissions and pollution] from a small country like ours is so insignificant in comparison to the big ones. Developed countries have all the time in the world to pollute and grow, now it is our turn and we are going to pass? No way.

(A): A recurring argument indeed, that I can hear even from people of our generations. Do you think we can also blame the fact that the climate discussions have been too much technical and not very accessible to a greater audience? I admit I had a headache reading the IPCC reports and always had to search for a brief version. And this is one of my official areas of work. 

Do you think climate and environment knowledge MUST be included in early education? So that the future generations will understand better the stakes, and could strike a balance between economic and environmental well-being?

(D): Yes but it’s not enough. Do you remember that we learned about the circularity principle in nature back in 7th grade? (***Author’s note: we enter 7th grade at the age of 12 in Vietnam). But how come circular economy in particular or circularity, in general, are not shared, universal know-how and mindset of the society? Because it is not applied, there is no real examples that you can SEE and observe.

Let me take another example. Back in 2015, there was this movement of young people leaving big cities to settle in the countryside. And I remember that a lot of people called them insane and extreme and everything. But then they just continued to live their lives, in the happiest, simplest way possible. And then people started to say “oh maybe that makes sense.”. They were convinced because they SEE that with their own eyes: it is possible to live a zero-waste, locally-sourced, happy life. Education must be done with concrete examples and practices. 

When I was at Bhoomi College, a participative learning center on ecological living in India, the first thing that all teachers there must learn is to plant and plow. How can you teach gardening and agriculture if you don’t know how to plant, plow the soil and harvest yourself? If you don’t experience the mechanism yourself, your teaching will be just words. 

(A): Indeed. I don’t even remember that we learned about circularity back in the dayBut I do remember the movement in 2015, leaving big cities to settle and work in the countryside. After my own trips to the organic farms in the South, I myself wanted to “join” that movement too. When we see and live the experience, everything becomes less scary and a lot simpler.  

So, with a lot of challenges that we discussed so far, what do you hope for our future generations?

(D): I don’t really have many hopes [Laugh]. But if I have to have one, I hope for a future in which we do not have to conform to any pre-existing models, and people can live with their passion and capabilities in accordance with nature. And that they find their life and their work to be fulfilled, to be enough. 

But maybe this is too high a hope, especially with the recent developments of events in the world (i.e Myanmar, Ukraine…)

(A): Indeed… But I prefer to look on the bright side, because there is truly a bright side to all of this. Do you remember back when we were at the university, we dreamt that “green” initiatives and climate change and environmental impacts being a conversation in our society? 

And look at where we are now! 10 years later and even the biggest industries and companies are talking about this, and are pressured to take adequate measures to tackle the challenge. So even if it’s a big long, all hopes are not lost, and we must keep up the good work. 

Speaking of which, what’s next for you? Can you share with us some of your projects?

(D): Sure! My focus at the moment is to help voice up the marginalized ethnic groups, the non-Kinh (***Author’s note: Kinh is the biggest ethnic group in Vietnam, which accounts for 85,3% of the population. The rest 14,7% is composed of more than 53 different ethnic groups.)

I just finished a project that helps have a non-biased, non-power-abusive communication between Kinh tourism companies and the local, non-Kinh people. The sheer fact that the business negotiations are all done in Vietnamese (i.e the native language of the Kinh ethnic), with no translation in locally-spoken language, is hinting towards much inherent unbalanced power abusiveness. 

Another project is around helping non-Kinh people living in remote areas to understand the terms, conditions and impacts of upcoming renewable plants (solar, wind & small hydro) that will be constructed near their living areas. As a matter of fact, these plants are planned to be built here because they face the least resistance. 

This also demonstrates the social injustice in the energy transition to mitigate climate change. Why would these local, marginalized people have to “sacrifice” for the comfort of people who are living in big cities? How these plants will impact their daily lives? 

No amount of talks on energy transition makes sense if it’s not coupled with talks on degrowth. This, I believe, is the ultimate challenge and solution that needs to be tackled. 

(A): Totally agreed with you… And we’d love to talk about degrowth in an upcoming talk with you! Thank you very much, Duong, for this interview, and we look forward to hearing the progress of your meaningful projects in Vietnam!

(D): Thank you!

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