Marie Harder: Balance is the answer to sustainability
04 Jun, 2021  |  Source: Fudan University  |  Hits:1935

Professor Marie Harder is mostly known by Fudaners for her contribution to the city’s waste sorting campaign. A lot of Harder’s research is rooted in residential communities in China, but also the UK, Canada and African countries such as Botswana and Senegal.

She is based in the Department of Environmental Science & Engineering of Fudan University in Shanghai. In 2011, she was offered a professorship at Fudan University to focus on the research in the general area of sustainability. Now she is a professor at both Fudan University and University of Brighton, UK.

To know about her work and life in Fudan and Shanghai, we spoke lately to this professor who have stayed with us for more than a decade.


You came to China a decade ago, and since then, you have been living and working in China. What brought you here in the first place?

To come to Fudan gives me a really good opportunity to work on what I want to work on. That was my biggest incentive of coming to China. I love to work with the young researchers. They have their feet in the ground of China, but their heads are more and more international. That's why I am very happy to work in China. We have young researchers who spent many years overseas. They understand China and they also understand that the rest of the world thinks very differently. I think they have different perspectives. Now, more and more Chinese researchers understand that they have to enter into a conversation with other researchers and to agree with existing standards and also to develop new standards. And that's very exciting.


Ten years are quite a long time. What has kept you in Fudan?

It’s still because here I have enough space to develop my ideas. In Fudan, I have more choices to decide what is my standard and what is my subject. I can choose to really find a subject which actually does not exist. It's going to be my subject and in the future there will be other people studying my subject. And there is also the expectation. Fudan holds that all its professors should achieve excellence. Because I know Fudan really expects this excellence, I'm always trying to improve my work. I can also attract qualified international students to come to Fudan on a scholarship to study with me from all over the world. This can improve my ability to have some impact in other parts of the world. And this is very valuable to me. The other thing is Fudan tries to understand my problems of living in China. I have an assistant to help me, so that I can conquer many problems, such as how to get the vaccination and how to do shopping. These are actually quite hard for me. So it means that I can do even more scientific work. I can have even more Chinese students because Fudan has given me some assistance. So with the international students, my PhD students and also my assistant, I have chosen to stay in Fudan for more than ten years.


How effective is Shanghai’s waste sorting campaign? Is there any gap between the reality and your expectation?

At the moment the waste sorting campaign is going quite well. I didn't see the very recent results. But from the statistics in the end of last year, it was doing really well. Compared to all the other cities in the world, it's really doing well, across the whole city and also in individual communities. I think it's really what I expected, except I think that in some communities, they have a certain time and certain place (for throwing away waste). I'm hoping that soon the population, the citizens, will be used to the sorting so that they will have a really good habit.


Can we say that Shanghai is the best example across the country in waste sorting?

I think Shanghai is probably the best example in the world. The result in Shanghai is really amazing and to keep this result for one year is very remarkable. My team has done some checking and so far we have not found any big city in the world which can have this kind of effect. In Shanghai, everybody is just going to do it and after they develop the habit, they will make waste sorting even better.

In fact, in all of the areas in waste treatment, Shanghai is doing very well. They have separate vehicles to collect. They have a transfer station in the middle where the waste is collected and then they squeeze out the water. All processes are done properly. The financial system is set up and the equipment is set up. In Shanghai, the whole system of waste treatment has been planned. It's not just one year. Shanghai has been improving the system and getting the system ready from the community all the way to the final stage. They have been preparing for maybe ten or twelve years. It has taken a long time. Shanghai really made sure it’s on the way.

In Shanghai, at least 9,600 tons of food waste are collected every day. The capacity to make biogas from this point is at least 6,000 tons every day. And it's growing, so Shanghai is getting ready, but you know it's useless for any city to have a really big factory to make biogas if citizens cannot produce enough food waste, or if citizens make very contaminated food waste. Then it will be a waste of money from the government to make the factory ready for the biogas. So already 6,000 from the 9,600 tons is turned into biogas and they are making more and more. It's a very complicated job. It's completely impossible to fix everything in one year. Now we have good tonnages of food waste. We have good facilities and a good collection system, so we are able to scale up everything. And then we can send the information to the residents about what a good job they're doing. Every year we can give them more good news about the final product. As an academic, I can promise you Shanghai is at least one of the best top three in the world, but probably the top. I’m very proud to be in Shanghai.


In your opinion, how have Chinese people changed in the past decade?

My team and I go to many communities to collect data. I think a big difference is when I first arrived, everyone would point at us and run up to us and say, “Hello, are you a foreigner?” And now this doesn't happen so much. I think they're used to foreigners more around Fudan. Slowly, the Chinese people I have met in Shanghai over ten years seem happier to be in China and be Chinese. I'm really glad about that. They are beginning to understand that the balance is important. I feel that now more and more Chinese people have realized the balance which I thought was important from the beginning. I feel that they have realized that this balance is useful. And I think people are very happy with the way the government dealt with Covid-19. The people are proud to be Chinese. I'm so happy about that.


You started in nuclear physics, so how do you end up a researcher in sustainability?

I believe science is useless unless somebody is taking care the impact and its usefulness to society. Actually scientists have to work more in combination with the needs of society, so that the society can be changed.

My work is about sustainable development. And I can promise you that the human population on this earth will not be sustained for many years unless they learn many things. One of them is how to help each other. And another is how to make a balance with the environment. We actually need the balance of environment, social and finance. Balance is the most important thing. China has a lot of good ideas about balance and the West is trying to make the balance by running. They run to the environment and try to fix something. Then they run to the social and they try to fix it. And then they run to the business. But they don't balance it.


How can we find the balance?

We have to look much more carefully at what is important to the people and not just give them some questionnaire. We have to ask what is important to their family and what kind of lifestyle they are looking for. We will find that it's about children, it's about education, it's about making their parents happy. So the lifestyle preferences are very important to know. You cannot be a good government or a good scientist or a good environmentalist unless you know what is the driver behind the people. At the moment, I am working on understanding the drivers for different people. What are the living preferences for different people and we found some really good methods which are very innovative, very creative.

And I'm really really excited, because in Fudan I have a Chinese team, which is developing the Chinese approach for this to ask in depth to find out what the preferences for residents are. When we know these, we can make indicators and we can make policy recommendations. We can do many things if we really understand what is driving the people. So that's what we are working on. I think the impact is going to be very big. I already did some work in different subjects and we can connect the preferences. For example, in Botswana of Africa, they have very small villages and we used this approach there. When you find out what's important to the villages, you can help them to make some plans about climate change and they can make their villages ready for climate change. We can also do this in the United Kingdom. We can do it in China. We can do it in Canada. So we're very excited about this project.

professor at both Fudan University and University of Brighton, UK.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the platform.