Today at Berkeley Lab

A Low-Carbon Message — Gangnam Style

— By Sabin Russell

Korean rapper, dancer, and satirist Park Jae-sang (a.k.a Psy) knows how to get a message across. At last count, his bizarre, goofy, manic video Gangnam Style has collected 1.3 billion hits on YouTube — a number equal to the population of China. That message wasn’t lost on Berkeley Lab’s own song and dance man, self-proclaimed “eco-rapper” John Romankiewicz (a.k.a. Sustainable John), who spied yet another opportunity to promote green living. During his last trip to Beijing, the senior research associate for the China Energy Group gathered friends, bicycles, a video camera, and…a stalk of celery. They spent the Thanksgiving weekend choreographing and shooting “Di Tàn Style” (Low-Carbon Style), which — like the original from Psy — sort of sings for itself.

Behind its silliness and infectious electronic beat, Gangnam Style is a mocking satire of the ostentatious wealth of Korea’s Gangnam district of Seoul. For Romankiewicz, that same music can be a vehicle for celebrating China’s efforts — at government and grassroots levels — to conserve energy and address climate change. In Beijing, red banners with proclamations written in bold Mandarin characters are still a form of public communication. “Live a low-carbon lifestyle!” or “Let’s all work together to save energy!” are the slogans of a modern China. Or, as they sing in Di Tàn Style:

It’s low carbon style, every day take the bus, walk, and bike
It’s energy saving style, turn off the lights, use less AC
It’s green style, less meat, more veggies, both green and healthy
It’s low carbon style, have you gone low carbon?

The new video has yet to top Psy’s, but so far there have been more than 6,000 hits, most of them on Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube.

Gangnam Style was at its viral zenith on the Web when Romankiewicz started thinking of an eco-rap version. It came together quickly while he met some Chinese American friends in Beijing to celebrate Thanksgiving. “Everyone was making Gangnam parody videos, so I thought, why not?” he says. He wrote the lyrics in Mandarin. It all came together on that weekend: a day of sound-recording and dance practice, a day of shooting on an SLR video camera. The green themes are there: mass transit, bicycles, energy efficient appliances, celery.

Why celery? “We wanted to stress ‘eat less meat, more vegetables,’ and didn’t have time to make a commotion in an outdoor market,’’ says Romankiewicz, “So we just needed one iconic vegetable as a prop, and celery is just a funny vegetable.”

Romankiewicz has gotten to know China well from his days in Beijing as a Fulbright scholar and in his work today at Berkeley Lab. The China Energy Group is a 25-year-old collaboration between the Lab and China to analyze energy use and develop greener policies. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but has publically committed to addressing climate change. China’s 12th Five-Year-Plan set a goal of reducing carbon intensity by 17 percent between 2011 and 2015 from a 2010 baseline.

That’s Di Tàn style.