The significance and urgency of informed and nuanced climate education, engagement and action for individuals, communities, and not the least, students, is of profound importance. It is on us to spark in students the joy, curiosity, wonder, beauty and lessons that nature gives us, by asking better questions of ourselves.
“SOLITUDE is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.”
— Barbara Kingsolver, American novelist
Respect and reverence for the environment may be traced back several millennia in the Indian subcontinent’s philosophy. Inherent to its diverse cultures and traditions has been living in harmony with nature and the environment. The natural environment— indeed, the foundation of all life— was recognised as intrinsically valuable, beyond its usefulness as a resource. For example, in many cultural practices across the country, different species were treasured as important, and the worship of tigers, water, soil, trees, elephants, snakes, monkeys and elephants, among others, was a norm. Subcontinental art and architecture are filled with myriad animal forms, holding high status and regard across kingdoms and dynasties.
Indeed, in some ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scriptures, humans were considered integral, yet only a part of, the universal personality. In one such, it was said, “the entire creation is one and indivisible and the entire universe constitutes a life unto which every aspect including the human is integrated”. In other words, a concern for, and the protection of, the environment has been an essential part of the social fabric of the subcontinental society, and it may be argued that many in the region inherit a concern for the environment, by virtue of the diverse, natural and indigenous traditions of the land.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in modern times, echoed this ethos. He said, “Live simply so that others may simply live”, in a sense acknowledging the value of the environment and our own role in protecting it. In that direction, he launched the Basic Education Movement or Nai Taleem in 1937. This was one of the first measures taken in modern India to imagine an education that was integrated with nature and the local environment.
Inherent to India’s diverse cultures and traditions has been living in harmony with nature and the environment. In many cultural practices across the country, different species were treasured as important, and the worship of tigers, water, soil, trees, elephants, snakes, monkeys and elephants, among others, was a norm. Indian art and architecture are filled with myriad animal forms, holding high status and regard across kingdoms and dynasties.
Notably, the two core elements of Nai Taleem were: one, connecting curriculum with the physical, social and natural environment, and two, nurturing a close connection between the school, local community and environment. The aim was to create freethinking individuals with the necessary skills to be able to act locally and aspire transcendentally for liberation.
It is an inquiry into this idea, and the distance from it in modern India, that forms the essence of this essay.
“Man does not possess the soil: he is possessed by it. He can grip the soil in his fist, but it laughs, and waits; and one day he drops down, and the soil is enriched. Grass and mandia and rice grow out of him, and they too fall back into the soil.”
— Gopinath Mohanty, Odia writer
In December 2003, the Supreme Court mandated the teaching of environmental education across all years of formal schooling. At the time, this appeared to provide an important impetus in raising awareness regarding environmental concerns in India.
However, in the decades that followed, challenges emerged in terms of the pedagogy, as well as in its dissemination. This was because the environmental education curriculum focused on textbook learning, rather than sparking joy and curiosity towards nature and the environment, and critical thinking regarding the world we live in, for students. Further, it did not focus on local contexts with actionable solutions that would involve and engage individuals and communities. Instead, there was a disconnect between what students learnt in school, and the habits, behaviours and lifestyles that they practised in their daily life.
All the more, the environmental education that was introduced did not nearly achieve in understanding the complex and layered relationship of human beings with Earth, and the urgent conversations to be had about changing times and a struggling planet.
A strong case may be made for the importance of re-thinking how we discuss climate change with children, in a world where climate change requires us to re-think how humans should live and learn with the environment. The escalating damage to land, forests, waterways and biodiversity and habitats of species across the planet requires us to acknowledge and engage with our own part in this grim path.
For those involved in environmental education, this modern climate crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity to think more deeply about human relations with the world, and the impact of this on both human and non-human lives. It is also necessary to recognise that the students of today are the ones who, tomorrow, will have to reckon, directly or indirectly, with the profound social, economic and environmental impacts of climate change; making it all the more urgent for them to be integral to the conversation.
The Chinese poet, Kuan Tzu, profoundly said in 500 BCE, “if you are planning one year ahead— plant rice; if you are planning ten years ahead— plant trees; if you are planning a hundred years ahead— educate the people.” Perhaps following this lead, at the UNESCO–UNEP International Environmental Education Programme in 1992, it was said, “Education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues. It is critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making.”
The field of climate education must include within its fold considerations of class, caste, gender, race and more. The argument may be extended to the importance of valuing and acting in defence of nature and biodiversity, and social and economic climate justice, as core foundations of democracy.
In a similar vein in India, eminent environmental scientist and administrator Triloki Nath Khoshoo argued for the importance of understanding sustainability as “the rate of harvest from a renewable system which must not exceed the rate of actual increment”. He made a case for examining not only the ecological and environmental dimensions, but also for recognising that social and economic justice is an equal part of the larger discourse.
As the impact of climate change becomes more and more undeniable in popular imagination, it has also been harder to ignore its simultaneous social justice and equality concerns that challenge the destruction of forests, consumption and waste management patterns, amongst other things, both between countries as well as within them. In this vein, the field of climate education must include within its fold considerations of class, caste, gender, race and more. The argument may be extended to the importance of valuing and acting in defence of nature and biodiversity, and social and economic climate justice, as core foundations of democracy.
Towards this, I argue for importance to be given, not only to include environmental education in school and university syllabus, but more so, to scrutinise the kind of education that is imparted— in order to consciously and actively value and protect the planet and all her myriad species in everyday life.
Moving trajectory: From environmental education to sustainable development
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. At a time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now. Those of us who have been privileged to receive education, skills and experiences and even power must be role models for the next generation of leadership.”
— Wangari Maathai, Kenyan social, environmental and political activist
Environmental education started out as a nature study movement in the early 1900s. This was followed by a period of the conservation movement in the mid-1900s. At the time, the focus of the movement was on encouraging students to spend time in the wilderness such that they would be driven to nurture and preserve the environment. Simultaneously, with the growth of industry and new agricultural practices across the world, the impact of human activity on the environment and planet began to become more and more noticeable.
Scientists and authors spearheaded this attention to environmental deterioration and the need for environmental consciousness. In particular, American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962) made a powerful case for the idea that if humankind poisoned nature, nature would in turn poison humankind. In many ways, Carson captured public imagination regarding environmental consciousness, knocking some of the shine off unfettered modernity, and in many ways, she galvanised and popularised modern ecology.
Education for sustainable development sought to include within its fold a more holistic perspective of the environment, one that sought the conservation of natural resources and yet was cognisant of the needs of people around the world, in what is now called sustainable development.
Following this raised awareness, the first United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment was held in 1972 at Stockholm, which was one of the earliest attempts at bringing together high-level government officials to discuss environmental concerns at the international level. This marked a major attempt towards international cooperation on the matter of the environment. This conference highlighted the importance of education in addressing environmental challenges as a means to awareness and practical action. Furthermore, this conference led to the formation of the UN Environment Programme that grew to play a major role in global environmental treaties by bringing together all stakeholders.
It was in 2002 that environmental education adopted the phrase ‘education for sustainable development’ (ESD), following the World Summit on Sustainable Development that was organised in Johannesburg, South Africa. Indeed, ESD sought to include within its fold a more holistic perspective of the environment, one that sought the conservation of natural resources and yet was cognisant of the needs of people around the world, in what is now called sustainable development.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
— Albert Einstein, German-American theoretical physicist
A transition to ESD signified a shift in the conversation; one that focused on values and attitudes, skills and behaviour changes towards better decision-making, and effective mass public participation towards a healthier planet.
Even so, the concept of ESD is not without its concerns. The debate surrounding this field has been well discussed by Australian environmental educator Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles who has argued that those countries that are highly dependent on resources may view environmental conservation as standing in opposition to economic development. Indeed, one of the main difficulties is that there is no single universally agreed definition regarding what terms such as ‘development’ and ‘need’ mean.
For instance, in a country such as India, it is difficult to decide how much development is adequate to fulfil the needs of all the people. These are questions that blur the lines between the moral, political and economic, vis-à-vis a study of the environment and the world around us. Historian, and public intellectual Ramchandra Guha discusses in his book How Much Should a Person Consume? (2006) the profoundly ethical dilemma evident in its title— how much should a person consume?
Building on this discussion, environmental educators Bob Jickling from Canada and Helen Spork from Australia, argue in their 1998 research paper that such education must comprise not only an understanding of the natural environment, but must also include an understanding and critique of the society around them, in order to ground students into the relevant contexts. These concerns, while not easy to fully reconcile, are nonetheless important questions for us to ask.
Building on this, the argument must be made in favour of various theoretical frameworks, developed over decades of research and study that seek to understand the fostering and development of environmental attitudes and behaviours. One of the most important studies in this field has been by Swiss research and policy analyst Anjus Kollmuss and British academic Julian Agyeman, who in 2002 examined the models and gaps in environmental knowledge and environmental awareness that result in pro-environmental behaviour. They concluded that what creates pro-environmental behaviour is complex and “cannot be visualised through one single framework or diagram”. Instead, they offer different factors that influence behaviour, whether positive or negative, that include demographics, internal factors such as knowledge, motivation, values, attitudes, awareness, responsibilities and emotions, and external factors such as economic, social, cultural and institutional ones. Indeed, based on the study’s analysis, environmental knowledge, attitudes and values, along with emotional involvement, comprise the multifaceted approach that creates pro-environmental consciousness.
We live in a moment when the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), a public body under the Union education ministry that develops the Indian school curriculum and textbooks, has quietly removed fundamental and foundational science and history topics from the student’s syllabus.
Essentially, what is well established is that this consciousness is rooted in larger value systems of the individuals and communities— that may be nurtured and developed through thoughtful and nuanced climate education and engagement, that is at its heart local and quotidian in practice.
The good fight
“The Earth is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”
— Ernest Hemingway, American novelist
The story of the environment as well as environmental tragedies tends to transcend boundaries in the same way that nature, air and water do not honour man-made boundaries. It has been well argued by experts, backed by science and data, and is instinctively understood when we pay attention to the world around us, that there has been no other time in history where environmental issues have been so prevalent and so pressing.
However, what is not as clear and demands greater introspection is our approach and attempts to engage with the environmental issues around us. These conversations necessarily include within their fold, discussions of social justice, democracy, tribal and indigenous rights, and not the least, an understanding of what it means to be human and the cruel impositions that our species, wittingly or not, make on non-human life.
India, a country known for her great diversity and great contradictions, in terms of the environment too, has experienced both. The environment in India has enjoyed an abundance of nature’s richness, majesty and biodiversity. There is not a corner of the country that does not offer wealth in terms of birds, animals, plant life and natural landscapes. The ecological heritage of India is an incredible treasure that we are fortunate to share a home with and inherit.
Simultaneously, while our per capita ecological footprint and carbon emissions are one of the lowest in the world, India remains the third biggest generator of emissions owing to a large population and growing economy. Indeed, India has witnessed the pressures of rapid economic development, and the strain of mindless consumption and single-minded profiteering that appears to be winning over the protection of our biodiversity and natural resources.
We live in a moment when the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), a public body under the Union education ministry that develops the Indian school curriculum and textbooks, has quietly removed fundamental and foundational science and history topics from the student’s syllabus. It is a shocking move that impacts all Central Board of School Education (CBSE) schools across the country, 19 school boards across 14 states; in other words, about 134 million children between the ages 11 to 18 years.
The changes to the history syllabus are not only unjust to India’s syncretic past (and present), but indeed, are brazenly distorted. The changes to the science syllabus put students, and indeed, our country at a significant intellectual disadvantage. The removal of topics from students’ textbooks include Darwin’s evolution, pollution, sustainability, climate-related subjects, the periodic table, the industrial revolution, and more. These are changes to syllabus that are bewildering, and difficult to rationalise and reconcile with. That education and learning for young minds is, at its heart, an effort to encourage critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and an appreciation and regard for our shared historical past, appears to be wilfully forgotten.
Those countries that are highly dependent on resources may view environmental conservation as standing in opposition to economic development. Since there is no single universally agreed definition regarding what terms such as ‘development’ and ‘need’ mean, in a country such as India, it is difficult to decide how much development is adequate to fulfil the needs of all the people.
At such a time, it may be agreed that the significance and urgency of informed and nuanced climate education, engagement and action for individuals, communities, and not the least, the students of India, is of profound importance. It is not inaccurate to make the claim that most of us have been complicit in bringing our country and planet to this point.
Rather than continuing down the same destructive path, and at a time when artificial intelligence pretends to have all the answers, it is on us to spark in students the joy, curiosity, wonder, beauty and lessons that nature gives us, by asking better questions of ourselves. It is time we equip students the best we can, to prepare them for what lies ahead.