Climate crisis and the battle for imagination

Urvi Desai

The tigress roars
There was chaos in the classroom. Uttam had taken Sara’s notebook, Shweta was recovering from a fall she had had while racing to greet her friend from the neigbouring class, and Ather, in the middle of a raging discussion about his favourite football club, was shaking his fists in protest. Nobody was listening. The science teacher, half pleading and half bellowing, cried out “Students, look here! Please pay attention! There is something new and different we will think about today!” Her efforts went unrewarded.

Fortunately, Shweta, who had the easy confidence of a tigress, and deservedly, was the leader of this pack, noticed us standing in the corner of the room, trying to look as authoritative as we could. She decided it was worth figuring who we were, and took it upon herself to do the needful. With not a moment’s hesitation, she roared the word “SSIIILLEENCCEEE!!” – and to great effect. There was a pause in the din. The other students looked up from their various activities, and stared at us, quite possibly, noticing us for the very first time. They seemed to share Shweta’s spirit of inquiry (to know who we were), and waited for us to speak. My colleague from EkoGalaxy, Shreyas and I, grateful for this opportunity, grabbed it with both hands, and began introducing ourselves.

“Good morning students!” I said, to many bright, curious, and smiling faces, as I began talking about why we were there. “The world is changing quickly,” I explained, “and with that, the climate crisis too is deepening.” The students looked at me, their eyes now keen and interested. I could tell they wanted to know more and understand this better. I also knew that in that moment we had a major responsibility towards the students – to be neither too alarmist, nor overly optimistic about the health of the planet. It‘s a tricky balance to maintain – but an important one.

As the discussions continued, we spoke about how lucky we are to share the planet – not only with one another, but also with a rich biodiversity of plants and animals. We spoke about the interconnectedness of all species – and how the wellbeing of one affected all, and how, the inverse too, was true. The students listened, in rapt attention for the entirety of the session, asking questions and raising concerns – and as it often happens with bright, young minds, this led to even greater interaction and discussion. We felt content with a good day’s work, and revelled in the chatter of the students.

Needless to say, there was nothing new or original in what we were saying. It had been said before and better – and indeed, has been understood and lived by countless adivasi, tribal, and indigenous communities across the world. However, we also knew the simple act of communicating this well to impressionable students, was a critical, urgent act. The students were listening to these ideas and stories for the first time, and we fully recognized the importance of this moment – not only for their own sake, but also for the future of the planet – which increasingly was interlinked.

Learning to ask (ourselves) better questions
In the Indian subcontinent’s philosophy, respect and reverence for the environment may be traced back several millennia. Inherent to its diverse cultures and traditions has been living in harmony with the local environment. Nature – indeed, the foundation of all life – was understood as intrinsically valuable, beyond her 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, snakes, monkeys, and elephants, among others, was a norm. Subcontinental art and architecture are filled with myriad animal forms, indicating their 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 subcontinent. Indeed, 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.

In recent times, though, a strong case may be made for the necessity of re-thinking how we discuss the environment and climate with children, in a world where climate change requires us to re-think how humans should live and learn with the environment.

Towards this, 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 impetus in raising awareness regarding environmental concerns in India. However, in the decades that followed, significant concerns emerged. This was because environmental education curricula in schools focused on textbook learning, rather than sparking joy, curiosity, and wonder towards nature. Further, the climate crises, and studies associated with it, were fast accelerating, and the school curriculum was simply not keeping up.

Most alarming of all, students have begun learning about the climate crisis from social media, which is apocalyptic, if not inaccurate, and rarely encourages any change of thought, habits, and behaviour. In other words, existing forms of climate engagement do not stimulate critical thinking among young people, or foster an informed, gentle, and harmonious relationship with the local environment, and does not encourage them to ask better question of themselves.

Imagining an alternative world
Every crisis is, at its heart, a storytelling crisis. In the case of the health of the planet, too, we are limited by the stories we tell, or do not tell. This may be because of habits of the mind, unoriginal narratives, industry propaganda, or quite simply, inconvenience. However, what this leads to, is that it prevents us from believing, seeing, acting on, or imagining, the possibilities of change. The world is rapidly spiralling – certainly the one I grew up in was very different from the one children today are growing up in. The planet is gasping for breath and there is no doubt that we need to re-imagine development, and, among other things, leave fossil fuels behind, and lower our carbon footprint – decisively.

So, what then is the relationship between hope, imagination, and crisis? What drives our cars won’t change unless we change what drives our ideas. In order to do what the climate crisis demands of us, perhaps we also need to find inspired stories, compassionate local solutions, nurture curiosity, humour, and humility vis-à-vis other species, ask better questions, and become better listeners of one another and the natural world.

At its essence, this means we are in a battle for imagination – not only with large industry and shortsighted economic growth – but also with ourselves. Stories hold a critical space in our lives. They have the power to lead us to imagine a better future for us, as well as a harmonious world shared with the planet’s rich biodiversity.

This said, it is also a complex space, and we need to be careful. Popular, biased, or ill-informed narratives can as easily drown out voices that aren’t as loud, shrill, or industry-funded as they are. In other words, stories can as easily take away the power of curiosity, hope, tenderness, and imagination.

Therefore, rather than believe and immediately repeat what is heard or being churned out as the norm, we need to pause, think about who’s telling the story, and question why. Simply put, we need to learn to be better critics of ourselves, and gentler listeners of the planet.

What constitutes a good life?
This might require a change in the relationship we’ve had so far with the natural world, and indeed, with ourselves. The climate crisis, and the battle for imagination, that is at the centre of it, demands that we scrutinize how we think about everything. It asks that we re-think our notions of power, wealth, time, space, joy, nature, intelligence, and value. Quite simply, I ask – what constitutes a good life?

Working in the field of climate education, and learning from the world’s most diverse, beautiful, wise, and inspired teacher – Mother Nature – has been a humbling experience. It has taught me that success can look quite different from what we may first imagine. To me, success is the moment of awe and beauty I experience when I watch a little bird build a nest in my garden. Success for me also looks like the moment when a student of EkoGalaxy sternly asks our instructors whether they drove to class or took public transport. These moments are profoundly gratifying to our team because the students’ questions are not simply questions – they represent the student’s new ability to think critically, question authority where required, and not the least, show an enduring compassion and consideration for the planet, in seemingly small choices of the everyday.

To parents, schools, and teachers, far from the competitive grades and examinations, I hope that success looks like a child who is comfortable with who they are, unafraid to speak their mind, on the path of good health (both body and mind), is considerate of the world around them, and most importantly, has a song in their heart. I also hope that the parents’ love and schools’ concern for children extend beyond just the immediate. All of us, especially those above 35 years, are deeply complicit in bringing the planet to this point. The story of climate change and its devastating effects are no longer those of the distant future.

It is critical that we recognize and grasp the seriousness of the climate crisis, and move in the direction of action in the everyday, which mitigates rather than exacerbates it. It is also time we give space to new stories and better imagination, in our homes and schools. The gap between perceived support and actual action is not to be taken lightly.

We need better stories – and often this means, stories that allow us to see clearly, think critically, and act resolutely. This includes engagement that is rooted in the local, using nuanced and diverse formats – for example, strong scientific research, but also art, music, literature, theatre, culture, outdoor activities, games, poetry, and more. The work we do at EkoGalaxy aspires to string together these very principles – and seeks to make every school, a climate school.

As someone in the field of climate education, my experience with students has been fascinating, stirring, and illuminating, often all together. However, I try to remember that the forms of storytelling we take to students are complex spaces – with the power to represent or not, and to re-imagine, or not. Indeed, whether in terms of protecting the Earth for future generations, to treat and respect our local environment as cherished national heritage, or in terms of being mindful of species of all shapes and kinds that we share home with, perhaps it is time we re-imagine the world we live in and the world we aspire to have.

In this critical battle for imagination, and in bringing climate education to students, it is important for us to seek braver, gentler, better stories, lest our children are forced to reckon with a world, they neither imagined, nor deserve.

*https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA268403833&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=08140626&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=anon%7Ecda45f54&aty=open+web+entry

The author is co-founder of EkoGalaxy, a platform for climate education and engagement. She has a PhD and Cundill Fellowship from McGill University, Canada. At McGill, she created curriculum and has teaching experience as lecturer. She has lived and worked in Bombay, Geneva, Berlin, Montreal, and Hyderabad. She can be reached at urvi@ekogalaxy.com.

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