Reimagining environment

Nimesh Ved

One of the plenary speakers at a recently held conference on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Ahmedabad highlighted the need for Environment Education (EE) to be political. EE had been away from politics for long, and this she said had rendered it weak. Participants were quick to raise questions on the risks this could pose of complicating the issue further, especially given the ability of the facilitators to deliberate on such topics.

The speaker’s response was unambiguous. On the one hand, students today have access to a lot of information – from the Internet and other sources. On the other, the onus lies on the facilitators to upgrade their skills and communicate issues responsibly.

In other words, not talking about the topics is neither an option nor a solution. To underscore her point, she stated how the Cauvery issue could have been discussed with students by talking of factors which had led to the current scenario. Be it the increase in area under ‘summer rice’ in Tamil Nadu, rise in the area cultivating sugarcane in Karnataka, or an expanding Bengaluru not maintaining its lakes but seeking water from Cauvery.

The other issue she raised was that EE was practiced in an unduly polite fashion. Dropping uncomfortable topics did not help EE. Students, who came in SUVs, for example, had to be told that they were not helping the environment. The pollution caused by their vehicles, which most of them did not even car pool in, had to be highlighted. These students, most of them from elite schools, were in a position to influence their parents on such decisions. The elite schools needed to know that, amongst schools, they were the worst polluters.

The session brought out the need to take risks and venture on fresh paths. These debates were the need of the hour for EE, which needs to reinvent itself and respond to the changing times. However, addressing these issues alone may not help unless we address the larger issue at hand.

environment We appear to be good at moving from old terms and settling, albeit temporarily, on the new ones. ESD has replaced EE by virtue of being more encompassing and holistic, while Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are considered to be more evolved and tuned in to today’s understanding than the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). However, is there any merit in jumping to fresh terms if we do not question the paradigm within which they operate? Terms which, as the discussions brought out, not many beyond the proverbial choir are bothered about!

Our alienation from nature, today, to a significant extent, is the consequence of an ‘education system’ that is factoid, data and information driven, devoid of attention to understanding the interconnectedness that is integral to all life forms. The primary goal of this ‘education system’ is to churn out ‘graduates’ who will fit into the economy (read contribute to ‘growth’ and ‘development’).

That we are failing even in this is another discussion. Given that EE or ESD is taught within the ambit of this system, the space they occupy and the scope they harbour will be dictated by the economy. The question then is that in an economy fuelled by ‘growth’ and ‘development’ what is the relevance and impact of EE or ESD? Especially when the state’s own vision of ‘development’ is myopic; and for a large chunk of the population, the term is synonymous with roads and jobs.

The author asked one of the participants, after her presentation, whether her recommendations would make an impact given the larger system in place and whether the system should be challenged. “They may not but we have to work within the system,” was her response.

Have we got tuned to not questioning the system? What then of the ‘critical enquiry’ within environment education? Are we unwilling to question our lifestyles as we fear the inconvenience it will bring upon us? After all that we have brought upon the planet do we expect an easy way out? Nothing comes for free, surely not a better future.

SDGs do not explicitly focus on ‘reducing consumption’ or question ‘growth’ and unless we do that, the scenario appears bleak. In a perfect world it would be possible to have an increase in GDP, factory output, and other positive indicators of growth on the one hand and improved ecological conditions on the other. In the imperfect world, which we inhabit, history has taught us that this is anything but a realistic expectation.

The current scenario is akin to running on a track with the finish line moving further at a faster rate. By the time we will have achieved limited success (assuming we do) our actions, lifestyles, decisions will accentuate the threats and bring forth a scenario that warrants even more attention! We not only need to run but also ensure that the finish line remains static. Environment education, in its current form, does not appear to be helping.

This article first appeared in Firstpost on October 18, 2016.

The author is ever fascinated by history, loves long walks and blogs at

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