by Jayashree Ramadas and Dhanya K
Part 3: Working through the contradictions and disconnects
Environmental learning begins when children step outside the classroom and observe the immediate natural world around them. In the same spirit, to understand what is happening to environmental education, to identify the barriers as well as the enabling factors, we must step outside the school.
Let’s ask what these barriers are, and how they could be overcome. We may find that the barriers to environmental education are universal, but the solutions could be local.
The central challenge of environmental education is that the social, political, and economic messaging around us encourages relentless aspirational consumerism. It is then left to schools and teachers to expose children to alternative, sustainable ways of thinking and acting. This is not only awkward and embarrassing but difficult and bewildering, mainly because it becomes necessary to question our own consumerist lifestyles and the consequences of our everyday actions. In this process, issues of social justice come to the fore since over-consumption is most often a privilege of the few.
Students imagine the past, present and future of their local Mutha river (Aksharnandan, Pune)
Environmental considerations, taken to their logical end, drive us to question even innocent actions like eating a packet of chips, enjoying a bottle of soft drink, using household detergents or choosing colours for rangoli. The issues are hard to analyse, as at first, we may lack the detailed knowledge to do so. Though the analysis in each case may be complicated, 'Systems Thinking' offers a powerful methodology to understand the social and environmental impact of the products we consume .
All of this pertains to the factual, evidence-based aspects of environmental understanding. Underneath those intellectual aspects lurk some difficult emotional issues. For example, conversations on simple things like potato chips or detergents require honest and painful introspection, as we are all implicated in these actions through our everyday lifestyles.
Environmental awareness further entails
critiquing powerful economic and cultural forces in society and questioning numerous popular decisions, be it building a large dam or a flyover, cutting down trees to concretise a riverfront, or carrying out grand overconsumption-prone celebrations of festivals. All of these actions and decisions involve severe conflicts of interest. The discussions around them are complex, troubling, and call for a deep understanding of the issues. Most of all, it requires immense courage to go against the dominant perspective. Could school education possibly tread these vast disconnects: between the natural and the social world and within the social world itself?
Seeking a way out
Let's see how it could be done, considering one local context, the city of Pune. Geographically the largest metropolitan city in Maharashtra, the area's original natural ecosystem has been completely transformed by centuries of human settlement in the area. Since the 1960s Pune has seen rapid industrialisation and population growth. As in most other cities traffic and transport planning have prioritised private over public transport, leading to roads and built structures ruthlessly replacing hills, forests, streams, and rivers.
At the same time, since the 1980s, led by some visionary thinkers, a consciousness about environmental issues has grown. The city's numerous colleges, universities, and institutes of higher education and research have played a role in this growing awareness. There is now a community of scientists, economists, engineers, architects and entrepreneurs focused on different aspects of the environment, who involve themselves in education and activism. Common citizens come together to generate, exchange, and propagate simple ideas on sustainable living: for example on composting, repair and re-use, and minimising household chemicals harmful to life in the soil and water. Informal activities like trekking in the Western Ghats attract amateur naturalists and nature lovers. Some citizens actively take up causes like saving the city’s trees and hills, and reviving its dying rivers. Such a community of professionals, amateurs and thoughtful activists could become an invaluable resource for school education.
In the next part of this series let’s see how.
What in your view are the real barriers to environmental education in schools?
Have you witnessed in your community a fruitful interaction between school children and experts or activists working on environmental issues?
Share your responses with us by emailing to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: Aksharnandan, Pune. Poster art: Devayani More, Sharanya Shah, Keshar Ghorpade, Sanvee Jadhav and Mukta Phalke; Photos: Sachin Jadhav and Hemant Ghorpade.
 Hoffman, T., Menon, S., Morel, W., Nkosi, T., & Pape, N. (2022). Ten Steps Towards Systems Thinking: An Education for Sustainable Development manual for teachers, educators and facilitators. Centre for Environment Education. The book is downloadable from this site.
About the Authors
Jayashree Ramadas: Research and Development in Science Education; formerly at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education and TIFR Hyderabad.
Dhanya K: Researcher & Science Educator formerly Teacher at Rishi Valley School.