Thirteen-year-old Salil Deodhar is a passionate young boy, who feels strongly about the pathetic state of our rivers. He is probably among the very few of his age in Pune city who have seen Mutha river in its cleanest form. “I was so delighted to swim in Mutha, but that is the condition before the river enters city areas. Here, it is loaded with chemicals that mostly come from the cosmetics and toiletries we use at home. My school curriculum never told me about it. Most of my classmates know about climate change, but they don’t know that we humans can control it,” says Salil, who interacts frequently with his mother, a river warrior.
Salil and many young boys and girls like him have been deprived of information and knowledge about environment, conservation and most importantly climate change that was promised to them under the UN Climate Change Treaty in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, which incorporated climate education as a necessary component of a national response to a global emergency.
School syllabus Vs On-field learning
Some may argue that environmental studies (EVS) is very much a part of the school syllabus. “Teaching EVS in schools unfortunately has not given the desired effect because the subject is taught in a very academic and boring way. So children look at it as simply a theory subject,” says Ketaki Ghate, an urban ecologist, who along with fellow ecologist, Manasi Karandikar, designed a course by name ‘Nisarg Shala’ (Nature’s School), which is taught in an experimental school called ‘Gram Mangal’ in Pune.
Anand Burman, a teacher with a municipal school in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, agrees with Ghate. “I am a science teacher and I know the importance of contextualizing my topics. If I teach them parts of a plant, I should also teach them how seasonal changes impact plant parts; the correlation between butterflies/bees and plants; the inter-dependence of species etc. Definitely, I should take them out and show things for real,” says Burman.
Maya Ganesh teaches urban agriculture in APL Global School, Old Mahababalipuram Road, Chennai. The course aims to provide education for sustainability through hands on learning. “We don’t discuss problems but look for solutions. It is not just about taking pride in growing chemical-free food, but actually learning the art of growing your own food. We teach regenerative agriculture which also enlightens them about recharging ground water, preventing soil erosion and water loss besides creating a resilient ecosystem that can with stand climate change,” says Maya.
Ketaki Ghate hits the bull’s eye when she suggests nature/climate education as a solution to children’s cellphone addiction. “If we want kids to stay away from cellphones and TV sets, then assisting them connect with nature is a good solution. Learning about their natural surroundings will eventually make them understand how humans are at the centre of a range of problems that mankind faces today. For example, transmission of viruses from animals to humans, which is the probable cause of COVID pandemic. They know, but now they must realize that their very existence depends on all natural systems working in tandem. Children must understand that the mistakes we, the adults, committed should not be repeated ever again,” she says.
Aniket Motale is an IT engineer turned naturalist who runs a nature interaction course for children by name ‘Life Around Us’. “The roots of environmental issues like climate change, ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss lie in human behavior. Therefore, the nature of intervention/solution should also be behavioral. Education with right pedagogy is the best tool to create such inclusive mindsets,” says Motale, who mostly teaches outdoors because, in his own words, “To study about nature you should be in nature.”
Right education will create right jobs
The benefits of climate education go beyond enlightening young minds. Eventually, it will take us towards sustainable consumerism and better acceptability for eco-friendly goods and services. “Once the market has considerable demand for products that do not pollute our rivers and soil, entrepreneurs like me will multiply in numbers, thus resulting in sustainable and purposeful employment opportunities,” said a manufacturer of toxin-free toiletries and cosmetics based in Bengaluru.
Impact of climate literacy
Maya gave an example of two Miyawaki forests (a Japanese method to create an urban forest) that were created on the APL Global School campus some years back. The two land areas selected were at a distance with different soil conditions. “As the trees started to grow, our students realized the pace of growth of trees was different for the two patches. In one patch they were growing faster than the other. I asked them to dig deep, literally, into the soil to find the answer,” says Maya. Apparently, the land with slow growth had construction rubble below, which hindered the growth of roots. Besides, the standalone trees planted elsewhere were also growing slow. “This proved the scientific theory proposed by Peter Wohlleben in his book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ that trees indeed communicate and help each other grow. So you see, I did not have to tell them to read a book, they chose to read it themselves,” adds Maya with a smile.
Teachers say they have seen the level of observation to come up with solutions to socio-economic problems increase with a better education about nature and climate change.
One of Motale’s students, Smit Kathole is 10 years old. This young ecologist has started documentation of biodiversity around him by creating a herbarium (a systematically arranged collection of dried plants).
Rishit Deshpande of class VI, who did the 20-day course, said, “I’m not a fan of farming. But the lessons about it really changed my mind! Native foodstuffs, caring for their plants and pest control were pretty interesting.”
Rishit said he had always looked at plants but never observed them the way his nature education teacher taught him to.
What is the best age to learn about nature?
No time is a wrong time to understand human-nature interaction and its consequences on the planet. Dr Sanjeev Shevade and his wife, Dr Ujjawala Shevade, the doctor couple from Dadar in Mumbai, are above 70 of age, but have an enthusiasm for understanding marine ecology, butterflies and birds that would shame most youngsters. They recently completed a one-year course in nature conservation and sustainability from Ecological Society, Pune. The couple also runs this programme called “Nature Connect – Knights of TheUntamedEarth” to connect children from different regions of the country with the sole intent of starting a dialogue on ecosystems, ecology and conservation. “We have run this programme mostly in the online mode throughout the year. The kind of children we were able to connect with is simply fantastic. Listening to them and understanding their curiosity about the natural world has been a learning experience in itself,” says Dr Sanjeev Shevade.
Motale, however, says the right age group to impart nature education is 9 to 12 years. “Children from this age category are very curious, open to new ideas and full of questions,” he adds.
Future of climate education
Climate education is gaining momentum, but not at the pace it should considering the rate at which we are destroying our planet. Policy-related interventions are required.
All countries party to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change have promised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) like cutting down carbon emission, increasing green cover etc. It is high time the Government of India makes ‘climate education for children’ a part of its commitment under the Paris Agreement. Instead of simply making promises, the government should also assess the implementation of such a programme and connect school education to real-life civic engagement and skill development.
(This is the first in a series of seven articles to appear in this space in the run up to Earth Day, which falls on April 22).