–By Santanu Ghosh
As the global pandemic rages on, we are yet to come to terms with this invisible enemy that has claimed nearly a million lives worldwide. Theories abound as to where it originated, but there is little doubt that the spread of the virus has been aided by poor environmental regulations. The CDC and several other environmental agencies have for the last decade issued warnings about the rising temperature and fluctuating precipitation patterns, and its emerging role in disease transmission. India is currently tethering on the second spot in number of cases, beaten only by the United States of America. This is a grim reminder that infectious diseases do not respect international borders. Social media has interpreted this catastrophe either as a fortunate blessing that has given the Earth time to recover from years of human exploitation, or as a premediated attack by nature on the parasitic humans. The internet was flooded, at a point, with images of dolphins returning to the coast of Bengal or before-after shots of rivers being detoxified. Now that being interested in the welfare of the environment has become the “politically correct” stance, it is important to address the quality of environmental education being delivered in schools and the obvious ways it manifests in the lives of working class people.
My earliest memory of an Environmental Science (EVS) class is our physics teacher (who was officially in charge of the class) promising us that he would give us all the questions to the final paper, if we let him teach physics instead. This, coupled with the lackluster way in which the rest of the geography/biology/chemistry teachers taught us EVS, left me with a deep disregard for the subject. In school, we didn’t really consider it a subject at all. It was tantamount in importance to physical education. The subject was taken as lightly by the teachers as it was by the students. This teaching environment fails the students in its attempt to instill even a perfunctory understanding of EVS.
India is one of the few countries in the world where Environmental Education (EE) is compulsory through all levels of formal education. This was a decision made by the Supreme Court in 2003, and within a year a curriculum was drawn up, books were published, and science teachers were recruited to be repurposed as EE teachers. Within a decade, schools scrapped EE as a separate subject, instead opting to “infuse” it with the other sciences. The idea was to reduce the burden of an additional subject, while also making sure that students didn’t neglect it, by making it part of the biology, language and the social science papers. This decision, however, did not have its intended effect. The course content was severely reduced and important environmental movements were not made aware to generations of young adults. The Bishnoi community that revolted in the 1700s, or the tribal community of Singbhum that agitated in the Jungle Bachao Andolan, took a back seat to more basic facts about Nature. This is the crux of the problem. Modern day environmental education has long forgotten that the ecosystem involves the interaction of living beings with their physical environment. Environmental movements are rooted in the people that comprise them. The apolitical nature of modern-day EE undermines the efforts of the small, underrepresented communities in the struggle for a clean environment.
For generations, these communities have been aware of a symbiotic relationship they shared with nature. Some considered nature sacred, because everything required to sustain life can be found within the folds of nature, thus imbuing it with a raw power only associated with deities. They took it upon themselves to preserve the environment and utilise resources in a sustainable way, such that future generations are not deprived. Thus, the earliest examples of ecosystem conservation are deeply rooted in the people, and hence are, in essence, very political. In contrast, the current state of EE is rooted in academics. There is no sense of urgency when it comes to standing together as a community in order to take a step in the direction of positive change and a sustainable future, much like in academics. Instead, what we get is a theoretical exercise, with little or no connection to the people actively involved in conservation efforts, whether that be in the past or present. It is imperative that the youth of today know and understand the sacrifices of the numerous small communities that form the core of the present-day environmental conservation movement, even though they don’t get as much media attention as Facebook vegans.
I mentioned how a certain section of society believes that the pandemic is inherently a blessing for the environment. Grassroot activists and civil society organisations would beg to differ. Under the distracting shroud of the coronavirus, the government has granted environmental approval to a great number of controversial projects, causing uproar and deep resentment in the communities affected. An example is the Hubballi-Ankola railway line project in Karnataka, which would involve the felling of 200,00 trees and displace several hundred Adivasi communities. The project has been denied approval since 1998, due to its wide ecological ramifications, but was given the green light on March 20, just days before the total lockdown was imposed. Similarly, the Etalin Hydroelectric project in the state of Arunachal Pradesh was granted permission to fell more than 270,000 trees, and thereby irreversibly destroy the biodiversity of the region, as well the lives of several north-eastern tribes. Preventative social distancing laws, albeit necessary, also cripple the ability to organise protests against such projects. With the lack of such protests, indigenous territories are being encroached upon, and environmental protection laws are being diluted, in the name of “industrial development” and “economic growth”. It becomes clear that the people who contribute the most in the struggle to preserve the environment are the same people who are affected disproportionately by relentless attacks against it.
The United States are unequivocally the greatest contributors to ecological catastrophe, whether directly or indirectly. Nowhere in its great history, after the massacre of the Native Americans, do we see environmental conservation efforts until recently. A small group of people in the late 1900s started to believe that it was time to focus on preserving nature. This is in stark contrast to our own history, which is littered with evidence, going back centuries, of environmental conservation efforts led by numerous grassroot communities. This recent interest in the environment has grown since and has even trickled down to our country, where we find social media filled with pleas to not use plastic and purchase charcoal bamboo toothbrushes. But it is imperative that we not look to the west while adopting this ideal. We must look back at our own history. I remember my grandfather brushing his teeth with a datun, which is a tool made from tree twigs. My father, till this day, goes to the local grocer with two to three cloth bags under his arms. Our ancestors didn’t need an ad campaign to tell them what was sustainable. The privileged west has only recently started feeling the threat associated with ecological destruction, which is why we see a spotlight on the movement now, after centuries of the movement having existed. The west vies for systemic change in this regard. It paints a pretty picture of how policy changes can save the earth and we have 10/15/25/50/100 years to do it, depending on the theoretical model used to draw the conclusion. While systemic policy changes are justifiable in the short-term, the long-term changes we should be striving for are ideological in nature.
The poor, underrepresented communities of our country have taught us that it is possible to develop an ideology that allows humans to live in harmony with nature. All that we can hope for is our education system will also, someday, teach us the same. All of history’s greatest movements were ideological movements; if we really do want to see positive change, we must submit to an education that teaches us how to build this ideology.
Santanu is a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He completed his undergraduate education in Biochemistry under Presidency University and moved to IIT Bombay for his Master’s degree. His current primary research focuses on developing drugs for female reproductive cancers. Santanu is also a board member of the UIUC Science Policy Group and engages in several environment-related advocacy efforts. He lives in Urbana with his two black cats, Shadow and Crowley, and his instagram is comprised entirely of cats, food, and sunsets.