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How Literate Are You? Environmentally.

How Literate Are You? Environmentally.

This pertinent question was the theme of the day at the round-table discussion organized by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, Earth Day Network-India and Bhavan’s College on April 22, 2017, the 47th Earth Day, at Bhavan’s College, Andheri, Mumbai. 

 The expert panel at the round-table interacts with each other and the audience.Photo:Durgesh Patil/Sanctuary Nature Foundation 

The bitter truth is, as Stalin Dayanand of Vanashakti, an environmental NGO, put it at the fateful round-table discussion on The Importance of Environment and Climate Literacy, “We are a country full of educated illiterates.” Stalin, who believes in direct talk and direct–action tactics when dealing with the environmentally challenged policy makers of the state, didn’t mince his words. And nor did Siddharth Chakravarty, a former campaign leader with Sea Shepherd Global, a direct-action ocean conservation group. “Even if we are a group of people talking about environmental literacy, we are sitting in an air-conditioned room, on plastic chairs, using plastic pens and paper. As nice as all of this is, we are still part of the problem,” he said. Siddharth detailed the ignored impacts of illegal fishing and overfishing, and explained how even Antarctica, wrongly assumed to be a pristine, uncontaminated continent, has a long bloody history of sealing and whaling. 

Yes, we know very little about the planet and all that is going wrong with it. The mesmerizing picture that David Attenborough paints in Planet Earth may fool you into believing everything is rosy. But the fact is that virtually every wilderness and wild species on Earth is under threat from humans, with human-induced climate change being the arch consequence of our actions.

A good mix of prominent educationists and environmentalists on the panel made for a rather wide-ranging discussion from how moulding young minds is the most powerful tool to avert the climate change crisis to how a shallow educational culture, poverty, and capitalism-induced societal hierarchy are hindrances in the quest to do so. “It is a problem when even teachers hesitate to take on the responsibility to prioritize Environmental Studies citing ‘increase in work load’, “ stated Preeti Takle, the Mumbai coordinator of Kids for Tigers and an experienced educationist determined to bring about change in our fractured education system. 

“Empower one teacher, and you empower thousands of young minds at once. Teachers are the best resources to turn environment destruction and climate change around on its head,” Stalin agreed. The education system in India is flawed in many ways. Especially when you consider that teachers do not get the rightful freedom to teach. Syllabi are set. Students are expected to engage in rote learning with the exclusive aim to acquire good grades. And that’s it. “There are no take backs from the school to post-school transition. All that is taught is promptly unlearned,” pointed out Aditi Banerji, Principal, Lodha World School. “That is why practical and experiential teaching is of utmost importance. Children need to learn why one should care about a tree or a butterfly and how for example a butterfly provides its pollinating services to the plants and relies on the services delivered by the plants. They should be able to make these connections.”

But, it isn’t only children who need a lesson in environment science and natural history. We adults, on second thought, need it more, because unlearning is harder than learning. We need to know how our actions are going to directly or indirectly affect our food, air and water – life’s basic needs. Unfortunately, the ignorance and apathy among citizens and policy makers is disconcerting. “Environmental literacy should come with a lot of policy work. It is hard to see that the very people we are entrusting and voting into power are doing the exact opposite of what needs to be done to protect our natural resources, “ rued Siddharth. 

Siddharth Chakravarty makes his point. Photo:Durgesh Patil/Sanctuary Nature Foundation

 “How many of us know about the Public Trust doctrine? The government or the state does not own anything. Every acre of land and natural resource belongs to the people and it is the government’s job to protect it for us and future generations. But because of lack of basic knowledge of environmental law, the government gets away with destroying trees, rivers, wetlands, forests, all for the sake of the powerful industrial lobby,” explained Stalin. Knowledge will only empower us to compel policy makers into doing what is best for the people and the environment in the long-run. 

The discussion continued with more such straight talk and enlightening conversations, as we learnt a thing or two that day about how much we don’t know. 

While Dr. Siddhivinayak Barve, Head, Department of Botany and Biotechnology at KET’s V G Vaze College, Mulund, Mumbai and the recipient of the prestigious Innovative Scientist Award by DST – Lokheed Martin, USA, explained about the Paris Climate Agreement and environmental work done the world over, Dr. Nandini Deshmukh, Director, Eco-Persona  and District Manager, Climate Reality Project (India) talked about her struggle-filled thirty year journey of working to promote environmental literacy. 

A woman of few words and strong actions, Jilpa Nijasure, who has been working as a farm advisor through her organization Krishivarda, had her work speak for itself when she introduced us to her teenaged son who can already identify 70 species of butterflies. Her point was simple - catch them young and work to undo the environmental destruction inflicted by previous generations. 

Dr. Parvish Pandya, Associate Professor, Zoology at Bhavan’s College and Head - Science, Natural History and Photography at Sanctuary Asia, who elegantly chaired the round-table discussion, had a simple method to suggest, “Make it mandatory to establish butterfly gardens in whatever space is available to you, in schools, in residential spaces and even graveyards! Involve children and watch them be enchanted by nature’s beauty through this simple initiative. Not only will you add to the greenery, and see a rise in butterfly populations, you will also have kids growing up learning to love nature.” 

His mention of graveyards referred to what Rizwan Mithawala, conservation journalist with the Times of India, also part of the panel, told us about how he is turning a patch of his ancestral family graveyard in south Mumbai into a butterfly garden. Rizwan, with his trademark candour, told the people in the room, “I don’t remember a thing about what I learnt in school. But, I love and remember the beautiful nature walks I used to go for with my grandfather and that has instilled in me the love for nature, especially lepidopterans (butterflies and moths). 

Bottom-line – catch them young. And we will have environmentally sound and literate citizens enriching the planet for all.

Author: Purva Variyar

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