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Climate education Inspiration Opinion

Chai and change: thoughts on climate change education

A guest blog by Krithik Kaushik Vakil

While our world is engulfed in flames, a lot of us transform into modern Neroes —the Roman emperor infamous for sitting through a  burning Rome. We are desensitised to what we see in newspapers everyday. Climate denial and inaction are major problems, but we must not lose hope. There are still things we can do to make a difference, and climate change education plays a vital role in this.

I recently had the opportunity to experience climate education first hand with two environmental organisations working to help us protect and reconnect with nature. At one, our days would end with a cup of tea in our hand and reflection in our head. It was at this time that we had our most interesting conversations.

This article tries to follow that tradition. Alongside a cup of tea, I share my reflections from my internships and pass on the wisdom of two organisations that share my hopes for climate education.

Meet two inspiring climate educators

As a second year undergraduate Philosophy major at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, I had the opportunity to be part of field immersions through our interdisciplinary-course internships. Two of those organisations stood out to me: Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and Sadhana Forest India.

The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary conserves flora from the spellbinding Western Ghats, a hill range on India’s southwestern coastline. The Sanctuary restores its degraded ecosystems and shares the immense knowledge they gain from these activities through training, public outreach and a small school in the forest.

Sadhana Forest India advocates a different way of living with nature, one that is sustainable. In their own words, they do this “by engineering compassion” towards the forest. Much like the Sanctuary, they work towards conserving the indigenous plants of their region. This is part of their seva, a philanthropic initiative at their organisation.

Both organisations are working to create a more sustainable future. They offer valuable insights about the importance of biodiversity and show us how to live in harmony with nature.

Disconnected from nature

Think about the last time you walked with bare feet gripping the cool, placid soil. Or the last time you thought of the environmental cost before letting your debit card bear the insulated economic cost of a purchase.

One of the problems with that environmental cost is that its impact is too distant for you to care. Climate change’s unique characteristics pose a challenge for educators.

Scholarship on climate change education recognises that students face difficulty developing “an understanding of anthropogenic climate change”. That is, human-induced changes in our planetary systems. They argue this is because of four characteristics:

  • “invisible causes that generally do not directly impact human health or wellbeing;
  • distant impacts, both geographically and temporally;
  • delayed or absent gratification for taking action;
  • powerful self-interests.”

Our ‘disconnect’ exacerbates this distance.

I spoke to Jazz, one of the facilitators of Children’s Land, an unschooling program at Sadhana Forest India about this disconnect. He noted how an anthropocentric lens (one which takes humans as the most important element of existence) construes a false dichotomy between humans and nature —that we are somehow separate from it.

According to him, this apparent disconnect causes a false sense of scarcity, which gives birth to human greed and this greed leads to environmental destruction. “If I believe I am not separate [from nature]”, he said, “[causing climate change] is like punching myself in the face.”

Education must address this disconnect if it wants to create a generation who avoid the environmental pitfalls of human greed. As long as nature is viewed as separate, the call for climate action would ring only an empty sound in students’ ears. But, before we scour for solutions, we should ask: what causes this disconnect?

One answer could be that we are experientially impoverished.

“Climate change is being told to us. But what is our direct experience of it?”, Suprabha (warmly called Supi), a leading member of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, asks.

From ancient times, human beings could ‘read’ the sky and tell you what the weather was going to be like. Now, we just read about it in the paper without using any of that nuanced weather-sensitivity and that’s the problem, Supi explains.

We think climate change, but we barely feel it. When we read “floods in Bangladesh”, how many of us know what it means to experience a flood in our lifetime?

So, nature is both conceptually and corporally disconnected from us. What do we do? How can we reconnect?

A date with the forest

The first step: love the forest. Let me illustrate.

One afternoon at the Sanctuary, my group was required to engage in a short solitary activity. Everyone had to choose a spot to sit for the next hour. It was like a date with the forest.

I sat near an open grazing field and started meditating on everything in my sensory experience: a harmony of birdsongs, the touch of the ground beneath, and the forest’s silent serene heartbeat. This experience, and several others like it, allowed me to realise a home in nature, a home I have not been to often. A feeling that the forest had been my home all along seamlessly attached itself to my consciousness.

Seeing the forest in this way, I experienced the realness of climate change’s impacts. Even without bearing witness to any major climate catastrophes, living in the forest gave rise to imaginations and anxieties of losing it to the waves of global warming. Thus, breaking the conceptual disconnect. While the experiences of connection (similar to Tsaheylu in Avatar) mentioned above, broke the corporal disconnect.

This reconnection nourished my love towards the forest, an essential step for Supi’s conservation approach. Supi differentiated between two approaches. The knowledge-approach where you know the forest, using theories and concepts, before you conserve it. And, the love-approach, taken by the Sanctuary, where you love the forest before you conserve it.

The key to resolving the disconnect, with nature and its abstract sufferings, could be employing our sensory experience and kindling love through climate change education. Our body could be our pedagogical tool and our experience our teacher. And then, maybe, we’ll stop punching our faces so much!

Unschooling with love

The second step: love the child. Unconditional love, which is the basis for unschooling for Jazz, should also be the basis for any climate change education.

To conjure an image of a love that is unconditional, imagine a toddler trying to find her balance and falling yet again. And she does it with that buoyant giggle, sometimes accompanied by drool. We can’t help but throw a huge smile at this animated little creature. No matter what, drools or diapers, we love her.

Supi, who believes that good qualities are innate in every child, answers why this form of love is important. Education’s job, according to her, is not to inject knowledge and virtues into the child but to “draw these [qualities] out of youngsters: to draw out thinking, to draw out perception, to draw out reasoning, to draw out aesthetics” and so on.

Our perspective of education depends on our beliefs. Jazz asks: “Do I believe the child is naturally capable of finding its own way into this complex crazy amazing world? Or do I believe that it is by nature inadequate and I have to fill it up with knowledge— because if I leave the child on its own, it will just play, learn nothing, be lazy, and become a criminal?”

Both these ideas suggest a gentler approach to the child. The importance of gentleness is highlighted in what Jazz often repeats, “grass doesn’t grow by pulling on it.”

Grass doesn’t grow by pulling on it

It is also important to be gentle at times when climate anxiety haunts so many. Climate change has been famous for precipitating fatigue, free of charge. This is also why so many want to deny climate change— because acceptance is hard. Embracing love adds lenity to our education. It allows the child to face and accept climate change without being overwhelmed.

A corollary of Jazz’s repeated saying would be: it is the anxiety that grows by pulling on it. That’s why we need to love the student unconditionally. No matter what (drool and diapers).

Before the chai gets cold

Before the chai gets cold and the climate gets even hotter, let me wind up my thoughts. My time with these two organisations helped me to capture a reality that evades so many of us. A reality where it is easier to feel apathy towards the climate’s distress than to feel compassion. A reality where our disconnected lives create a bubble around us, making us forget the sweet blue planet we happen to live on. Now, in order to secure the latter, we must burst that bubble, but we must do it as gently as a ripple which breaks the water’s silence.

Acknowledgments

I thank Supi (Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary) and Jazz (Sadhana Forest India) for their cooperation in my research and for their larger efforts towards sustainability.

This article would not have been possible without my university, Azim Premji University Bangalore, and their support. I would also like to thank Green Action ELT for this opportunity to support conversations about conservation and sustainability.

Last but not least, I have immense gratitude for my professor, supervisor and mentor, Sharoon Sunny. Your valuable feedback and useful insights have resulted in this article.

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Inspiration Opinion

Three reactions to the climate crisis

Scientists say the climate is reacting more quickly and more violently than expected. And that’s just the one degree of global warning that is currently baked into the system. We are on track for 2.5C and maybe more.

But why should we care?

I’m not suggesting you don’t care. Presumably at an individual level we all feel concern for the younger people in our lives who will have to face whatever the future holds.

But why should we care as providers of often short-term English language courses? Courses that, because most pupils travel by plane to us here in the UK, have very high emissions.

In recent years, we’ve not only experienced a pandemic, but massive wildfires in Australia and the USA. Droughts and heatwaves have been affecting every part of the planet. Floods in West Africa and Pakistan have displaced millions of people. Heat records were broken all over the UK in summer 2022. We saw catastrophic flooding in Germany and unbearable temperatures in Athens, Madrid and Rome.

If the crisis felt remote before, there’s no way we can pretend it’s not our problem now. And, as we all know, our emissions are helping to create and intensify the problem.

So what should language centres do? It seems there are three possible reactions to the situation:

  • One: shut up our schools, the flight emissions are just too high.
  • Two: carry on as before, it’s a losing battle and we can’t make a difference anyway.
  • Three: transform our schools in response to a changing world and as part of shaping a better future.

Three reactions

Close up shop

So what now? Things are bad and set to get worse. But what should a junior summer school like mine do about it?

I find myself in a contradictory position. On one hand I am helping encourage organisations to reduce their emissions through Green Action ELT. At the same time, I’m trying to drum up business for our summer school, knowing most pupils will fly.

It’s not a comfortable position. Should I pack up my bags and find something else to do?

While this reaction may absolve us of personal responsibility, children will still come to the UK to learn English. And, if they don’t visit my school, they’ll go somewhere else. Perhaps to a school that doesn’t discuss environmental topics in the classroom or try to reduce waste and energy use in the way that we do.

Carry on as before

Or perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much, and just get on with things.

Carry on ‘business as usual’ because we’re just one school and can’t do much about global problems anyway. Maybe it’s easier not to acknowledge the problem, or at least our part in it. Besides, we don’t want to risk putting pupils off; we don’t want to kill the goose laying the golden egg.

The problem with that position is that it isn’t very moral. And it’s short-sighted.

Are we happy taking money from parents with the promise that we are preparing their children for the future, while in the process helping putting at risk the very future that we say we are preparing them for?

While we may be losing the battle to keep global warming to 1.5C, every fraction of a degree above that will be counted in greater human misery and lives lost. Which means everything we do to cut emissions will help reduce suffering. We are morally obliged to do what we can.

Prioritising profit now over a liveable planet later, may not be good business in any case. Why are so many brands and products shouting out their commitments to carbon neutrality and a clean, green planet? They know shoppers and staff care. Whether they’re pushed to act or lie about action, they are responding to changing pressures and priorities. People, especially young people, care about sustainability.

And we can apply the same logic to our courses.

Time for transformation

So, scrapping closing the school and carrying on regardless, our third option is: do something. Respond to the situation and try to reduce our emissions as far as we possibly can.

It the right thing to do. We are facing a crisis that is already taking lives, and we must act.

Action gives us agency in a rapidly changing and often scary situation. It gives us a chance to reshape our lives, schools and communities to address other problems, like inequality, that are so entangled with the climate crisis.

It is also means responding to a topic that is increasingly important to our pupils and their families.

So where do we start?

Responses in the sector span a continuum. At one end we see superficial changes – recycling and quitting plastic cups, say. Really just tinkering around the edges and risking the charge of greenwashing if the impact of these actions is overemphasised. At the other end, organisations are examining every part of their operation to find ways to reduce emissions and use their position for positive change.

As the Green ELT movement grows, we must be careful to fall on the impactful end of the spectrum. To start with, if you have not already done so, write an environmental policy. Get together as a team and find colleagues who can lead and maintain the momentum of your environmental efforts.

Do everything you can, from food to fuel, classroom to conference.

Take action.

Adapted from a talk at the Young Learners English UK AGM 2022
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Inspiration Resources

Earthrise

Earthrise – the poem by Amanda Gorman – feels peculiarly relevant to COP26, both inside and outside the venue. Here is an excerpt, and a link to a new teaching resource I’ve created specially for COP26. I hope you and your students will enjoy it.

‘To see it, close your eyes.
Visualize that all of us in this room
and outside of these walls or in the halls, all
of us changemakers are in a spacecraft,
Floating like a silver raft
in space, and we see the face of our planet anew.
We relish the view;
We witness its round green and brilliant blue,
Which inspires us to ask deeply, wholly:
What can we do?
Open your eyes.
Know that the future of
this wise planet
Lies right in sight:
Right in all of us. Trust
this earth uprising.
All of us bring light to exciting solutions never tried before
For it is our hope that implores us, at our uncompromising core, 
To keep rising up for an earth more than worth fighting for.’

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Inspiration Resources

Breaking Boundaries

A newly released Netflix documentary, “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet,” features David Attenborough and Johan Rockström, one of the scientists who introduced the concept of planetary boundaries.

The film sounds alarm on planetary boundaries, but offers hope.

Highly recommended: read more here and watch the film here. #GreenELT

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Inspiration Resources

Leading from within

“This is one of the most consequential decades in human history. That might sound like an exaggeration but it’s not.

By 2030 either we will have reduced emissions by 50% and will be well on our way to a regenerative world where we turn things around at the last minute; or we will have begun to lose control over our climatic system and it will matter less what we do after that.”

These are the words of Tom Rivett-Carnac who, alongside Christiana Figueres, helped bring about the successful Paris Agreement on climate change.

But one of the problems for people aware of the reality of our situation and wishing to do something about it, is burnout. So we need to strike a balance between being in touch with what is going on, without being overwhelmed by it; and take time to come back to ourselves to find a place of centred calm from where we will develop the resilience to do the work we need to do. So says Rivett-Carnac’s life coach, Jo Confino.

To learn more,  watch the two men in conversation in this fascinating discussion hosted by the Climate Coaching Alliance.

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Inspiration Resources

Hoax

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Inspiration Resources

Climate Declaration

Congratulations to everyone involved in Mock COP 26, the virtual climate change discussions organised by young people in the absence of this year’s postponed climate talks in Glasgow. The result is the Mock COP Treaty which on education states:

14. Article 12 of the Paris Agreement commits the Parties to cooperate in scaling up and strengthening climate education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information on climate change.

15. Education on climate change and biodiversity, based on the best available science and data, needs to be made available at schools and educational establishments at every level, including informal education. School, college and university buildings and estates must lead by example on sustainability as they form the subliminal curriculum.

16. The Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action prepared in 2019 by the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (‘CERI’), the United Nations International Children’s Fund (‘UNICEF’) and YOUNGO (the Children and Youth constituency to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), already signed by twelve countries, underlines the call for climate change and environmental education, and children’s rights, including the right to a healthy environment.

That is a very useful and clear statement of what needs to happen – indeed should already be happening – in education. Let’s make sure we act on it.

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Inspiration Travel and transport

Get ready for MockCOP

Countdown to MockCOP

This international, youth-led climate conference, mobilising in the absence of the postponed COP 26 UN climate talks, aims to bring the passion and energy of young people to address the world’s climate and ecological crisis.

It begs the question as to why young people can organise a virtual conference like this while their elders have to fly around the world and stay in expensive hotels. Takes place 19 November to 1st December.

Why not show the MockCOP programme to your students to see what interests them?

Then follow along for motivating, challenging, real world content to discuss with your students.

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Inspiration Opinion

Count Us In

When it comes to reducing our carbon footprint, there is an argument that focussing on individual responsibility lets the real culprits off the hook.

But the truth is that individual and corporate responsibility are two sides of the same coin and the sad fact is that many people do little or nothing personally to reduce their carbon footprint.

That’s where Count Us In can help, aiming to encourage one billion people take practical steps to reduce their carbon footprint that together can make a big difference: over 30 million kilos of CO2 saved at the last count.

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Inspiration

Mock COP26

From 19th November to 1st December 2020 a youth-led online conference will show the world what would happen if young people were the decision makers.

The conference will follow a similar structure to the postponed COP26 climate summit and aims to raise the ambition of world leaders in tackling the climate emergency.

Learn more and give your support at https://www.mockcop.org/

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