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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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This is a significant moment in history and we will be following the proceedings closely here on ELT Footprint UK.

There are many excellent COP26 teaching resources for educators wanting to talk about the Earth emergency, for example:

For more general information, especially on solutions to climate change, see TED Countdown

See also my personal favourite way of staying up to date with the issues: the wonderful podcasts from Outrage and Optimism

And if you know of additional resources you’d like to recommend to readers of this post, please leave your comments below.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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Next course begins tomorrow, 22 September 2020.

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Find it here.

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