This article is based on my experience of teaching Environmental Education for Classes 9 and 10 for the past ten years.
In our school, students are exposed to environmental education right from Class 1. Children grow up learning about nature and with an appreciation of it. In younger classes children seem to have an inherent interest in the world of nature and love going for nature walks and watching insects and other life forms. They are alert and alive to the little changes around them and notice much and derive great fun from it. As the years go by other worldly interests seem to take over, such as video games and play stations and Formula One racing.
However, as they grow older they also seem to gain some understanding of social and environmental issues, as in the present times it is difficult to grow up without hearing about these. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem such a bad thing for children to grow up with some such awareness. However, the relevance of information, particularly of the kind that indicates irreversible damage, at an age where one is neither the cause of it nor can do anything about it, needs to be seriously questioned. Invariably by the time children reach Class 9, more often than not, their sensitivity to most issues has got buried under cynical views they come to hold—and this is easy to understand. My own strong feeling is that young children should grow up learning about the natural world, about the weather, forests and rivers; without having to hear about global warming, deforestation and pollution. I am not arguing that they should be shielded from what is happening in the world around them—I am merely saying that they should learn about the world in its natural form and be able to connect to it, before they learn about all the terrible things we human beings have been doing to ourselves and to the rest of the world.
For children to feel connected to the world they should have a feeling for it. We start Class 9 trying to build this connection through feeling. Here is where I would first like to draw from Krishnamurti:
One must have great feelings. The feeling for beauty, the feeling for a word… One must have strong feelings, because it is only the feelings that make the mind highly sensitive.
Class 9 begins with the study of nature. We study ecology which is a frontier science. Ecology has a holistic approach. In ecology we study about whole ecosystems and the relationship of each component with the other and the whole. I believe that each and everyone has a feeling for nature. The attempt here is to uncover the student’s feeling for nature; not just to appreciate nature from an aesthetic point of view but to also understand the extremely complex and intricate relationships, the interdependence, the design, the variety, the origin and meaning of such variety. Students watch films, listen to fascinating anecdotes and take trips to places where their study is brought alive. Slowly their interests are uncovered. This part of the course continues for as long as it takes.
I would like to quote a few examples here. Take the concept of an ‘ecological niche’—every single organism in any eco system has a unique role to play which no other organism plays. I find that fascinating. It is difficult to imagine that each of those millions of species have a unique role. For example, the woodpecker’s most important ecological role is to keep a check on the population of wood boring beetles. The larvae of these beetles live inside the tree and the woodpecker has evolved to find them, remove them and eat them. Woodpeckers are present in most places in the world, in different sizes, and they carry out this task. However, there are no woodpeckers in Galapagos, New Caledonia and Madagascar and in each of these islands another species has taken over the job of the woodpecker. In New Caledonia crows do the same job; but since they don’t have the necessary inbuilt tools they use cactus needles to dig out the larvae. In Galapagos finches do the same and in Madagascar one particular lemur called the aye-aye does that. The aye-aye does that with a long middle finger! These are called ‘ecological equivalents’.
Another concept is that of ‘succession’, which indicates that if we leave land alone and do not interfere, nature will spring back and a natural ecosystem will grow there. To understand this we look at Krakatau. Sixty years after the volcanic implosion of Krakatau a small part of the island emerged out of the sea called Anak Krakatau, – ‘child of Krakatau’. When it emerged from the sea this piece of land was completely barren. It has been studied for the past eighty years to understand how life returns. A python swam in from one of the nearby islands. A number of birds flew in and brought seeds with them. The most astonishing find was that of spiders which were found in good number. How did they come? It was found that spiders looking for new territories climb to a high position and start making their thread and the wind catches this. They hold on to a hard surface until the thread is long enough to carry them and when they are ready they let go and are carried on it as in a parachute to some new place.
We also look at natural selection and co-evolution with suitable examples. One such is the partnership of the ant and acacia. The acacia tree hosts thousands of ants on it, providing shelter, baby food, and nectar for adults. In return the ants protect the tree from predators.
The value of field trips
At the end of this part of their study we go on a trip to the Palani Hills region. Students participate in the trip with great joy. Just to be outdoors in vast open spaces or in verdant forest or along gurgling flowing streams opens the heart and allows for great feelings. This gives students an opportunity to engage with something other than themselves and even if just for a moment or two, to allow themselves to be a part of the larger reality. Over the years we have learnt that this is not such a simple process. One cannot assume that if we take students to say, a rainforest, that they will immediately be struck by the beauty of it and will enjoy the experience. In fact I had assumed this and did go with such an expectation only to find that the students experienced a whole range of other emotions from outright dread to indifference.
Growing up in an urban setting there seems to be an alienation that happens with the world of nature and I found that nature has to be introduced in small doses and students should be helped to get over their fear or aversion or whatever they feel and should be helped to connect with nature. Even over a five-day trip – the visit to the rainforest is saved for the last day – a sort of climax to the trip with the preceding days being used for a gradual build up and connecting to nature through simpler contacts and exercises.
And as you watched the light on that river, somehow you seemed to lose yourself, and as you closed your eyes there was a penetration into a void that was full of blessing. This was bliss.
- J Krishnamurti
I feel that when an individual is touched by something living outside of himself, then he becomes sensitive towards it and acts with care. Almost all the people I have met who work with environmental issues have started with a strong feeling for some aspect or the other of nature—bird watching for some, mountaineering for others.
Through this whole study we deliberately steer clear of problems and focus on nature in its pristine form. Even as we start looking at the problems or when they inevitably come into our consciousness, we focus on the positive developments and maintain a positive feeling. Many students by now would be more open and wanting to learn more. On this solid base other things are developed.
We normally proceed to the study of agriculture. This proves a very good intermediate aspect to learn about before plunging into the present world crisis. After all, human beings have been practising agriculture for thousands of years. Understanding the role of agriculture in mankind’s changing relationship with nature allows for new insights and perspectives. For instance, we may understand agriculture as the first violence of humans against nature; and also as the first act which freed us from nature’s grip, even if only to some extent. We also understand that agriculture brought with it many other features which shaped societal development—such as settlements, ownership of land, and the need for standing armies.
While studying any aspect of environmental education, we need to develop a historical perspective to understand how the present came to be. We need to be deeply aware of our journey through time, not romanticise the past or the present, look objectively at all aspects of our relationship with nature and with each other and understand all its implications without having to justify, blame or judge in any way. For instance, we aim to look at the white races’ decimation of the coloured people of the world, to look at what happened thoroughly without having to chastise the white race or the coloured races or to romanticise the actions of either. Later, colonialism and industrialisation loom large in discussions on several aspects of environmental education.
We keep in mind here a second aspect of Krishnamurti’s teachings:
Let us not think in terms of principles and ideals, but be concerned with things as they are, for it is the consideration of ‘what is’ that awakens intelligence.
I find that some students have an inclination towards nature and often are quite insensitive to human issues such as poverty; and there are others who are inclined to human issues and they feel that to care about nature can only come second to the care of humans. It takes quite a struggle to make students see, if they see at all, that to be sensitive is just that—that one is sensitive—not sensitive to this or that but just sensitive. While each of us might feel inclined towards different things they do not have to be pitted against each other.
Studying developmental issues
From here we move to the study of developmental issues. The students learn that the present developmental model is one paradigm and that there are other alternative models possible, which have been tried with varying degrees of success and are still being tried.
And now we come to a third aspect of Krishnamurti’s teachings.
Education is intimately related to the present world crisis, and the educator who sees the causes of this universal chaos should ask himself how to awaken intelligence in the student, thus helping the coming generation not to bring about further conflict and disaster.
At the core of Krishnamurti’s teachings is relationship. This relationship is not only between us humans; it is also with nature and other living things. While this needs to be seen at the level of individual responses, we also need to see how human beings have responded as a whole. While we need to look within ourselves, it still involves looking at the external world. We try and help the students realize that ultimately many of today’s issues have reached a state of crisis due to the ever-growing consumerist lifestyles and choices one makes in life. Can these choices be informed and intelligent?
By the end of Class 10 students have gone through a journey of sorts and have a fair understanding of issues. When one learns about something, one experiences a need to act and often this is quite strong. Now comes, perhaps, the most critical aspect of Krishnamurti’s teachings, which is the challenge of acting intelligently. Krishnamurti has spoken about total action. Do we really understand that? How then do we act? Or do we not act at all? What is the right thing to do? Can I watch my need to act? Can I watch my need to do something, to feel that I have done something?
In this enormously complex world the limitation of action, or the fact that most action is limited, is nowhere more clear than in the realm of the environment. Here is a rich opportunity to watch ourselves and the need for self-aggrandisement. Through all this the student can still be taught to act meaningfully, to do simple things because she understands the rightness of the action—like not littering, segregating garbage, conserving water and other resources. Even as this happens the student can watch for signs of selfrighteousness, and self-projection.
There is an opportunity to be an individual here and do the right thing.