We are academicians-cum-practitioners, one from the environmental sciences and the other from the social sciences, coming together as teachers with the aim of re-envisioning an approach to environmental studies. The article invites critical responses, so that ideas introduced here may be developed further.


In the present day educational context, engagement with nature and the environment around us is largely cast in the form of 'environmental science' or, at a more advanced level, 'environmental engineering'. The language calls forth images of scientists and engineers engaged in the noble task of saving the basic elements of our life—air, energy, water, fuel, food— by charting and measuring, creating new technologies and by sounding warning bells about crossing limits. Viewed with this lens it emphasizes a technological, instrumental approach to both the problems and the solutions facing our planet. In this telling, there is little acknowledgement of the profound ways in which human culture, its economics, philosophies and ways of life affect our 'natural' environment, and by extension, our resources.

Interdisciplinary boundaries have perforce to be crossed, however, to investigate how apparently dissimilar material processes and systems might work together to create an effect: say, melting polar ice caps upon earthquakes, the effect of Bt brinjal on biodiversity and livelihoods, the destruction of South American rainforests upon rainfall in South India or the effect of a human antibiotic upon vultures. In such cases no single scientific discipline can uncover either causation or amelioration.

Moreover, we are now at a point in human history when the view that science and technology are the panacea for all crises facing the planet is increasingly being challenged by individuals (including scientists, economists and philosophers) and communities (including indigenous peoples). Science is critical to understanding structure, function and processes in nature and the consequences of resource-use in a particular manner. Science and technology may also provide us with tools to develop solutions and help in determining what is possible to do. However, science cannot help make the choices for us or even perform the task for us. The decisions we make on how we engage with the environment and draw upon natural resources to meet our needs and wants are not driven by this understanding and application of science and technology. Social, cultural and political inclinations underpin and inform our individual and collective decisions.

The ways in which we engage with the environment are thus not driven by material considerations alone. To pretend otherwise is to limit and distort our understanding of the issues; it is to pretend that a technological solution is all we need to save us. For a complete understanding of the environment we need to look to ourselves as a part of it. The social sciences, including history and philosophy, become important tools through which to make explicit the otherwise unexamined imperatives and motivations that shape our individual and collective decisions. The creative arts, we believe, are just as essential to this endeavour, involving as they do those experiential, emotional aspects of ourselves without which, arguably, no learning can be said to be complete.

In this article we propose that the assumptions about the word 'environment', which underlie a model that privileges a scientific knowledge of it, be looked at anew. In its place, we would like to draw the outlines of a broader understanding of 'environmental studies'. In doing so, we will also attempt to illustrate, briefly, how environmental studies could be pursued in schools located in diverse environments. We believe that school is a critical space in this pursuit since this is a formative arena with a profound influence on our conscious and subconscious minds.

Perception of nature

To begin with, we question the idea— promoted by a two centuries-old worldview that underpins much of science—that 'nature' exists as an entity that can be fully known only through a study of its parts ,i.e. through a study of its physics,chemistry, biology and geology. Humanbeings and the natural world have historically been attuned to each other invarying degrees, informed by multiple world-views. We therefore seek to draw attention to the degree to which human culture, its philosophies and the ways inwhich those unfold in the lives of humanbeings play a decisive part in the shapingof the natural environment. Indeed, it appears that much of the so-called natural world has already been shaped, or isbeing shaped, by human beings. This way of approaching 'environmental studies' suggests, therefore, that working towards creating more sustainable environmentson our planet is not just a matter for the natural scientist, but for everybody. And school education must play a key part in educating persons who are concerned about the state of the planet and feel a sense of responsibility towards maintaining its integrity.

In order to feel moved to act towards the creation of such a responsive attitude towards the environment, teachers and students must feel directly implicated; together they must learn and feel the urgency of the facts for themselves. The question then is, how do we enable such learning?

Challenges in the teaching of environmental studies

One of the more significant challenges in any teaching and learning related to the environment is the translation of its interdisciplinary character for students. The questions that emerge then are, firstly, whether 'interdisciplinarity' is too sophisticated an idea for students at the school level to grasp; and secondly, whether we as adults (teachers, academics, scientists, technologists and policy makers) ourselves truly understand the concept. In several conversations with teachers it has emerged that while most may understand the idea of interdisciplinarity in theory, they do not feel adequately equipped to translate it in their teaching. With the exception of a few schools with a more open-ended curriculum, most teachers find themselves severely constrained by the rigidity of school curricula and syllabi, and inadequate teaching resources. What is worth exploring therefore is a methodology of teaching that may open up some new directions and help relieve some of these constraints.

Methodology in environmental studies

Methodology of learning about the environment and, therefore, the related issue of how knowledge is gathered lie at the heart of this approach to environmental study. How do we know what we know, why is it that some kinds of knowledge are accorded more respect than others, and how do we, first, decide what is useful knowledge and, secondly, go about gathering or creating that knowledge for ourselves? Do our forms of knowing bring shifts in attitudes and values that would guide our actions and decisions vis-à-vis ourselves, other peoples and the evident problems in our collective environments? How then do we use knowledge to seek solutions where necessary?

We suggest that the course of environmental study must extend through the school years. It must equip students with the understanding that knowledge about the phenomena and human activities that constitute our environment (the local and the global) comes from various sources: written text, practice, experience, learning from peers and also from people whose livelihoods are based on close connections with natural cycles. It must encourage students to not just look to books, text- or otherwise, or even the so-called 'experts' as the sole founts of knowledge. Instead, we urge the creating of spaces for teachers and students to learn from practice, from those people at the so-called 'grassroots' who have over generations had occasion to study nature and natural resources and the associated patterns intimately. In asking and learning from agriculturists, pastoralists, artisans, indigenous communities we expect that teachers and students will begin to question existing hierarchies of accepted knowledge. Such an approach will hopefully also lead students to question current disciplinary boundaries and then transcend these boundaries to experience true interdisciplinarity. This, we hope, will help shape their lives to work towards a deeper understanding of and real solutions to the problems of the present and future.

Towards a new curriculum

We envisage such a course as consisting of a set of modules, guided by a flexible framework in which teachers can use or substitute topics depending upon whether they are relevant to their particular locations. The framework could provide a broad roadmap with themes and topics that may be studied at various levels in school. Students should over the years have the opportunity to study a phenomenon from varied angles, including among them history, economics, mathematics, the natural sciences and literature. For example, children in class 7 may be studying the 'history of life' and emergence of 'human societies' as part of the subject of history. The former can be pulled into science classes through discussions on evolution and thus demonstrate that key ideas are interdisciplinary.

The course must include the creation of simple models to understand natural systems, such as groundwater flow. There could be science projects on topics such as the aeration of soils by earthworms or an exploration of what microorganisms exist in the air around us. There should also be some practical work on the land: clearing water channels and drains, constructing simple rainwater harvesting structures or clearing waste. Nature-walks to study local flora and fauna can be used to hone observation skills and to understand their relationships with local cultural and conservation practices. These may include the significance of sacred groves, of local deities and rituals that tell us about the agricultural cycle. The above are largely relevant to rural settings. In urban settings, students may do projects that engage with livelihood patterns and economic 'niches' occupied by communities such as small traders, fisherfolk (in coastal towns) or rag-pickers. Such studies may throw new light on the opportunities, dependencies (as well as iniquities) and community lives in urban environments.

Since we are keen that students learn experientially, through creating their own work, we would want them to be engaged in some forms of ethnographic interviews and writing, imaginative writing, and art and drama projects. Students might also learn something demonstrable from the community with whom they have been studying the phenomenon, both urban and rural. Depending upon the area, it might be a skill such as planning a vegetable patch, determining when to harvest fruits or vegetables, transplanting rice—it might even be basket-weaving or a dance-step!

The theme of 'food security' and its ramifications could be the subject of a set of crucial modules. Students studying the question of food security, can, for example, begin by asking questions regarding the status of food security in their immediate locality: Is it due to inadequate production or access? How do people access food? If they are in rural areas, students can look at how landed and landless people access food and water. Students can visit not just the poor parts but also those parts where food is expensive, richly displayed and abundant. They can study the history of food consumption in their area: What have been the staple diets over the years? What were the factors that led to that particular pattern of eating at a certain point in time? What changes led to current dietary habits? Juxtaposed with this experiential learning can be a theoretical exploration of world food systems, issues associated with the current and future food systems, sustainable alternatives and other such areas. The learning can be taken back to the field for discussions with local communities. The module on food security can be developed to various degrees of complexity depending on the age and level of the students. Linkages to water use and energy use can also be explored, thereby creating awareness on the interconnectedness of life-support systems.

Taking an anthropological perspective, students may study the different meanings of food within a community or locality. Are some foods perceived to be more 'prestigious' than others? Are those perceptions fuelled by availability, or rather, by scarcity? Do considerations of calorific value or nutrition play any role in determining prestige? What kinds of values express themselves through food? Students could learn new recipes and incorporate them into their daily diets. Studying food could lead, quite organically, to a consideration of how socio-cultural processes are not separate from us, and also how these have a deep effect on our environment: in this case, in the kinds of agriculture that is practiced, on the health of people in that environment, apart from discussions about local, seasonal foods and what it means to have a wider range of choices than thoselocally available.

The economics of food production, distribution and consumption can also be integrated quite logically into this set of modules. Students could look at the life cycle of any given vegetable or crop in a rural area, or how urban homes can create rooftop or balcony spaces to grow some of their own food. Through this they could learn about seasonality, dependency on resources such as space/land, water, labour, soil conditioners, and understanding of nutrient and water cycles. In the process, students can also begin to understand the significance of economic policies in determining food production and access.

High school students in an urban school can study the role of urban planning and its impact on natural resources— water, air, land, local flora and fauna. Questions on equity and social justice in the context of availability of essential services such as water supply, sanitation, electricity, fuel and food can be integrated with those on the technological choices made to manage resources in cities. Other questions that can be explored include: Why are slums located where they are? What led to the slum residents being in the city? These questions may bring about a critical understanding of the nature of development and the impact of development projects on landscapes and communities, leading to discussions on alternative modelsof development.

In such explorations, teachers and students will also come in contact with the impact of our economic policies and programmes. This will provide an opportunity to engage in issues of governance. Students could be encouraged to review government policies related to, say, food security, water resources, creation of jobs and loss of livelihoods, and to comment on them.

It is not just natural or social scientists who reflect upon the upheaval wrought by environmental change and its concomitant economic and social change. Indeed, most of the truly powerful work on these themes has come from artistes working in several media all over the world, over the last so many decades. In India and abroad urbanization; mechanization; the arrival of a cash-economy; the loss of traditional livelihoods and resultant poverty; the dispersal of communities; and the wounding of large swathes of the earth and those who depend upon her form the subject of much literature and music, many films and social movements. These bring alive, through narrative and emotion, what students might otherwise be encouraged to think of merely as dry, conceptually dense, impersonal processes.

A scientific approach encourages students to be dispassionate, to stand outside a situation and evaluate it in ostensibly objective terms. While this is useful and necessary, it does not tell the whole truth about a situation, or even, sometimes, the most important aspect of it. We hope that students will begin to discern where the heart of an issue lies by looking not merely at scientific facts, but rather at the whole picture, by looking at the effects of human action on other human beings and the natural landscape. Through an experiential approach, based on and led by inquiry, we hope students will begin to see the connections between our ways of thinking, living and acting, and its impact on the planet.

What next?

We see the need to re-envision a curriculum that will enable us to engage more completely with the environment in our schools and homes. In this approach the adults are as much in a position of being learners as are students. This article is thus a call for a renewal of our discourse on environmental education, which should impact education as a whole.

The ideas expressed here are meant to initiate discussion on the possible ways for students, teachers (and parents) to engage in a meaningful fashion, so that we are truly a part of and not apart from the environmentaround us.