For an Earth-Centred Curriculum (Based on deliberations at a Workshop on Bio-diversity)

Geetha Iyer

In December 1998, Navadanya and Rishi Valley School jointly organized a workshop on bio-diversity and conservation issues. This brought together several like-minded people from different disciplines, as well as teachers and educators from schools all over India, to explore the possibility of modifying the existing school curriculum to reflect the concerns of an Earth-centred outlook.

Navadanya is a programme of the Research Foundations for Science, Technology and Ecology, based in New Delhi. The Foundation is involved in research, advocacy and action for the protection and conservation of biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and people's rights. Navadanya is a national insitu genetic resource conservation initiative that is built on community and people's contributions, with its main activity being to support organizations, individuals or communities involved in conserving bio-diversity in different ways.

Rishi Valley is a scrubland basin surrounded by rocky hills with a school located amidst its environs. Teachers and students here try to live in harmony with the natural surroundings. The school has tried over the years to structure its educational activities in a manner that would bring adults and children residing on the campus closer to nature. Resulting from such attempts were programmes we felt we could share with. other interested institutions or individuals. We were also aware that across the length and breadth of India there were other institutions involved in similar initiatives and that it would we worthwhile to know about these.

The workshop also reflected the urgent need for a new direction for our educational system. As we approach a new millennium - and observe the unprecedented changes and destruction being wrought upon our planet by our own species - it is clearly a time for keen reflection on our human motivations and activities. We need to reset our sights over the next thousand years at least.

If teachers and students are to be convinced that to live sanely is to live in harmony with one's environment, then it is important that the curriculum, which forms the backbone of all educational programmes, must also reflect this. As the background paper to the workshop stated, 'Educators and teachers must especially playa role in helping enlarge the perspectives of the generation that will take charge of our planet... Our curricula must move away from concerns that are shaped largely by our historical or national experience, by a world-view centred around scientific and technological progress, by economic or job- oriented motivations, and arrive at perspectives that are 'Earth-centred'.'

Mainstream teaching in schools, or for that matter the programmes of teacher training courses, rarely raise questions regarding the implications or long-term effects of our educational practices and the content of our curricula. Hence, it is unrealistic to expect a teacher to playa sensitive or effective role in awakening the sensibilities of the child to the impact of our contemporary human situation on the health of our planet and its diversity oflife forms. More often than not teachers are given a curriculum and asked to communicate its contents, the entire process becoming a matter of handing down facts. Even for the most resourceful teacher it can be a frustrating experience to teach a curriculum which appears outdated in its underlying concerns. The urgency of a workshop that attempted to map out new directions in curriculum content was thus all the more acute. It was an opportunity to bring together teachers, educators and other interested resource persons to explore and reflect together on the possible contents of an Earth-Centered curriculum.

The workshop was thus seen as being relevant on many counts. On the one hand it was an occasion to critically examine the existing curricula and suggest areas of modification or restructuring. Equally important, it provided a platform for interested institutions and people to initiate a dialogue for exploring possibilities by which education could be made more meaningful in the contemporary context of mounting environmental crises and shrinking. bio-diversity. The specific aims of the workshop were set out as follows:

  • To create a shared commitment to reorienting education towards a greater awareness of issues in bio-diversity conservation.
  • To identify a few central issues and consider the role of schools in addressing various dimensions of these issues.
  • To explore ideas for curricular modifications in different subjects, so as to reflect the above concerns.
  • To present concrete proposals to school boards through joint action of participating schools and other institutions.
  • To promote a network among schools, . institutions and resource persons in order to sustain prorammes for environmental renewal.

It was felt that curricular as well as cocurricular activities in schools must aim at creating constructive attitudes relevant to our times among teachers and students. Some of these attitudes were articulated as follows:

  • To awaken a sense of environmental responsibility in teachers and students, by making them aware of the fragility of their environment.
  • To convince students and teachers that going against the tide is not impossible, that 'conserving bio-diversity' is within everyone's reach.
  • To explore whether it is possible to employ the very techniques of mainstream science to understand and 'repair' the damage.
  • To enable students, in particular to make sensible choices in the future.
  • To imbibe the sensibility that to live sanely is to live in harmony with one's own immediate environment.

Restructuring the curriculum also requires a definite direction of thinking. Some key principles or insights were identified as underpinning the concerns and . thrusts of an Earth-centred curriculum. These were articulated as follows:

The Earth is a finite place, with complex self-sustaining mechanisms that have enabled teeming life forms to evolve and coexist for eons. Whereas to early humans the earth may have appeared vast and inexhaustible, this is no longer the case. Today the wise use of renewable resources is an imperative of future survival.

Large systems are complex and behave in counter-intuitive and unpredictable ways. Effects of actions may manifest not only in places that are very distant from initial locale, but also may be at a later point in time.

What is good for individuals within a system (individual subsystems, individual components) is not necessarily optimal or beneficial for the system as a whole.

Every action has a consequence. Our human lifestyles leave a clear and definable 'ecological footprint'. Civilizations built around the culture of acquisition have the seeds of decay built into them.

The three-day workshop attempted to give shape and substance to all the above concerns. The tone was set through introductory talks and a keynote address by the Union Minister for Environment and Forests; A panel discussion among teachers representing various disciplines explored the problems and possibilities of giving a new orientation to the curriculum. Further talks by Dr Vandana Shiva and Shri Vijayraghavan - both actively involved in different areas of conservation work - provided perspective and inspiration. There were also field trips to different projects for environmental renewal in and around the school campus.

The crucial work of translating the concerns around conserving bio-diversity into suggested curriculum statements took place in carefully divided small groups consisting of teachers and resource persons involved with particular subjects. It was felt that the aims and content of each key subject could be evaluated critically and some changes or modifications suggested. Teachers of History and Languages formed one group; Geography another; Economics - which given today's scenario was considered a crucial area - formed a separate sub-group. Physical sciences (with a special emphasis on Chemistry) and Life science formed two other small groups. The focus of discussion was the curriculum of class nine. The major guiding question before the groups was: how can the existing school board curricula be re-designed to reflect an Earth-centred perspective, without compromising on the knowledge' base and key conceptual frameworks of each discipline.

A brief outline of what resulted from some of the small group discussions is given below.

In Physics.....

In Physics 'energy' is an important topic of study. Syllabi and textbooks discuss transfer' or conversion of energy, emphasizing the indestructible nature of energy. Seldom discussed is the role of human beings in this process of energy conversion. Consumption of energy plays an important role in modern man's life. (Development of a nation is often measured in terms of per capita energy consumption). Though energy is neither created nor destroyed, certain forms of energy are much more useful to human beings as well as other life forms. In an Earth-centered curriculum, a topic such as energy would not stop with definitions and explanations of, say, the laws of thermodynamics. It would also discuss the role of energy in modern life- outline energy consumption patterns of humans in different parts of the world, ' as well as analyse profiles of energy consumed and their relationship to life-styles.

Energy usage by human beings, (and, more generally, energy conversions in nature) invariably involve the conversion of more useful forms to less useful forms of energy. For e.g. in using electrical or chemical energy humans ultimately convert it into atmospheric heat. While most syllabi deal with inter-conversions of energy, very little attention is focussed on the fact that increased consumption of such higher forms of energy (i.e. electrical or chemical) can result in increased atmospheric temperature and hence in the 'greenhouse effect'.

Moreover, one could also emphasize the fact that while it is easy to convert electrical or chemical energy into heat, the reverse process of extracting energy for use from atmospheric heat is much more difficult. This asymmetry has important consequences for life-forms including humans and this needs to be pointed out. A comparison of energy conversion processes in nature (for example, photosynthesis) with conversions undertaken by humans (with reference to the rate of co'nsumption and efficiency of conversion of energy) will surely be a revelation to the student about the kind of wasteful society we are fast becoming.

This is but an example from Physics of how an Earth-centered curriculum can attempt to build a more sane and balanced outlook in the young. In an age where the media stokes the dreams of every teenager of dashing about in cars, we need to convince them that substituting walking or even. cycling with motoring results in amanifold decrease in energy usage.

In Chemistry....

Chemistry, dealing with the materials for our use, is one branch of science which is perhaps centered most on human needs. Almost all of the chemistry curriculum deals extensively with the manufacture of different chemicals and how these chemicals are useful to humans. Hardly ever is there a highlighting of the environmental implications of the use of chemicals and their negative effects on other life forms. Pesticides and fertilizers find glorified mentions in chemistry text books as the only solution for feeding the growing human population. There is no mention, for example, that, of the insecticides that are applied to crops, less than 0.1 % ever reach the target pests. Nor is there mention of the fact that each year about three million people are poisoned (WHO estimate) by pesticides; or that the natural predators, who could otherwise have kept some of the pests in check, are also destroyed. Biodiversity loss or disruption of cycles in nature figure nowhere in chemistry texts. The most well-documented effect of pesticides is that of DDT, and this figures as merely a one line addition in some of our present curricula. This imbalance needs to be redressed in an earth-centred curriculum, which ought to give students a fair idea of the 'other side of the coin'.

Similarly mineral resources and their extraction is an important topic in most syllabi. An earth-centred-curriculum would highlight not just the processes involved in mining and extraction, but also the environmental impact and economics of such a process. The extraction and processing in most cases requires enormous amounts of energy. It causes land disturbance and leads to erosion; often whole hillsides are flattened and mine tailings poison water bodies and leave hazardous solid wastes. Perhaps the greatest danger from high levels of resource consumption is not the consequent depletion of resources as much as the damaging impact the extraction process has on the environment. As this damage is not seen, most know little about it. Students need to be made aware of these facts through well-documented examples. For instance, the mining for gold in the native country of the Yanomano has led to leaching of mercury into the Amazon river system, poisoning aquatic life, leading to bioamplification, such that all life forms in the region are affected. An understanding of the chemical cycles in nature, emphasizing effects that the chemicals we manufacture have on Earth's naturalbiogeochemical cycles (thus degrading Earth's life support systems for otherspecies or ourselves), is central to a moreholistic chemistry curriculum.

In Biology.....

We live in a world of stunning biological diversity. Over billions of years, a variety of species and natural systems have evolved in response to environmental change.. Whereas ancient cultures respected, revered and learnt to co-exist with other life forms, our contemporary economically-driven culture is given much more to manipulating and modifying living beings to suit human purposes. Armed with the sophisticated tools of molecular biology, present day biology curricula may end up conveying that life is all about genes and their behaviour, with organisms being but the products of genes. This reductionist attitude has effectively taken the attention away from the intrinsic value of life, and a feeling for its sacredness. We find today that we need to rediscover the sense of the sacred.

The present day Biology curriculum contains a plethora of facts about different plants, animals and micro-organisms and politically correct (?) objectives to do with observational skills in students etc. But the thread of ideas that run through the facts, is discontinuous and fails to highlight the web of inter connectedness between diverse life forms. Attitudes such as: birds and butterflies are fine, but spiders or snakes have to be killed on sight, are still prevalent. This is perhaps an outcome of the fragmentary nature of the Biology curriculum, where the focus remains on how harmful or harmless a creature is to man; no mention is made of the beneficial aspects; nor of the fact that a spider could be a better pest controller than the best pesticide humans could manufacture.

The Biology curriculum needs to move away from specific facts to a more general perspective on life forms. It should allow for observation without prejudice, allow space and time to look at the organisms in one's immediate environment (even if they be a rat, squirrel, lizard or spider) and find out one's own relationship with the organism. Observations at home, at school, in the garden or in a park, are the basis on which the student can learn to appreciate the interconnectedness oflife on this Earth. From these observations should flow the knowledge of life-processes that are needed for survival. Further details of systems, organs, cells and their functions can then be studied to get an interior view of organisms. Such a curriculum (which allows for the understanding of life forms of tropical forest or those under oceans to be based on 'backyard observations') ought to enable students to appreciate and understand that respect for life is based on respect for the Earth which sustains us as well as other species.

In Economics.......

Whereas the science curricula lend themselves to many more examples and case studies that may be used to awaken the sensibility of students and teachers towards becoming Earth citizens, these efforts may remain as mere ripples unless environmental concerns are also viewed in Economic terms. Making sensible choices in the future may rest on what students have imbibed through the Economics curriculum. Economic decisions and actions arise from one's world view and ethics, which is shaped by culture and education. Individuals, communities and societies make decisions about what to make, what to sell and what to buy. All production involves the use of resources and both production and consumption may generate waste. Economics and the environment have a clear connection. Economic decisions have environmental consequences and the role of economics is thus crucial.

Virtually all economies in the world today are driven by the imperative of economic growth. The necessity of maximizing wealth through dominion over nature (and other people) is seen as a process with no limits. The current forms of capitalism and other economic systems have serious consequences because they live parasitically on the 'Earth capital' which is being exhausted without taking into account the needs of other life forms and future generations of our own species. These systems are based largely on unrealistic assumptions: that enough resources will always be available, that the environment can handle all the that waste we put into it, and that science and technology can solve our problems and allow us to manage and control the 'Earthsystem' in order to sustain our current profligate lifestyles. Environmental concerns and ethical questions must therefore also become part of the Economics curricuhlm. T

he Economics curriculum needs to move away from teaching principles that eulogize an earth-degrading economy based on addiction to unlimited economic growth, and towards an earth- sustaining economy that is based on: principles of cooperation with the earth, recognizing that the true wealth capable of sustaining us is not money or property but nature. It is necessary to emphasize that the economic sphere is but a limited system of the biosphere. Central to teaching Economics should be a critical evaluation of traditional concepts, keeping in view the environmental crises that loom large before us. The need to shift globally to forms of sustainable development in the coming millenium must emerge from a study of current economic practices

As an example, one could critically examine the notion of 'productivity' . Increased productivity has been defined as the increase in output per unit of labourtime. Traditional economics has hence given undue importance to the issue of saving time and the scale of the output. Thus when you compare the output of a simple peasant following traditional agricultural practices with a modern farmer (an American farmer for e.g.) using mechanized farming techniques, it appears that the huge quantities of grain produced by the latter is cheaper. But the means adopted for costing the produce are very deceptive, for they do not take into account the enormous flow-through of energy from different sources required to build up and sustain this increased productivity. Whereas the peasant employs a simple plough, bullocks, organic fertilizer and his bare hands, a modern farmer needs tremendous inputs of machinery, energy to drive thest;, fertilizers, pesticides etc. What appears on the surface to be a highly efficient and productive way of farming, turns out on closer examination to be actually inefficient and environmentally ruinous.

Why then is this not reflected in costing? It is because the real costs of energy sources derived from non-renewable resources are not actually taken into account. If one looks at the earth's total reserves of oil and the rate at which it is being drained, the actual costs of a barrel of oil should be close to that of a diamond! However the political economy of modern society artificially depresses the cost of oil, since the modern ways of living are based on it. Apart from the artificial depression of the actual costs of inputs, this whole way of costing does not take into account the environmental costs of the waste generated through modern production processes.

In the ultimate analysis, a healthy environment is the basis for a healthy economy. In promoting ecologically sound economic practices, we will not only be slowing down environmental crises and reducing the loss of bio-diversity, but will also be greatly alleviating social problems. This is perhaps among the most important objectives to be aimed at through an Earth-centered curriculum.

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