Individual effort is paramount in conserving the environment
Mass Media and Information Ministry Secretary and Central Environment
Authority chairman Dr Charitha Herath recently said that environment
conservation plays a key role in a country’s ‘Sustainable Development’.
“However”, he added, “It is not practical to force people to practise
for environment conservation by implementing rules and regulations.
Environment friendly attitudinal change is the most productive way to
direct people towards environment conservation. It is necessary to
enhance knowledge about the environment to change attitudes of the
Dr. Herath has brought forward a valid point for further discussion.
The nature of environmental challenges has changed considerably in
Nonetheless, the global nature of environmental problems has long
been known. One can argue, however, that it is only in recent years that
these problems have become widespread matters of concern among the
general public. The issue of climate change was at the forefront of the
debate on global environmental problems in 2007. This culminated in the
2007 Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to advocates for change in this
area, environmental activist Al Gore for his team’s efforts to build up
and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change and to
lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such
If we speak about Sri Lanka, three decades ago, the lack of
environmental knowledge was one of the most cited barriers to personal
engagement with protecting the environment. Also, the perception had
been that consumers are confused by the large amounts of specialized
environmental information that was available. However, when looking over
the course of the past 10 years, we are in a much better place in terms
of levels of environmental knowledge. Most of them say we know a lot or
fair amount about environmental issues and problems. Interestingly,
according to some environmentalists, as we have increased their
environmental knowledge base, we may have become less exuberant about
our potential to impact the environment; that’s the bad news. The good
news is that the government, business and NGOs have a green light to
continue to encourage and empower Sri Lankans to take small steps
towards protecting the environment.
Most environmentalists believe that the positive attitudes and
opinions towards the environment are strongly connected to eco-friendly
behaviour and actions. Though it has been debated whether awareness
affects attitude or attitude affects awareness, it is important to note
that after developing an attitude, the awareness in terms of recognizing
and observing different things about the topic comes into picture. This
is especially valid for a country like ours where environmental issues
are increasingly gaining understanding.
Let us understand the impact of attitude on awareness through this
simple example. A student has a class on environmental issues. To be
specific, the teacher discusses an example of how pesticides enter the
human body through food consumption and organic foods can help in
reducing these toxic levels and lead to a healthy living. The student
develops a positive attitude towards organic foods because of this
knowledge. This positive attitude will lead to him subconsciously noting
organic foods when in the superstore. This is what awareness is.
A very large number of developing countries of the world, including
South Asia, are largely following an older paradigm of development that
they see in the West and in Japan, which is based on heavy use of fossil
fuels and a very large footprint in terms of consumption and the way
waste is generated. The pressure on the planet is going to be
unsustainable - it already is.
The West and Japan have realized this and trying to move away from
this model toward a more sustainable future. The choice for developing
countries is either to follow this or use a ‘leapfrog’ approach into
something that is aimed at the future, learning from these experiences
rather than imitating them. So the difference between learning and
imitating is really the crux of the discussion over what environmental
education needs to be.
A lot of our environmental education involves telling us about
something that is already known. What we need is an education that will
help us make choices so that we can create a more sustainable future.
One reason this change is required is that we need critical thinking
rather than learning to imitate. We need to look at the West and have a
dialogue about development, and use that dialogue to learn what we can
do differently to avoid getting into the problems they face. Sometimes
that will mean thinking of solutions not necessarily discovered yet. For
example, we should not be seeking to find out how to build a flyover but
how to build public transport to avoid pollution and congestion.
For many environmental advisers this is difficult to do; they feel
much more comfortable with an example in front of them. So, I believe,
we need better practice examples - identifying them, documenting them,
and making people see them. Today with press, TV, video, the Internet
and social media networks, this is entirely possible. We’ve got the
tools to do this sort of national and global search. I think the time is
right for a different way of looking at knowledge, learning and
Another problem I see is that most current environmental education
teaches us there is one solution for everything. But what is valid for
me is not necessarily valid for you or not in a particular context.
Differences have to be understood and lived with. Sustainability
solutions are very often locale specific.
Most of the ‘educated’ young people I have spoken with about
environment conservation have come to think of sustainable development
as being a Western concept and something different from our tradition
and culture. Sri Lanka has been sustainable for over 3,000 years. Much
of the traditional wisdom about sustainability has become part of
cultural practice. For example, in Sri Lanka, traditionally we don’t
waste food and we pay respect to water, and so on.
Therefore, the concept of environmental education and learning has to
be understood from a wider perspective. Recently, I had a short chat
with my 10-year old grandson.
This is how it went: “Do you learn about plants and planting? Who
“Our Social Studies teacher”
“Who do you think knows the most about plants?”
“I think our school gardener”.
“Fine, have you all ever called him into class to give some ideas?’
“No, how can we? He’s not a teacher.”
The problem lies there. A teacher is seen as someone with a degree,
white collar, someone who teaches in a certain way, whereas in fact,
learning comes from everywhere. I believe that the way we learn,
particularly about environment, needs humbleness, openness, critical
thinking, the ability to choose, the confidence to be able to take a
decision different from those of others.
This goes well beyond our formal education system. It goes into civil
One of the problems of classical decision-making is that we put
things into different compartments and sectors. “This is a problem of
water, so the hydrologists should handle it,” for instance. Even doing
something as simple as reconstructing a small lake, we need a
multi-stakeholder process, involving someone who understands how people
use water, and other customs. The implications of this go beyond
knowledge to the kind of values involved in sustainability. A lot of
ancient wisdom can be called up in the formulations of the ethics and
values needed for sustainability. Our traditional societies have a deep
understanding of how to live on the Earth.
Finally, we need not get overwhelmed by words like climate change and
global warming, seeing them only as something that governments do or
discuss at international meetings and not connected to us. The way
sustainable communities will be built is by citizens themselves who want
sustainability and make choices at their own level and in their own
lifestyles. Of course we need technological solutions and legal
frameworks, we need to punish the polluters and have financial
incentives; but ultimately it is to do with people and what citizens do,
and therefore education is a key driver When we take action for the
environment, the country isn’t the only one who benefits. We will be
helping our friends, family, and ourselves too. So let us check out
information to find out easy and economical ways to save the planet,
read about our most pressing environmental concerns, to find out how we
can start saving the country for the future generation by going green