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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

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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’.

Dr Charitha Herath Al Gore

“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 general public.”

Dr. Herath has brought forward a valid point for further discussion.

The nature of environmental challenges has changed considerably in recent decades.

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 change.

Environmental knowledge

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.

Older paradigm

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 decision-making.

Western concept

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 teaches you?’

“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 society.

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.

Jargon

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 right away!

 

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