In 1968, Paul Ehrlich, a professor at Stanford University, wrote a book entitled The Population Bomb. This book made an attempt to raise public awareness on the problems of population explosion in the 1970s. Not since Thomas Malthus had anyone tried to address the problem with such great clarity. The dire predictions made by Ehrlich, however, did not quite come true in the 1970s. The world population at that time soared to approximately 3.6 billion and our planet accommodated the unprecedented growth of the world’s most dominant species without much problem.
How did we manage to provide for such a large human population? The answer to this question, of course, lies in the ingenuity of the human mind. Impressive economic growth, powered by fantastic technological breakthroughs, moved mankind forward at a pace and on a scale that put the worries about population growth to rest. With the recent emergence of India and China as the “new kids on the economic power block”, there has been a gradual shift in how we think of large populations—large populations are increasingly perceived as an asset rather than a liability. While there may be some truth to this paradigm shift, there is also a more sinister side to it that we tend to gloss over. This boom relies heavily on relentless consumption of natural resources, both fuel and food. The economic optimism, embodied in slogans such as “India Shining”, reflects the notion that rapid economic growth powered by strong consumption and a young workforce will magically fix all our problems.
With the warning signs of climate change, extinction of species and a growing food crisis, one begins to wonder if Prof. Ehrlich is having the last laugh! What is clearly not a laughing matter is the universal law of ecosystems, which warns that no species will be able to live for long if it overshoots the carrying capacity of its space. Unfortunately, we have already violated this very fundamental “green contract” with nature. And this dangerous violation is worsened by the fact that we seem to be in complete denial about these problems that will surely affect our lives and those of the future generations.
It is in this context that the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by M.C. Mehta, a concerned Indian citizen, is particularly significant. Based on this PIL, the Supreme Court decided to make environmental education compulsory at all levels of school and college education since 2005. This policy is particularly commendable because by the time the Western media finally focused on the issues of climate change and global warming, Indian schools already had a comprehensive curriculum in place.
But, how effective has this programme been on the ground? How has this initiative been perceived by most educational institutions in India? The sad reality is that the response has been rather lukewarm, primarily for two reasons. First, school managements, along with students and parents, thought of all this as an added burden to their already heavy curricula. Second, schools were also hard-pressed to find teachers who are well trained in the subject, a problem that is compounded by the fact that the subject matter is highly inter-disciplinary in nature. Most schools handed over the teaching of environmental education to either biology or geography teachers, none of whom is totally equipped to teach this subject. As a result of all these problems, the educational boards have finally decided to make environmental education a subject that does not carry any real weight in terms of total marks in the final examinations, especially at post-school level.
Demoralized teachers are at a loss as students bunk classes or fail to submit assignments. A subject matter that is likely to have a significant bearing on the future lives of young people of this country is plagued by the baggage of not being important because it does not carry any weight in the final exams.
As schools and colleges all over India are gearing towards producing millions of students with technical, management and other hard skills, very few institutions are planning course work which will nurture students to become the stewards of our environmental future. Only a handful of institutions offer courses on wildlife conservation or environmental management.
As India grows in economic stature in the global arena, Indian businesses will play a pivotal role in shaping the attitudes and preferences of young people in this country. What careers they choose, how they live their lives and what jobs they take up will be influenced by business and industry. In this context, business leaders and technocrats have the power to focus our attention on environmental challenges our country faces. Therefore, more than top-down government policies or court verdicts or educational curricula, it is leadership from the private sector that may eventually pave the path to a more environment-friendly nation.
Suparna Chattarji teaches environmental science to high school students in Bangalore. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org