Where do we go from here?

I am driving through a nondescript dam catchment in Northern West Ghats. They all look the same to me now, even though they are not. Mature forests, surrounded by dense shrubbery, with patches of scrub and open areas, as landscape ecologists would call them. We are told that the scrub and open areas represent a degradation of the forest and the forest needs to be saved.

It’s true. It is possible that several hundred years ago, clans of sustenance farmers or pastoralists moved from the Deccan Plateau to the Western Ghats and settled themselves into tiny villages all over these tough mountains. Their subsequent generations cut forests for firewood, grazing, and agriculture. It is indeed possible that a lot of these forests were cleared by those who live here.

But that’s only a partial truth. It has been well documented that many trees in these forests were felled for making coal to satisfy urban demand. The ring roads built around dam catchments increased urban access to these hilly areas and demand for timber was satisfied from these forests. The mountains lost a lot of shrubbery and grass to grazing. The cattle were grown to satisfy insatiable urban demand for milk and milk-based products. The dams were built to meet urban demand for water in the first place.

Thus, the urban way of living and demands of urban man have at least partially been responsible for forest loss in these pristine ecosystems. Urbanites are parasites.

It makes me contemplate after I return to Pune: What is a civilization? What does it mean to become civil?

To me all that civilization means today is to yield to a much more complex set of social norms as compared to our ancestors the hunter gatherers, pastoralists, tribal farmers, and sustenance farmers. It means increasing our intensity of natural resource use. It means modifying nature in ways that cannot be reversed or replenished easily. It means creating large volumes of waste and not taking responsibility for it. It means becoming a slave of technology at the cost of sustainable values.

Nature has always been generous to man. Thankfully, the needs of hunter gatherers, pastoralists, tribal farmers, and sustenance farmers were something that nature could fulfill easily. But when the intense agriculturalist and the industrial man arrived on the scene, things started changing drastically, with nature paying a heavy price. And this mode of living is not new. It started with the densely populated cities of the Harappan civilization.

So, is this civilization of ours something to be proud about? Is civilization without sustainable values worth cherishing at all?

Those big pursuits we chase in our lives, whether a great house, car, education, careers, mobility, travel, fame, money, recognition, even mastery of knowledge and the arts: Are these not mere minutiae in front of this grand, yet failed equation between nature and man?

So where do we go from here?

It is actually a miracle that the other sustainable modes of living, mentioned earlier, are still in existence. That we can observe them, we can study them.  The question is: Are we going to learn anything from them?

Photo: Sustenance farmer working on her rice farm in W. Ghats, waiting for the arrival of monsoon.

EcoUniv’s Environmental Education Framework

What should be the core elements of an environmental education framework?

Most educational frameworks describe three elements:

  • Aims
  • Content
  • Pedagogy

At EcoUniv, we feel that an educational framework should also demonstrate a deep understanding of the learner as an additional element. In our diverse, dynamic world with a lot of variation among learners, educational frameworks cannot be rigid blueprints. They need to be living documents, customizable by the teacher/facilitator depending on the cultural context, language, and the background of learners.

The aims of EcoUniv’s framework for environmental education are

  • At the outset we recognize the societal need for transformational change towards sustainability and the framework will aim to meet this need. The vision is to participate in creation of human capital that meets the challenge for sustainability (the need imperative)
  • At the same time, it will not be about ‘social programming’ or brainwashing. The focus will be on the deep connection between human beings and nature, e.g. us being a part of nature’s biodiversity and not above it, nurturing our naturalistic intelligence, our connection with land, water, climate, and communities. The framework will help the learner find a meaningful existence within this context (the humanistic imperative).
  • As outlined in the previous posts, it will help the learner develop a holistic perspective towards the environment, consumption/lifestyle, and economy.
  • In addition to national and global challenges, it will emphasize local ecologies and climate, local resources, economy, and land use, local biodiversity, local aspects of man-nature relationship and it’s linkages with culture and language.
  • It will consider parents and teachers as key stakeholders in environmental education. It will coach teachers about the holistic perspective, the rapid erosion of natural resources, sustainability concepts, and the transformational change required. In our vision, parents and teachers should not be blind followers of an educational framework or any particular educational thinker’s directives. They should be co-creators, designers, collaborators, and owners of the framework’s pedagogy and content.
  • Appreciation of nature’s beauty will be a key theme in the framework. This is similar to the way a learner appreciates beauty when experiencing or expressing through art. Learners need to ‘wander around’ in nature and develop a lasting emotional bond with it. We believe this can be achieved by: (1) Absorbing nature through the five senses. Visiting local and regional wilderness/ecosystems (e.g. rivers) frequently and thoughtfully to experience nature’s colors, shapes, touch, sound, flow, events, seasons, and cycles. (2) Expressing such “absorbed nature” through writing, speech, art (e.g. drawing), dance, and acting. (3) Appreciating nature’s beauty as expressed by others e.g. peer learners, teachers, painters, musicians, mathematicians and scientists. Advanced level learners can also appreciate nature as an artist, engineer, architect, and mathematician. This can be done by analyzing materials, structures, form, proportion, symmetry, and mathematical expression in nature.
  • The framework will aim to combine disparate science education streams as far as natural science education is concerned. It will impart learning of sciences in a holistic way, including ecology and economics. More on this in a future post.
  • It will touch upon the entire spectrum of man-nature relationship in space and time and hold it as the core around which to discuss ideas like technology, industrialization, land use, agriculture and food, environmental economics, environmental justice, gender equity, resource equity, and socio-economic equity. This will need understanding the chief modes of man’s living on Earth (e.g. hunter gatherer, cultivator, pastoralist, industrial man), understanding reasons for collapses of past societies, and understanding tribal and other societies living in harmony with nature.

The next several posts will describe our understanding of the learner. Eventually we will explore content and pedagogy.

Example: An image of salt workers in salt panes in the Rann of Kutch. A holistic study of this ecosystem will include

  • The unique geology and climate of the Rann
  • The marine and land ecosystem and its flows, including seasonal changes
  • The unique biodiversity of the Rann and threats to it
  • The communities living in the Rann and their dependence on natural resources. This includes history of communities, their culture, migration, skills and vocations, economics, aspirations, and so on.
  • Studies of equity and natural resource exploitation. In case of salt workers, this will mean studying the entire supply chain of salt in India, and its economics
  • Imbalances in social equity, gender equity, natural resource equity, threats to the ecosystem and current balance of human-nature relationship

On Educational Frameworks

As a precursor to developing EcoUniv’s environmental education framework, we would like to visit the overall concept of educational frameworks.

We believe educational frameworks are created from one of these two driving factors:

  1. A societal need or problem, or the society’s structure needs a particular type of education imparted to a person, and the educational system is either set up or gets created to fulfill that. Let’s call this need-based educational frameworks. In such a system, it is more likely that the individual become more compliant to the society’s norms and is less likely to challenge them. Fresh thinking and innovation may happen, but within larger set boundaries.
  2. An educational thinker or philosopher thinks about one or more of the deeper questions of what it means to be a human being, what is a fulfilling life, what is personal growth, how should children go through an educational experience towards being a complete human being, and so on, and develops an original theory and framework of education. Often such a thinker sets up experimental schools as a demonstration of his/her ideas. Let’s call this human-centric educational frameworks.

Examples of need-based educational frameworks are

  • The rote educational system which has become commonplace after industrialization in most countries, feeding specialist professionals to the world economy, e.g. engineers, doctors, accountants, scientists, business managers, etc.
  • The modern vocational, particularly technical, skills education systems in place in most countries, which is meant to feed skilled but low to mid-salaried workers to the industrial and consumer economy. E.g. carpenters, plumbers, electricians, gardeners, shop floor workers, etc
  • When a society like USA realizes that to keep up its technological leadership, it must come up with systems and processes to encourage STEM education (Science, Tech, Engg, Mathematics), which in principle is no different than similar such educational processes set up in cold-war era Soviet, or post-1990s China.
  • The vocational schools in pre-colonial Indian villages. To an extent they preserved the social structure articulated in the Chaturvarnya concept. Thus access to comprehensive worldly knowledge was not freely available to all groups except the privileged ones, but nevertheless the system served the resilient agrarian village economies by preserving specialist vocational skills over generations.

Examples of human-centric educational frameworks are

  • Montessori system
  • Waldorf system
  • Krishnamurti schools
  • Schools driven by the overall philosophy of constructivism
  • Unschooling movements

Once in a while there is a framework, which aims to fulfill BOTH the society’s needs (especially economic needs) and attempts to be human-centric in its own way while offering new ideas. Examples include

  • Gandhi’s Buniyadi Shiksha.

 

When we delve on these educational frameworks of past and present, we at EcoUniv wonder, what is it that we can possibly contribute, in our own little way?

Our proposed environmental education framework at EcoUniv is borne out of these pressing observations:

  • The economic system we have today exploits natural resources at a much faster rate than they can be replenished. The system also creates intense inequality, and worse, accepts it as a necessary evil for growth. Human actions have polluted local and global commons, often to a point beyond repair, threatening all biodiversity, natural ecosystems, and human survival itself.
  • The pressing need of the hour is that of human capital which recognizes the above and tries to reverse the damage. This will be possible only if education includes the holistic perspective towards the environment.
  • Environmental education as taught today in schools is in bits and pieces across science and geography classes. It does not serve the objective of transformational change. For this, we need to review the entire spectrum of man-nature relationship in space and time and impart learning of natural sciences in a holistic way, including ecology and economics.
  • Education itself is getting rapidly globalized, be it content, language of instruction, or teaching tools. The portion spent on local ecologies and climate, local resources and land use, local biodiversity, local aspects of man-nature relationships is on decline.
  • Indeed, most education, including that coming from humanistic education frameworks mentioned above, still supplies human capital to the industrial economy, rather than attempting to create or strengthen the paradigm of sustainability.
  • Excellent efforts have been done by NGOs and other government-funded projects to introduce environmental content in school education. But considering the scale of the challenge, they are still weak. Most of the work has been around teacher training and creating activities, which are essential but not sufficient in view of the challenge. In particular, no attempt has been made to coach teachers about the holistic perspective, the rapid erosion of natural resources, sustainability concepts, and the transformational change required. Secondly, parents’ involvement is still not considered a serious component of environmental education. Thirdly, these activities do not always link environmental concepts to livelihood and economic changes needed to realize sustainability.

At EcoUniv, our aim will be to address the above shortcomings by creating a more comprehensive framework.

Environmental Education: The holistic point of view

At EcoUniv, we have started work on a comprehensive framework for environmental education for Class I to XII.

As a precursor to this, we will start sharing key elements and the foundation for such a framework. Most of this has been covered in a long Marathi article by Yogesh Pathak in Gram Mangal’s ShikshanVedh magazine in 2014.

We believe a comprehensive framework for environmental education should be based on the holistic point of view.

What is the holistic point of view? The original ideas are synthesized in an essay by Prakash Gole, titled “What can be the holistic point of view?” Below is a summary and interpretation by EcoUniv.

  • Appreciating nature’s complex and cyclic nature and fragility
  • Appreciating the flows of matter and energy in nature
    • Ensuring common citizens are energy literate, matter literate, and ‘think systems’
    • Understanding the value held in nature’s ecosystems and using their services without disturbing their form, function, flows, and richness
  • Appreciating impact of man’s actions and short-termism on nature
    • Agriculture, Industry, Housing, Roads, Pollution,….
    • Realizing that the rapid erosion of natural resources due to our development model is happening much faster than what nature can replenish
  • Understanding sustainability and environmental ethics
  • Understanding the role of economics as it as and as it should be
    • Man is a part of nature and our economics should contribute to preservation of nature, not destory it
  • Understanding nature’s diversity — it’s evolutionary history and present diversity in totality.
    • Appreciating linkages between nature’s diversity and our cultural and language diversity and economics
  • Learning from societies that have conserved nature e.g. tribals
  • Envisioning a new economic and social order around sustainability, including land use and natural resource use, conservation, local production and use, and ecological restoration
    • e.g. Revisiting agriculture and food: Managing land and water use, cropping decisions, and fertilizer and pesticide at a local level to conserve nature. Improving biodiversity in our food, stopping land erosion, sustainable farming practices through constant experimentation

EcoUniv environmental book exhibitions

In August and Septemeber, EcoUniv held two book exhibitions of environmental books: one at an apartment complex and another at the monthly Organic Market in Panchavati, Pashan in Pune.

We were able to share thoughts with citizens about environmental challenges, the environmental movement, prominent environmental thinkers, and of course, the books and their messages.

Book lovers were intrigued by books like:

  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • GMO Myths and Truths, by Claire Robinson, John Fagan, and Michael Antoniou
  • Pregnant with Poison, by Bharat Mansata
  • The Sustainable Lifestyle of the Warlis, by Earthcare
  • Alternative Water Management by Prakash Gole
  • निसर्गायण, वेगळ्या विकासाचे वाटाडे – दिलीप कुलकर्णी

If you’d like to order these and other such environmental and sustainability books, get in touch with us at connect AT ecouniv.in

 

 

‘GDP = Development’: Debunking the myth

by Aniket Motale

Many of us have watched and was impressed by the TED talk of Bhutanese PM on how the country is now ‘Carbon Negative’. It is indeed an adorable step from a tiny little Himalayan country to refuse to go along with the conventional GDP-based idea of development and to develop her own, more-holistic measure – Gross National Happiness. It’s worth pondering upon – what is their motivation to refuse the idea of GDP & embracing GNH. Once we are clear about the vision of  righteous development, our ideas, our understanding of sustainable living on a individual, social and national level is likely to change.

GDP was developed as a war time measure. In the 1930’s, American and British economists developed GDP as a tool to help determine the depth of the Great Depression, and it served the purpose very well. It helped govt to take informed decisions. During World War 2, it was re-purposed to help the Allied powers to out-produce the Axis powers in terms of weapon and armament production. And it served the purpose this time as well. Soon, it became popular in the western world and spread as a measure of development in all First World countries. Today, unfortunately, the idea of GDP has been equated to the development without qualification.

Many new age economists have realised the limitations of GDP as a measure of development, including a few Nobel Laureates like Joseph Stiglitz and Amratya Sen. Some other prominent names who have criticized GDP  includes Herman Daily (Former World Bank economist),  E.F. Schumacher (Author of Small is Beautiful and pioneer alternative economist) , Robert F. Kennedy, former US politician who criticised GDP saying – “It measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile”. Let’s take a closer look at the arguments against GDP.

*The GDP-based growth model does not differentiate between good and bad economic activity. E.g. GDP can grow even because of increase in road accidents or increase in wars or increase in number of cancer patients. There should not be a second opinion on this, as this cannot be called ‘Development’ by any standard. And these are just a few examples, there could be an exhaustive list of such ‘bad’ or destructive activities which grows GDP. Such growth is termed as ‘Undifferentiated growth’.

*GDP essentially is a materialistic development measure. It considers only the material aspect of human existence. As human beings, we have other dimensions of existence as well, like our intellect, our emotions, our psyche, our spirit/consciousness, our society, our nature. Real development is to evolve and progress on the health, intellectual, emotional, psychological, spiritual and social level and to expand our consciousness. Our purpose is to find our unique gift and give it an outlet through creative expression, to make all existence thrive. Materialistic well being is just a tool to achieve this. But, the GDP growth model makes materialistic well being the sole purpose of human life. It aspires us towards unlimited maximisation of material consumption and possessions & takes us in opposite direction of real development.

*The GDP paradigm expects unlimited, perpetual material growth, and that too, keeping the material economy linear. But we live on a finite planet. In reality, Nature is all about cycles, so a linear economy with infinite growth is practically impossible on a finite planet. We should not be surprised if the present system collapses in future. As the economist Kenneth Boulding said, “Any one who thinks infinite economic growth is possible on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist”. Fortunately, many are realizing this flawed fundamental assumption that the economy can grow infinitely. And some are also considering and talking about a ‘Circular Economy’ these days.

* Environmental & social costs are systematically and conveniently ignored from economic calculations. Conventional economists have a beautiful word to explain this – ‘externalities’! When an automobile manufacturer does not consider the cost of clean air his products are polluting, it’s an externality. When a plastic bag manufacturer does not consider cost of degradation, cost of land-water-air pollution, cost of loss of non-human life, its an externality. When a chemical fertiliser/pesticide manufacturer does not consider the cost of loss of long term soil fertility, loss of human health, loss of lives of non human-beings, its an externality. So on, if we consider all those environmental and social costs , the balance sheets of companies of every industry will show a loss.

* GDP based growth is a cancerous growth. Thinking in terms of systems, if we consider the human being as a basic unit of ‘Earth as one system’ – the hierarchy of systems would look like this: Earth => Countries (or Geographical units) => Societies/human communities => Human. In nature, every sub-system works for the advancement and evolution of its supersystem. Meaning, if any system grows or develops, the supersystem also grows. E.g. if a plant grows, the forest expands. If the development is abnormal, it’s then a cancerous growth and no more a symbiosis, it either kills the supersystem or the supersystem kills it. In the GDP growth model, since environmental and social costs are externalised, human individuals actually prosper at the cost of society and environment. e.g. Doctors, pharma companies earn more if more people are sick, if there is more pollution of water or air. It’s the same with the planet, our industries keep growing while the planet itself is dying.

* There are no subtractions of losses in GDP calculations – e.g. – In case of any natural calamity, if we have an infrastructural loss, this is a loss for the country and should be considered in the GDP calculations. But it’s not. Or if a local municipality destroys a road in good condition in the name of ‘repair work’ or ‘up-gradation to cement road’, it should be a infrastructural loss, but this is also not considered in GDP calculation. To put it in the language of commerce, on the balance sheet or profit/loss account of GDP, the debit side is always empty, everything is just credited. It should be called an ‘imbalance sheet’, rather !

* What’s worse, all of this is done deliberately. Yes, the use of ‘Gross’ Value is emphasised and made a norm, only to hide Net Value. Subtraction of all the expenses/losses from the gross production, gets us the ‘Net production value’, Yes you guessed it right – which could even turn out to be negative. Such a calculation would indeed reveal the actual face of the Development paradigm, and could prove that its really destruction and not ‘development’.

* Many better indices have been developed by different new age economists and scholars – Net national welfare (eliminates the debit problem in GDP), Quality of Life, Country Future Indicators, Basics Human Needs Index, Index for Sustainable Economic Welfare, Human-Development Index, Social Performance Index, Gross National Happiness, Better Life Index and so on. GNH addresses most of the issues mentioned above and is one of the best choices till date.

Cuba, Bhutan and many villages communities with world-wide with a rich natural heritage are trying to tell us something – Prosperity without economic growth is possible, and the first step towards such prosperity is to give up one ‘sacred’ rule – “Growth is imperative and economy must grow at any cost”. It’s time we stopped worshiping the false god of ‘Development’!

EcoUniv session on Sustainability at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth

EcoUniv delivered a special lecture on sustainability to college students and faculty from various disciplines at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, a renowned University in Pune, on August 28, 2017.

Aniket’s talk was about the threat to our natural ecosystems like rivers and lakes due to discharge of toxic chemicals, the chemicals that are a part of products in our daily use, and the negative impact these chemicals have on our health and the environment.

Yogesh introduced the students to concepts like carbon footprint, ecological footprint, land use change, bio-environmental limits, sustainability and the various facets of sustainablity.

We also announced our mentoring program for students interested in green careers and green entrepreneurship. If you are a student and are interested in this, email us at connect AT ecouniv.in

EcoUniv session on Toxin free lifestyle at Niramaya Yoga Chikitsa Kendra, Pune

Aniket Motale conducted an introductory session on Toxin Free Lifestyle at the renowned Yoga institute, Niramaya Yoga Chikitsa Kendra in Pune on August 27, 2017.

Aniket talked about the threat to our natural ecosystems like rivers and lakes due to discharge of toxic chemicals, the chemicals that are a part of products in our daily use, and the negative impact these chemicals have on our health and the environment. He also presented natural alternatives for several such consumer products.

Book Review: “dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” by David Montgomery

by Yogesh Pathak

We know Darwin for his work on evolution. But he also spent a significant amount of time analyzing the soil in his fields, the role of worms in the recycling of soil, and estimating how much soil formed in the British countryside every year. “dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations”, written by geomorphologist David Montgomery, starts by noting Darwin’s intriguing observations on soil. The book highlights the central role occupied by soil in the sustenance of human cultures.

The study of soil is the study of geology, rainfall and climate, agriculture, irrigation, and human land use. The author describes the role played by soil in the growth and decay of ancient cultures like Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome, Mayans, and China. He observes that most cultures have lived harvest-to-harvest with little hedge against crop failure. Our population expanded or got squeezed in tandem with agricultural surpluses.

During the colonial era, Europeans outsourced food production as they built industrial economies. The author describes the interesting history of tobacco farming in USA and how the soil was getting degraded fast. Edmund Ruffin’s practices to improve soil fertility saved American agriculture. The book mentions the interesting history of guano as a soil nutrient and competition among nations for this strategic resource. In India, we know the role played by hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides in improving yields (the “green revolution”) while we dealt with an exploding population. There is a pattern here: When faced with the crisis of unproductive soil, nations look for short-term solutions based on resource grab or technology.

But in the end, we continue to be vulnerable to the gradually accumulating effects of soil degradation. Organic farming is making a comeback as a response to this. Soil needs to be seen as an “ecological system where microbes provide a living bridge from soil humus to living plants”. Urban farming also needs to be encouraged.

The book makes an interesting read for anyone looking for a deeper dive in the history of soil and agriculture.

(This review was originally published in the Newsletter of the Ecological Society)

Book Review: Feeding Frenzy

by Yogesh Pathak

As we know, the environmental crisis is a multi-faceted monster. Chief among these is the food crisis, which has come to the center stage in the last 10 years. Its many aspects include the sheer quantity of food needed to feed the growing global population, malnutrition, unequal distribution of resources, changing land use, toxic-laden food due to fertilizers, pesticides, and preservatives, GM food, persistent rise in food prices (partly due to biofuels), falling yields, and the decline in the quality of soil.

‘Feeding Frenzy’ by Paul McMahon is among the first “post crisis” books on the topic. Published in 2013 by Profile Books, it traces the history of the global food system and dissects the causes of the current turmoil. The author raises key questions like: Can we feed a population of 9 billion by 2050? Do we have enough land and water? Will free markets really help in solving the problem?

Governments and industry are reacting by banning food exports, controlling supply chains, and buying large farmland in African countries for contract farming. Many of these are knee-jerk reactions. Poor countries will be the ones to suffer most as their dependence on imports will increase. e.g. A “nightmare scenario” similar to 1840s Ireland could be waiting for Africa.

The final chapter, ‘Better Ways to Feed the World’, lists solutions coming out of the author’s analysis: Helping smaller farmers and poor countries to grow more food (self-sufficiency), putting ecology at the center of food production, making financial markets solve rather than aggravate the problem of food pricing and availability, adapting to higher food prices (here the author presents good contrarian thinking), and accepting biofuels as a norm and regulating that industry. This last solution is something that does not make complete sense to us if we adhere to the holistic perspective for sustainability. We believe the world needs to reduce its aggregate consumption of energy. Precious land and water should be used to grow food and restore ecosystems, not for biofuel crops.

The book has a global perspective and offers insightful country-specific examples. It is an engaging read for anyone interested in the topic.

(This review was earlier published in the Newsletter of the Ecological Society, Pune)