“Now I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves”Rachel Carson
It is surprising that a profound statement made by Rachel Carson decades ago holds true even today and in a sense, requires more urgent attention from all than ever before in history. It is an even more surprising fact that a rich cultural heritage intertwined with an equally abundant natural heritage such as India’s is no guarantee for its safeguard against the acts of the present generation which have the potential to undo millenniums of a carefully crafted inter-relationship between nature and culture.
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We find that awareness about nature is often lacking in much of the popular consciousness that makes up modern India. Its absence has been felt more by the natural heritage of the nation as compared to the other prominent forms of heritage such as art, religion, and architecture.
Indian society has an inherent respect for all life forms including plants and trees, but the rapid advancement towards the industrial economy has dwarfed our age-old practices and traditions. Many of us now look towards nature as one to be subdued with an apparent disregard towards its constituents. What has been an ever-increasing worry is the rising growth of neglect towards the natural systems. Despite belonging from a community that has traditionally sustained itself upon natural systems, it is rather surprising that the parents of today struggle to explain the difference between rice, wheat, and ragi to their children. Trees are being forgotten. It is saddening to find that parents require third-party confirmation before educating their children about the correct names of even the iconic trees like ficus or mango.
With our growing zeal to keep our surroundings squeaky clean, this issue of neglect has taken severe proportions. Gardens are no longer bio-diverse but more of a monoculture where no weed is allowed. The toads and buzzing insects are a strict no-no! The children, who earlier used to stay away from the snakes and allowed them to live peacefully, are now organizing group bashing of the poor reptile. The creature now finds itself increasingly on the no-mans’ land. This growing neglect has several side effects. The snake, which would earlier have been avoided for its natural threat to mankind, is now killed. A wild boar that would be chased away from the fields is an enemy lesser than none! Instead of killing the snake, a good education could have led to creating awareness about the beautiful creature, respecting them, beholding their beauty and capturing the fascinating view in photographs and ensuring that their right to live on Earth is respected.
Culturally, certain elements of nature that held special benefits to mankind were judiciously protected and often worshipped since the earliest times. However, the very bases of our beliefs are challenged when we overturn our respect to the rivers and the mountains, caring for the ore below and not the heritage above! Somewhere through the ages, the reverence provided to elements of nature has decreased drastically because of the reduction of dependency and a perceived decrease of benefits to us, the humans. This has resulted in our selfish attitudes that we don’t need a river running free but we need the one whose primary purpose is to provide drinking water to the nearest burgeoning town. Similarly, we have questioned the need for forests as they existed because their economic value is much higher as compared to their natural existence.
In her path-breaking book, Rachel Carson spoke about the times when the division between those who want to achieve mastery over nature and those who advocate equality would become quite distinct. In India, there is growing intolerance in a society that is prone to disruptions in its fabric. And nowhere is it felt more than in the education sector when the children, at their most impressionable phase of creativity akin to a minefield springing forth unimaginable richness, are left bereft of effective environmental education.
With a negligible emphasis on environment-related education, classroom learning is accorded the highest priority at the cost of developing a creative mind. Sufficient time for playing in the open, for observing life, and developing an appreciation of nature is not provided. This leads to a lack of inquisitiveness amongst growing children and ultimately a breakdown with nature.
In spite of the prevailing pandemic and emergent threats of climate change, this disconnect will continue to grow, unless the schools take an active interest in developing the faculties of young children to associate with nature. The choices before the education sector are clear and often glaringly stark. Schools need to instill a sense of respect and love for nature into the children at a young age. This is essential in order to develop a sense of empathy that practices equality, and not dominance, over nature. A child trained with empathy is more likely to lift a delicate millipede and place it out of the way rather than trampling on it.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next”. A child trained in a conservation-oriented philosophy will seek to respect nature in the world he will grow up in and take steps to pass on the heritage to his/her forthcoming generations. A child disconnected from nature will grow apart from natural systems and not try to safeguard immediate environs. The current generation has the power to direct the growing child into an empathetic being and it must make all efforts to do so.
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