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Tomorrow’s Environmental Stewards

Tomorrow’s Environmental Stewards

Effecting ecological sanity and a gentler world is only possible by sensitising the next generation to nature, opines Miel Sahgal.

Photo Courtesy: Kids For Tigers.

Individuals across the country who lead trails and expeditions into protected wilderness areas or smaller urban green oases often report how children exposed to nature are quickly captivated by its magic and beauty, expressing a wondrous mix of curiosity, awe, joy and love towards the biosphere. The magnetic power nature has over us could be explained by the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that human beings have an innate affinity for other life forms.

Unfortunately, as India becomes increasingly urbanised, the disconnection of our children from nature is far greater than just a few decades ago. The great machinery of consumer culture and advertising roars louder, enticing them into the dominant lifestyle of consumption, screens and technology. Nature, on the other hand, calls out softly in our cities, hidden and quiet, yet vibrant and thriving for those who choose to seek it out. Regular exposure to the natural world could energise this instinct, just as disconnection from it could whittle away at it. It is up to us to choose which way we shepherd the next generation.

Author Richard Louv, who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ in his influential 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, started an international conversation on the importance of reconnecting children with nature. High on his list of reasons to do so is an urgent need to create a generation of environmental stewards ready to face the era of ecological instability that we have bequeathed them.

The idea that early experiences in nature set the foundation for future environmental action is not new, and the forward thinking Rachel Carson spoke earnestly about the ‘sense of wonder’ about the natural world that must be kept alive in every child. Recent research, particularly by Professor Louise Chawla of the University of Colorado who studied the childhood influences of contemporary environmentalists, cites positive experiences in natural areas in childhood or adolescence and adult role models as key factors in nurturing environmentalism.

But what about environmental education in schools – won’t it create the next generation of environmentalists? Well yes, if it’s done right. Studies suggest that the most effective way to nurture environmental responsibility is to provide young children with direct experiences in nature that involve their senses and feelings. In Indian schools today, environmental education takes place in classrooms more frequently than outdoors. It is frequently taught the way everything else is – through textbooks, by rote and with little room for creative thinking, emotional engagement or first-hand experience. Too often, young children are confronted with dire facts about climate change, species extinction or Amazonian deforestation. Not only do we run the risk of feeding our children a diet of frightening negativity or cramming them with facts, but we also often miss something very important – relevance in their daily context. Kids who can rattle off names of endangered species in Africa may be unable to recognise three trees in their building compounds. While it’s fantastic to spot tigers in the wild, it’s equally important to be enraptured by a spider web in the neighbourhood park.

Experts suggest that young children who feel empathy and love for the natural world are primed to grow up with a desire to explore nature and garner the knowledge needed to fight to protect it. It is love, not fear that makes us take up cudgels. We fight for things we care deeply about, and only when each assault on nature is looked upon as an assault on something beloved, can we really create adults who naturally gravitate towards ecologically sustainable choices.

For those of us seeking to help tip the scales in favour of ecological sanity and a gentler world, perhaps we could each pick the simplest and most enjoyable task in order to sensitise the next generation to nature. We could focus on the children in our lives and help fire their inbuilt sense of wonder, by simply getting them outside.

Miel Sahgal is a parent, biophiliac and megaphone for children and nature.


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