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Understanding Environment

T. V. Ramachandra1,* and A. V. Nagarathna2
1 Energy and Wetlands Research Group, Centre for Ecological Sciences,
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560 012, India
2 Biodiversity Unit, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Jakkur, Bangalore 560 064, India
Understanding Environment.
Kiran B. Chhokar, Mamata Pandya and Meena Raghunathan (eds).
Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, B-42, Panchsheel Enclave,
New Delhi 110 017. 2004. 331 pp.

The life-supporting systems of the biosphere are being threatened due to deforestation, destruction of habitats, overuse of energy resources and environmental pollution. Changes in the earth’s climate, decline and deterioration of natural resources, accumulation of waste products, soil exhaustion and destruction of ecosystems, are already apparent. Anthropogenic activities coupled with the burgeoning human population are responsible for the loss of a large number of life forms; numerous important plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, while others are threatened or are vulnerable. In order to bring about sustainable resource conservation and management, it is essential to adopt different approaches for managing the ecosystem and biodiversity. To arrest the process of degradation and species loss requires specialized solutions and an understanding of ecological processes. Human beings have been interested in ecology since the beginning of civilization. Even our ancient scriptures have included practices and values related with ecological and environmental conservation. India is one of the mega diversity countries with Vavilovian centres of origin and diversification of cultivated plants, and endowed with rich traditional knowledge system. Currently, it is even more critical than ever before, for humankind as a whole to have a clear understanding of environmental concerns and to follow sustainable development practices. The need for sustainable development is a key to the future of humankind. The degradation of our environment is linked to continuing problems of pollution, loss of forest, solid waste disposal, and issues related to economic productivity, and national as well as ecological security. The increasing levels of global warming, depletion of the ozone layer and a serious loss of biodiversity have also made everyone aware of growing environmental concerns. Environmental management has gained momentum in recent years, with the initiatives focusing on managing environmental hazards and preventing possible disasters.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio De Janeiro in 1992, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Zoharbex in 2002, have drawn the attention of people around the globe to the condition of our environment. In order to achieve the goals of sustainable development, people need to become aware of the environmental issues and acquire background information to enable them to make and influence decisions. Environmental education is thus concerned with attitude towards and decisions about environment quality, with informed management of resources, and with the ethical considerations that relate to these. Recognizing the importance of environmental education at all levels, the Supreme Court ordered that a course on environment be made mandatory at the undergraduate level to sensitize the youth to environmental issues and concerns. According to the Supreme Court directive, the University Grants Commission introduced a six-month compulsory environmental course in all universities and colleges during the academic year 2004– 05.

The declaration of the decade for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) beginning 2005, by the United Nations has provided further impetus. The goal is to create a sustainable world through active participation of citizens. Thus, ESD is seen as a process that develops vision, builds capacity, and empowers to make changes in human societies. Education has a pivotal role to play in achieving a sustainable economy and society. The dilemma that an educator faces today, is that, by and large, academic institutions try to teach everyone to accept the economic system and to succeed within it. Unfortunately, that success pretty much guarantees the accelerated blighting of the planet and all living organisms, without exception. The cognitive and cultural separation of ‘ecology and environment’ from the human enterprise, has led to large scale degradation and depletion of natural resources. The guiding ideology needed to learn and teach sustainability is an orientation that emphasizes conserving cultural values, beliefs and practices that contribute to sustainable relationships with the environment. Perhaps the best way to see if institutions of education have begun to develop ecologically is to determine whether or not they acknowledge, in their structure, pedagogy and curriculum.

Environmental education would help recognize the importance of investigating the environment within the context of human influences, incorporating an examination of economics, culture, political structure and social equity as well as natural processes and systems. Ultimately, the goal of environmental education is to develop an environmentally literate public. It needs to address the connection between our conception and practice of education and our relationship as human cultures to life-sustaining ecological systems. For each environmental issue there are many perspectives and much uncertainty. Environmental education cultivates the ability to recognize uncertainty, envision alternative scenarios, and adapt to changing conditions and information. The knowledge, skill and mindset translate into a citizenry that is better able to address its common problems and take advantage of opportunities, whether environmental concerns are involved or not.

Environmental issues make better sense when one can understand them in the context of one’s own cognitive sphere. Environmental education focusing on realworld contexts and issues often begins close to home, encouraging learners to forge connections with and understand their immediate surroundings. The awareness, knowledge and skills needed for these local connections and understandings provide a base for moving out into larger systems, broader issues, and a more sophisticated comprehension of causes, connections and consequences.

The book under review by Centre for Environment Education (CEE) conceptualizes the environment as a multidimensional complex living system and explains the interlinkages among various functional components of the system. Beginning with basic concepts, 13 chapters cover a wide range of topics as well as pedagogical approaches (questions, exercises, etc.) that help in sensitizing readers to environmental issues and concerns. The chapters have a useful collection of references, so that students can acquaint themselves with the literature. The publication examines basic ideas of pedagogy and demands real thought on the part of the reader. Here, the reader is presented with instructional systems that consider performance-based learning (self-learning and evaluation: questions and exercises). Readers find themselves mobilizing a cluster of skills that together move them towards competency development. The publication should be on the reading list of university education dealing with this subject. For those working in this field, the path is made easier with this timely publication by CEE.