• Radhika Iyengar

Education and Sustainability

By Aalok Bhatt

From the way we study, work and go about our lives to how we view the inequalities in our society in terms of race, gender and economics, change is everywhere. And yet, beyond the pandemic there is another crisis that threatens us all. It’s climate change.

Until I became a part of the Eco Ambassador program, brought to our local community by Dr. Iyengar and Ms. Shin, I thought I was doing my bit for the environment by carrying a reusable water bottle to school and saying no to the occasional single use plastic bag. It was at a talk I attended at the UN conference on climate change two years ago that the seriousness of the issue hit me. The amount of water it takes to produce a pound of steak is the same as the amount of water used by an average person to shower over a three year period! The amount of water it takes to produce a t-shirt is a staggering 2700 litres! Besides the environmental degradation caused by the meat and fashion industry, I also learned about the abuse of animal rights and workers’ rights, and the lack of ethics in the fashion and food industry.

I found these facts very interesting and I thought to myself, why is this not taught at school? We are taught about the effects of climate change, but we are not taught what to do, and why well enough. I believe that environmental studies should be an integral part of our curriculum just like math, history and science. Education is not just about preparing ourselves for a career but also about making us responsible citizens of the world. Unfortunately for my generation, it is a world threatened by rising temperatures, shrinking forests and oceans brimming with plastic. When I spoke about this in spring at a virtual conference organized by the Earth Institute, I shared the link with my Biology teacher, Mr. Rollo. He agreed with me and told me that going forward, he would consciously talk about how to combat climate change while teaching.

Our high school does offer a course in Environmental Studies, but it is an AP course that only high school seniors can take. Also, there is a tough entrance exam to qualify for this course, so not everyone can access it. Maybe schools should make important courses like these accessible to all students and start educating them from the elementary school itself.

In terms of education, we not only need to revise our textbooks and curriculum, but also need more programs at grassroots levels to encourage community participation and practical learning for students. I’ll give my own example. In my first year as an eco-ambassador, I designed a poster campaign highlighting the adverse effects of plastic in my town. As part of my initiative, I went to local businesses to understand their single use plastic consumption and educate them about this issue. I also met up with the recycling director of my town and realized that most of us were recycling the wrong way by adding contaminants. So, Wouldn’t it be nice if we all learned about this in our schools? Most of the local restaurants agreed to display my posters and ask their customers whether they wanted plastic cutlery and bags. The superintendent of our board of education allowed me to put up these posters in our schools. They were also put up in our town library. Not only that, my fellow eco ambassadors and I along with boy scouts members, members of the high school environment club and our town’s Green Team rallied for a ban and a tax on single use plastic bags at our town council meeting and we were successful in getting it approved.

Recently too, our school environment club organized a flyer competition to highlight the recycling rules of our township for all high school students. This encouraged many of us to research and present the rules in a creative manner and we ended up internalizing important points without trying too hard. This summer, I tried to spread awareness in my town on reducing meat consumption and the importance of eating local produce. Since we were all stuck at home because of COVID, I made a short film on Meatless Mondays and had fun researching the material and making it. It would be great if such initiatives and projects become a part of our mainstream curriculum and everyone benefits from the knowledge. Thankfully, we will soon have a government that believes in addressing the climate crisis and plans to allocate $2 trillion towards this cause.

Aalok Bhatt is a Millburn High School Student and is passionate about environmental issues.

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