What kind of environment are we creating for our next generation? Are we adopting practices that support sustainability of natural resources? More importantly, are we moving in the direction that would sustain the existence of Homo Sapiens in the planet?
This was the theme of discussion during the 3-day workshop – “Ecologic” conducted by Azim Premji Foundation, Puducherry, from 8th May – 11th May 2017 at Mudaliayarpet Teacher Resource Centre.
The sessions were facilitated by Ashish Shah, a member of National Conservation Foundation, Wipro Earthian program and Season Watch. He has been an environment educator sharing his concerns about human civilisation from the environmental perspective for over 23 years.
Following is the summary of the 3-day workshop.
Introduction to Ecology
Ecology is the study of the relationship between living organisms and their physical environment. An organism shares a multi-dimensional relationship with its environment.
- First is the relationship between the living world through the food chain and food web.
- Second is the relationship with the physical environment through the elements that constitute the living organisms.
Life processes change the physical environment and vice versa, i.e. life gets changed by the environment through the process of evolution.
What makes nature processes sustainable?
In natural systems relationships are symbiotic. There is a fundamental difference in the way nature operates when compared to how humans operate. Natural systems evolve in a steady cycle of growth and degeneration while the conventional human form of development depends upon very fast growth while the degeneration process is very slow.
Therefore, the conditions for growth to be sustainable are;
- The growth should use up resources at a pace at which natural systems can reproduce them.
- The non-reproducible raw material should be recycled completely.
The living world is governed by a very basic principle which is that every organism derives from its environment as much as is required for its physical survival and reproduction i.e. food and shelter. Everything a living being is constituted of and whatever it consumes is returned to nature in the form of resource. Except for human beings, no other species violates this law. The natural development is cyclic in nature whereas the conventional human form of development is linear in nature.
Why is sustainability education necessary for children?
When we consider the early humans and the kind of environment each generation inherited from their ancestors before the dawn of civilisation, we will find that the resources available for every generation were more or less the same. Therefore, little teaching was required for the next generation to enable them to survive in their physical environment. But due to exponential progress of human beings in the past 100 years from the time of industrial revolution, man has drastically altered the environment around him. The technology that has been adopted by man to make this progress is completely opposite to the approach of nature to make itself sustainable. Man consumes resources at a rapid pace while the time period necessary for nature to produce the same resource is much longer. Hence it is the need of the hour to create a human resource that can sustain and enhance human civilisation by adopting strategies of nature. If we do not educate our future generations about the principles that govern our life support systems, then we are not educating them enough to sustain human civilisation.
If we do not educate our future generations about the principles that govern our life support systems, then we are not educating them enough to sustain human civilisation.
Exploring sustainability of resources by nature through an example.
Hydrological cycle – Nature desalinates 41,000 km3 of sea water in a year to distribute throughout the world as rainfall. The whole process of the hydrological cycle is not as simple as evaporation, condensation and precipitation. Sun is the source of energy for evaporation while air and the wind are responsible for distribution. Transpiration of trees helps in increasing the humidity in a region thus contributing greatly to this hydrological cycle. This explains why areas with higher green cover have better rainfall. As long as there are sun, wind and water, this process of hydrological cycle can continue. All life forms on the planet are dependent on this cycle. Also, there is equity among all living beings in the distribution of benefits of water.
When we explore from the point of view of replicating this system of nature, can human beings desalinate sea water at this magnitude? What will be the cost involved in the process if it is implemented? Which will be a smarter approach? - Leaving this task to nature or do it ourselves?
Effect of Human Beings in the Biosphere – How long can we go on this way?
We cultivate land to grow food and we depend upon natural processes to restore fertility, provide water and abundant sunlight for growing our food. When the natural processes failed to rejuvenate the land at the pace we were growing crops, we introduced artificial fertilisers to substitute or supplement the natural process that restores soil fertility. We dug wells and bore-wells when the rains failed to water our crops on time. First, we allocated economic value to land, second we did the same to water and soon we will do the same for air. Human wisdom justifies the allocation of economic value to land, water and air that were meant to be free for all organisms under the natural order.
The first resource that we overexploited was land. At present we have problems in managing air and water. Our limited scientific knowledge and technology are not capable of substituting anything for these basic resources. Even if we could develop technology to do so we will not be able to handle the scale at which these need to be cycled and we do not have the luxury of time for creating these elementary resources.
There is a limit to our extraction of natural resources. The limit is set at a stage when we start extracting a resource faster than it can be produced by natural processes. We can develop technology to substitute or supplement the natural resource but we must remember that ‘what was once free will then have a cost.’ Further, by doing so we initiate a vicious cycle that will make extraction of a particular resource exceedingly difficult and expensive. Soon we might develop technology to recycle waste but let’s not forget that any process that we may devise will consume energy in large amounts.
What could be the role of the human species in the biosphere?
In creating living organisms, nature has mastered the art of programming change. Every single organism present has been programmed to change its environment in a certain way. Every species has a sense of identity and possesses a unique relationship with the physical environment to ensure its survival. In the process of existence, every species contributes to the state of dynamic equilibrium in which the biosphere exists with its physical environment.
Just like all the other species on the planet, we are also a creation of nature and since nature has made us more intelligent than other beings we have every right to do what we are doing. Maybe all that we do is also a part of nature’s grand design. If nature supports 7.2 billion human beings providing all resources for thriving, it must be for a reason and should be a mutually beneficial one. But, given the pace at which humans are changing the environment, the evidence is indicating something else. Let us understand this better.
If there is one major ability that humans possess that is absent in other species is our ability to create fire and in the process release CO2 into the atmosphere. Nature is in need of living material CO2. Whatever species produces the necessary CO2, it will sustain.
Plants and trees are the organisms that consume most CO2, essential for the life-giving process of photosynthesis. This caused imbalance in the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Human beings are the only organisms on the planet who produce CO2 in huge quantity, through burning of fossil fuels. The other animals produce just a minute quantity of CO2 by the process of breathing. So humans support plants tremendously in this manner!
But notice the effects of the growing human population – Forests have been replaced by grasslands for agricultural purposes. The main source of food for humans, that cover vast farmlands are rice, wheat and sugarcane. These grasses consume less CO2. The trees that actually consume more CO2 have been on the decline due to deforestation, thus greatly affecting the supply-demand balance of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Whatever be the reason for a species’ raise is what is ultimately the reason for its fall.
The best way to sustain a species is to maintain the environment it came into. Once the purpose of a species is attained, i.e. when humans have produced more than the critical quantity of CO2 required by the planet, the species will come to an end. Nature will choose some other species which would produce CO2 in required quantities and remove, reduce or eliminate the species that produces the unwanted excess.
If we don’t produce CO2 we will perish, as nature will find or create a different species that would better serve the purpose, if we produce an excess of it even then we will perish. We are moving towards the exit either way! The only choice we have is to decide whether we want nature to maintain ecological balance with us or without us?
The aim should be to reduce the change in physical environment to the minimum possible so that the species becomes stable through adaptation or evolves slowly.
Sustainability in nature – An in-depth study
Life on earth originated around 4 billion years ago. Many catastrophes have occurred, but no matter what, life has always found a way and bounces back. Several species have become extinct while many others have evolved to suit the changing environment. Is there any creation of humans that can stand this test of time? There is something that we need to learn from nature as the whole creation in natural processes is based on pure technology. The foundational principle base on which this technology is built, developed and expanded through the process of evolution is the use of cyclic processes that are self-sufficient and sustainable. It has been observed that nature adopts the following four laws in all its process of creation, sustenance, decomposition, recycling and recreation.
Law #1: All processes are conducted below 50 °C.
Law #2: Renewable energy is used to manufacture
Law #3: Renewable energy is used to decompose
Law #4: Power to reproduce
Let us explore each of the laws and how man-made technology violates them.
Nature’s Approach Adopts the Law
Man Made technology violates the Law
All processes are conducted below 50 °C
Renewable energy is used to manufacture
Renewable energy is used to decompose
Power to reproduce
Nature adopts closed material cycle and closed energy cycle in all its process. Although man has begun to recycle materials, non-renewable sources of energy are still utilised to recycle them. In other words, although man adopts a closed material cycle, a linear energy cycle is used to implement it. It's time for humans to learn from nature to utilise solar power in manufacturing and recycling processes.
Looking at nature as a technology
Nature around us is a storehouse of wonder. Let us have a look at some common examples in nature that involves high technology.
- When we consider human skin as a fabric which has been created by nature, we have not been able to create fabrics that are water-resistant and also have the power to regenerate when they get damaged.
- In the magical process of photosynthesis, chlorophyll uses just two photons of light to split up water molecules into its constituents – hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of carbon-di-oxide. Hydrogen molecules along with CO2 is combined to form starch. Nature carries out this process at optimal temperature. Only 2% of sunlight is absorbed by plants for the process of photosynthesis. This scanty 2% of sun’s energy is sufficient to power the entire food chain and food web supporting practically all the life forms on the planet!
- It is a scientific limitation that water cannot be sucked up through a tube beyond a height of 10m, as sucking it any higher would drop the pressure inside the tube much lower, close to vacuum point, leading to spontaneous boiling of water inside the tube. (The boiling point of water is 100°C at sea level atmospheric pressure and boils at lower temperatures at lower pressures). But in nature, there are trees that are very tall extending up to 100m. The Xylem tissues which transport water from the roots to the top branches and leaves are in fact dead cells and there is no valve mechanism to enable the water to rise up through these tubes. And yet nature has found a way to raise water to more than 100m to nourish leaves at the top.
Watch the video below that explains the technology by which plants manage to carry water to the top.
After so much effort by trees to raise water to such heights, out of the total quantity of water absorbed by the trees, they utilise just 5% of this water for photosynthesis and growth, and the rest is let out through transpiration for the benefit of the environment.
For any new technology to manifest in the real world, it has to go through the following stages:
- Thought - Any new idea starts with a thought
- Vision - The ability to plan the future with imagination
- Process - A series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end
- Product - The result of action or a process
The educators should be dealing with Thought and Vision so that someday it will be converted into ‘Process’ or ‘Product’.
They should work on the concept which promotes meeting the development needs of today's population, without impacting the ability of future generations to achieve their developmental needs.
What information should we pass on to the next generation?
The knowledge acquired by humans so far about the ways of nature and its technology is insufficient to enable us to replicate them in our processes. The technology currently adopted by humans and the way we have created the world around us is clearly not sustainable in the long run. Hence it becomes meaningless to pass on the knowledge of the current technology of man to future generations. Young minds should be guided to observe and explore nature in a deeper way. The main purpose of the education on sustainability is to open up the minds of children and kindle their power of imagination. What was considered science fiction a few decades back is now a reality. Hence the need of the hour is not just to teach children what is already known. We need completely new radical ways of thinking and perspective to create new technologies so that humanity adopts and implements processes that are sustainable.
What can teachers do at school to evoke the interest of nature in children?
The aims of the educators are to Inspire, Instigate, and bring the curiosity about the natural world to shape a sustainable future. Find below some valuable online resources that can be used by teachers as well as students.
Season Watch - http://www.seasonwatch.in
Students can be given projects to observe common trees around the locality. The change in the annual temperature and rainfall patterns are impacting the flowering and fruiting patterns of trees. On Season Watch website, nature lovers throughout the country record observations and upload them, creating a huge database and hence arriving at a common pattern that will help identify changes in the plant life according to the season. By systematically recording the changing patterns of plant life and understanding how climate affects their lifecycle, a deeper awareness and curiosity will be created in students to work together with Nature to conserve her bounty.
eBird India – http://ebird.org
The eBird India portal is designed for the use of birders and eBirders from India. It was founded by Bird Count India, a partnership of a large number of organisations and groups working to increase our collective understanding of the distribution, abundance, and population trends of Indian birds. They do this by encouraging birders to maintain complete bird lists and uploading them to eBird by conducting periodic bird events.
Some suggestions to inculcate values of sustainability in children at school
Green Schools Programme - http://www.greenschoolsprogramme.org
Schools can take part in Green Schools Programme (GSP). A Green School is a resource-efficient building, one that uses little water, optimises energy efficiency, minimises waste generation, catches and recycles water and provides healthier spaces for its occupants as compared to a conventional building. It is an environmental education programme directed to sensitising students subtly to the environment through hands-on and thought-provoking activities. It is also an environment management system that audits, through students, the consumption of natural resources within school campuses and helps schools become good environmental managers by deploying pragmatic solutions to reduce wastage of precious resources.
Wipro Earthian program – http://www.wipro.org/earthian/
The vision of Wipro Earthian is rooted in the challenging task that humanity faces - of finding solutions to several sustainability issues like climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, etc. The project aims at building skills, attitudes and values to shape a sustainable future. Its vision is to create an informed society by nurturing sustainability ideas within young minds in schools and colleges. Everyone can join and be a member of this program.
Hopefully, future generations will discover and implement ways of living that are harmonious with nature and ensure the survival and thriving of Homo sapiens for many more centuries in the geological time-scale.