A solid syllabus can enable children to hold governments to account on sustainability
Thousands of schoolchildren demonstrated on the streets of Australian cities at the end of November. They were protesting against their government’s lacklustre response to climate change. Their protest march coincided with the G20 summit in Argentina. The summit showed no consensus on climate change, proving the point the children in Australia had made — that political leaders are not serious about the environmental crisis.
Over the recent years, Australia has experienced dire consequences of global warming. By dropping their school routine on a working day, the children were making an additional point. They were conveying the feeling that natural catastrophe would make academic attainment meaningless. Their collective anger was neither politically engineered nor unruly. That is why it elicited a quick, though disapproving, response from the Australian Prime Minister. On his way to the G20 summit, he said students should focus on learning and avoid activism. Resources Minister Matt Canavan’s response was sharper. He said students should be learning about geology and mining rather than protesting on streets. He was referring to the coal mining projects some of the children specifically mentioned.
An important thing about the protests in Australia is that many parents and teachers had given their consent. Some had encouraged children to go out on the streets. The deeper inspiration had come from similar plans reported from Swedish schools. Like children in various other parts of the world, Swedish and Australian children have been studying environment science in their regular curriculum. It specifically refers to the dangers of global warming and the impending disasters associated with climate change. But in addition to the curriculum, direct experience of endemic forest fires impelled adolescent minds in Australia to mount public protests. Several students spoke to the media, articulating specific demands. These included the closure of a new coal mining projects. These messages are hardly unique to Asian countries. The Australian children who registered their protest on city streets receive similar lessons at school. Yet, they feel more sensitive than Australia’s political leaders to the threat of climate change. The reason perhaps lies in the nexus between politics and economic interests. As Sunita Narain demonstrates in her book, Conflicts of Interest , all environmental struggles are caught in sharply divided goals of popular politics and people’s right to live in a safe and sustainable environment. Those who espouse environmental causes are often seen as romantics while people who support fast economic growth based on rapid industrialisation are perceived as practical realists.
Australian children have rejected this view. They have figured out that the term ‘climate change’ means little to their political leaders. A new UN report, released just when the G20 summit was starting, says that the window of opportunity for taking meaningful steps to avert climate change will close within a decade or so. Who can understand the implications of this better than children? They have no financial investments to be redeemed by deeper mining for coal or building taller apartment blocks.
Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT and the author of ‘Education, Conflict and Peace’