With 2014 being one of the warmest years ever recorded, based on global surface temperature readings released from the Japan Metrological Agency, there is huge concern and awareness being raised over the implications this will have in exacerbating present water shortages, decreasing agricultural output, increased deaths due to malnutrition, and extinction of huge swathes of animals. Now, this is meant to shock you into action, or at least instil awareness of the possibilities future generations will have to endure due to our negligence and inability to educate the young on the causes and the effects of today’s carbon-based economy. For those denying the evidence and or believing in possible data manipulation, which may be possible, not taking preventive measures to address the changes in the physical world is regressive thinking.
Education is central in bridging the gap between the sustainability theories and practices, whether it is teaching young children about the benefits of reducing, reusing, and recycling (Thank you, Captain Planet!), or lecturing university students on the detailed methods of designing wind farms, or even instructing technicians about installing and maintaining those wind farms. Preferably, education concerning this issue revolves around building the skills required to tackle it rather the prosaic statements we hear typically. Addressing the first step – awareness – in classrooms is well intentioned, but when only a fifth or so of the students in developed and developing countries can understand basic environmental phenomena and show increased awareness of the consequences of inaction when compared to their peers, it implies the need for education to go further.
An increased proficiency in students understanding the pertinent issues in environmental science is associated with good performance in the three traditional science courses; this can lead to the inclusion of specialised courses at school level or perhaps an addition of the various phenomena from a biological, chemical, and physical point of view in those respective courses. At an adult level, the skills need to go beyond just a basic understanding; vocational programmes for students in the installation and maintenance of solar electrical systems, for example, are in dire need of being updated according to this ever-evolving field. Countries leading research and development of these technologies, such as Germany and Spain, face a shortage of technicians skilled at installing photovoltaic systems.
Sanjit Bunker Roy, founder of the Barefoot College in India, has a solution: to train the illiterate in the art of maintaining and repairing their solar lamps and other similar installations. This is an example of a real grassroots skills movement. His claim, “… illiterate grandmothers know more about the repair and maintenance of solar lamps and installations than any graduate of any five-year university anywhere in the world. And if anyone wants to challenge me on it, I’d be delighted”, is not farfetched, considering the skills shortage highlighted by the German and Spanish authorities. The shortage obstructs the development of green economies and makes the transition to them much slower and more costly.
On the plus side, the introduction of work-based learning, provision of better career counselling, and an increased uptake of hundreds of thousands of students receiving university degrees in “green” and “sustainable” subjects – such as environmental protection, sustainable energy, and so on – is a breath of relief. However, conscientious actions by individuals in their everyday life towards balancing their carbon footprint, and not just a small proportion of the population having the relevant degrees and skills, will result in appreciable and noticeable gains. Associating daily decisions with their long-term results needs erudite and critical thinking, best inspired at and continued from primary to tertiary education level.