Last week, an adorable cat meme popped up on my social media timeline. Yes, just one of many adorable memes, gifs, videos that inhabit the Internet. In this one, a mommy cat was cleaning her face with meticulous care, and in the background, her kitten was trying hard to copy her actions, albeit a little clumsily. The meme went on to impart the gyaan that children learn from their parent’s actions. Didn’t really need a copycat to remind us that children — especially babies and toddlers — learn by copying adult behaviour.
But now is a good time to consider our actions as grown-ups, and for some, privileged grown-ups. India is going through a mega water crisis, which as journalist P. Sainath reminds us, is a drought that is not just the product of the failure of monsoon. Our landfills are smoke-belching, bloated trash monsters. According to India Together , the country is chucking out some 36.5 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. Temperatures are soaring while the air quality is plummeting, we may as well log onto eBay and start buying bottles of fresh air, along with the cartloads of stuff we are constantly ordering. All swathed in layers of unnecessary plastic and thermocol. We have also earned the dubious distinction of being number 12 in the top 20 countries to dump heaps of plastic into the ocean, according to a study published in the journal Science.
Let’s leave aside what sort of a planet the kids are going to inherit. Instead, think about how our unsustainable (or sustainable) traits can easily pass on to children, along with beaky noses, eye colour and chin clefts. At “The contribution of early childhood education to a sustainable society,” a UNESCO workshop held in 2008, there was “a strong consensus that educating for sustainability should begin very early in life. It is in the early childhood period that children develop their basic values, attitudes, skills, behaviours and habits, which may be long lasting.” The report further elaborated that at a younger age, children pick up “cultural messages about wealth and inequality” and that’s the time to foster values that support sustainable development “e.g. wise use of resources, cultural diversity, gender equality and democracy.”
Take for instance, water. It’s easy enough to get the society secretary to order water tankers when your building is facing water cuts. We pay so little for water that it’s equally convenient to forget that our reckless water consumption in cities adversely impacts people in remote regions and those living around us. When disasters such as droughts occur, children are the most vulnerable to the crisis.
Here’s a quick water audit. When you travel on holidays or even around the city, do you carry refillable bottles of water, or just buy packaged water? Studies have shown that packaged water is often adulterated or misbranded, and there are valid environmental concerns about the procurement of the water. The bottle is just one more bit of plastic to end up in a landfill and the ocean. It’s suddenly a less gargantuan task to carry a bottle of water from home.
The last time I was at a meeting, I was horrified by the number of bottled water that cluttered the conference table, along with laptops, pens, and fresh notepads, that would also be chucked after a doodle, a note or two. We could take a cue from the Nephelai — Greek nymphs who poured water from pitchers to make it rain — and pour ourselves a glass of water from a jug kept on the table.
Perhaps someone in the house leaves the water running in the bathroom or kitchen and then you lecture the kids about saving water? In Sophie Kinsella’s young adult book Finding Audrey , she makes a clever point about the use of technology. While the parents yell at their son for being addicted to a video game, they can’t do without their phones. No surprise then if lectures fall on deaf ears.
Of course, it’s not easy. Sometimes there is no option but to buy bottled water. Never mind that access to clean drinking water is a right, and should not be a commodity. At other times, you’re compelled to; like in theatres that don’t allow you to carry water bottles inside the cinema hall. How do you wash down the over-priced popcorn during the interval? You buy packaged water or a glass of flavoured sugar water. Maybe float yet another petition, this time to the theatres to allow water bottles in, instead of forcing us to buy packaged water?
So then how do we, as grown-ups, step out of our cosseted liminal world clasping our children’s hands? Talk to children about wasteful practices. You will be astounded at how much they already know. Could we perhaps buy less packaged water? Reuse leftover food — wasting food equals wasting water. Car pool instead of taking a massive SUV to drop just one child to school. Hit pause on the endless obsolesce of gadgets and buying shiny new ones, even if the old phone/ tablet/ indoor entertainment gadget is working perfectly fine?
At the same time, instead of playing football on a virtual field, perhaps step out to a park, if you can find one that is. Start a balcony garden? Even our matchbox houses can sustain a window sill one. Grow easy plants such as tomato and herbs that are hard for even the brownest of thumbs and greyest of smogs to kill off. The other day, someone called me and asked, “What is vermicomposting? My child has a project in class.” Possibly a good place to start is by reading up and becoming a “know-it-some” at least. Children have a natural affinity for the environment, but watching grown-ups being callous often transfers the indifferent behaviour onwards.
All this is intuitive and stuff of common sense. You don’t need to read an article to tell you this. But to use a cliché, let’s lead by example. Because even if children’s heads are eclipsed by a screen or they are breathlessly running from one class to another, they are picking up cues from adults. It’s not just Big Brother who is watching us all the time.
The author writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru