SGI Quarterly

Issue 68 | April 2012

Learning to Open Our Minds | Interview with Kartikeya Sarabhai

  • Sustainability & climate change

Kartikeya Sarabhai is the founder and director of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) in Ahmedabad, India. CEE has 40 offices across India, and also works in Australia, Germany and Sri Lanka. He established VIKSAT, an NGO promoting people’s participation in natural resource management, and Sundarvan, a nature discovery center. He is a trustee of the Preservation and Memorial Trust of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad where Gandhi lived for many years, and is also a member of the Earth Charter International Council. He was recently awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards given by the Government of India. For more information see

SGI Quarterly: What are your hopes for the Rio+20 meeting?

Kartikeya Sarabhai: At Rio 2012, it would be good to see education for sustainable development move to center stage as the best long-term method of achieving sustainable development. For this to happen, education ministers, as well as others, must understand the importance of a new approach to education, that is education for sustainable development.

SGIQ: Why do you stress education for sustainable development?

KS: Asia, Africa, China, India—a very large part of the world—are largely following an older paradigm of development that they see in the West and in Japan, which is based on heavy use of fossil fuels and a very large footprint in terms of consumption and the way waste is generated. The pressure on the planet is going to be unsustainable—it already is.

The West and Japan have realized this and tried to move away from this model toward a more sustainable future. The choice for developing countries is either to follow this or use a “leapfrog” approach into something that is aimed at the future, learning from these experiences rather than imitating them. So the difference between learning and imitating is really the crux of the discussion over what education needs to be.

A lot of education involves telling you about something that is already known. What we need is an education that will help one make choices so that one can create a more sustainable future. One reason this change is required is that we need critical thinking rather than learning to imitate. We need to look at the West and have a dialogue about development, and use that dialogue to learn what we can do differently to avoid getting into the problems they face. Sometimes that will mean thinking of solutions not necessarily discovered yet.

We should not be seeking to find out how to build a flyover, for instance, but how to build public transport to avoid pollution and congestion.

For many people this is difficult to do; they feel much more comfortable with an example in front of them. So we need more and more good practice examples—identifying them, documenting them, making people see them.

Today with video, the Internet and social media networks, this is entirely possible. We’ve got the tools to do this sort of global search. I think the time is right for a different way of looking at knowledge, learning and decision-making.

The way we learn needs humbleness, openness, critical thinking, the ability to choose, the confidence to be able to take a decision different from those of others.

Youth who live in a regularly flooded area of Bangladesh participate in a monthly disaster management project meeting [Photo credit: G.M.B. Akash/Panos Pictures]

SGIQ: Do you see signs of this new approach?

KS: Yes. The city of Ahmedabad in India was looking at its transport options for the future. An international NGO partnered with the city’s architectural and planning school; they did a search and found a model of a bus service in Bogota, Colombia. Latin America is generally not part of our horizon. The knowledge partner brought that example to the notice of city planners, took them there to see it, then the technology from Colombia was adapted, and the mayor of Bogotá came to inaugurate it. Ahmedabad has won many awards for its new system. This is not just blindly taking a standard model, but looking at alternatives. These can come from anywhere, but to access them you need the confidence that you can choose right.

Most current education teaches you there is one solution for everything. But what is valid for you is not necessarily valid for me or not in a particular context. Differences have to be understood and lived with. Sustainability solutions are very often locale specific.

Here in the Gujarat mountains, the government was building a guest house with bricks and mortar, a decision taken in the state capital. This is in the middle of a forest where wood is plentiful. Not having people make their own decisions locally in a decentralized way doesn’t sit with the sustainability concept.

Somehow people have come to think of development as being something different from tradition and culture. India has been sustainable for 5,000 years. Much of the traditional wisdom about sustainability has become part of cultural practice. For example, in India, traditionally we don’t waste food, we pay respect to water, and so on. Some of these cultural aspects have problems—they might be sustainable from an environmental point of view but they might be socially unjust, or involve exploitation. So what you want to do is not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many strengths in the cultures of the world but there are also specific problems, and these can be addressed.

For example, every year we have a kite-flying festival in Ahmedabad. The way we have traditionally been flying kites, every year 3,000 birds would get caught in the strings and die. We do want to continue flying kites, but we don’t want so many birds to be killed. A number of “do’s and don’ts” have now been formulated, and groups of young people go about patrolling to ensure that they are followed. As a result, about 500 fewer birds are killed or injured.

The concept of education and learning has to be understood from a wider perspective. When I go to schools, I often ask the children, Do you learn about plants and planting? Who teaches you? “The botany teacher draws plants on the board,” they say. Who knows the most about plants? One child might say “the gardener”—So have you ever called the gardener into class? “No, because he’s not a teacher.”

Environmental education by a village elder, Itampolo, Madagascar [Photo credit: R.Maro/]

A teacher is seen as someone with a degree, white collar, someone who teaches in a certain way, whereas in fact, learning comes from everywhere. The way we learn needs humbleness, openness, critical thinking, the ability to choose, the confidence to be able to take a decision different from those of others.

This goes well beyond our formal education system. It goes into civil society. One of the problems of classical decision-making is that we put things into different compartments and sectors. “This is a problem of water, so the hydrologists should handle it,” for instance.

We were creating new ponds in our villages. These new ponds are built like swimming pools in the ground. The traditional pond has a slow gradient that a cow or a child can walk down. With a steep gradient, if you fall in, you drown. The hydrologist will say this is the most efficient way to store water, not thinking of the social application. Even doing something as simple as this, we need a multi-stakeholder process, involving someone who understands how people use water, and other customs—sometimes for instance we stand half in water to pray.

Over the past year and a half, CEE has worked with the government to organize three national-level multi-stakeholder consultations—one on the introduction of genetically modified (GM) eggplants; one on protection of coastlines, and the third on a major plantation program as part of the national mission on climate change. Each one of these led to a significant shift in government policy. The government told us, “Through this consultation you have brought in richness which was otherwise absent.” For instance, while discussing GM eggplants, the GM companies said 5 percent was being lost to animals and birds, which could be avoided. The farmers said: Can someone explain to us why the birds, animals and insects should not have 5 percent? Don’t they have some rights? The view that efficiency means that everything works just for humans is wonky logic.

The implications of this go beyond knowledge to the kind of values involved in sustainability. The process of consultation that led to the final draft of the Earth Charter represents one of the best formulations of the ethics and values needed for sustainability. There again, a lot of ancient wisdom can be called up. Most traditional societies have a deep understanding of how to live on the Earth.

We want to promote the concept of the handprint as something which represents positive action for sustainability. This image came from a 10-year-old girl in one of our projects while discussing our environmental footprint. She said, “What about doing something positive?” So we use her handprint. We now say, “Increase your handprint and decrease your footprint.”

People need not get overwhelmed by words like climate change and global warming, seeing them only as something that governments do or discuss at international meetings and not connected to us.

The way sustainable communities will be built is by citizens themselves who want sustainability and make choices at their own level and in their own lifestyles. Of course we need technological solutions and legal frameworks, we need to punish the polluters and have financial incentives; but ultimately it is to do with people and what citizens do, and therefore education is a key driver.

Students in Mizoram, India, document biodiversity in a CEE environmental education project [Photo credit: © CEE]

SGIQ: In your view, what is the ideal way we should be thinking about our relationship with the environment?

KS: First I think every person needs to understand and appreciate what a wonderful system nature is. Humans think we know it all. I show children a forest of tall trees and a city with tall buildings. What is the difference between these? The natural habitat has no concept of waste. The balance is not static, but very dynamic and cyclical.

The whole concept of waste is completely human.

Every child who learns about systems in nature knows of cycles—the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle and so on—which maintain balance as materials are transformed from one form to another. Yet modern human society thinks of development as linear. It extracts resources, uses them and creates waste, with little responsibility for what happens thereafter. The UNESCO Reference Group for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development has stressed the need for a new paradigm of education, one which moves away from linear thinking to systems thinking.

More and more is happening. Learning how dragonflies stay aloft and designing helicopters, observing how antibodies work in frogs and developing medicines, learnings which come directly from nature.

We have camping programs where people listen to nature and learn things like silence and patience. The reality is that with nature, for most of the time seemingly nothing happens. It’s a form of meditation. People go fishing not just to catch fish! Once you understand nature, you start appreciating it—and you don’t destroy what you appreciate.

We see a garden as orderly compared to a forest. The forest looks chaotic to us, but actually every leaf has positioned itself to maximize sunlight. Every creeper has positioned itself to maximize moisture. On the other hand, this so-called orderly garden requires a gardener, water, fertilizers, pesticides and so on. Unless you look differently, you won’t see it. This is again wonky logic.

I encourage students to start thinking about the kind of logic that has developed and the limited way in which we look at things. I also want them to question what we mean by the “Green Economy”—is this just a low-carbon economy, or is it an effort to move to a low-carbon future with equity and justice?

I don’t want to give them answers, I want to make them seekers of answers, rather than have them think that we already know it all.