ScienceTalk

Caring for the environment begins at home

At present, much of the education and outreach on environmental responsibility is delivered through schools and, to varying extents, public campaigns. However, relying primarily on these two avenues for sustainability education will not suffice, if t
At present, much of the education and outreach on environmental responsibility is delivered through schools and, to varying extents, public campaigns. However, relying primarily on these two avenues for sustainability education will not suffice, if these life lessons are not followed through at home.ST FILE PHOTO

Time for parents to take on duty of educating their children on how to fight climate change

During a recent discussion on sustainable practices, a mother of two said in an exasperated tone that she did not know where to turn to for information on eco-products, and questioned if the Government was doing enough to educate people on sustainability beyond recycling.

This got me thinking - whose responsibility is it to educate on matters of sustainability?

Parents are the first glimpse of the world that children have.

Studies have shown the importance of leading by example. It is largely through example that we learn about love, respect, empathy, and other essential traits necessary for a fulfilling life.

The onus of teaching children these traits does not fall on schools and government campaigns alone, so why should it be any different for environmentally responsible behaviour?

What has been acknowledged between nations now has to be acknowledged by parents. It is time for parents to step up and take ownership of their differentiated responsibilities in the fight against climate change. The choice to have children is deeply personal, but with it comes great environmental responsibility that transcends the personal domain.

At present, much of the education and outreach on environmental responsibility is delivered through schools and, to varying extents, public campaigns.

Relying primarily on these two avenues for sustainability education will not suffice, if these life lessons are not followed through at home.

For instance, most public schools in Singapore practise the 3Rs - reduce, reuse and recycle.

But what if at home, the emphasis is on shopping every weekend, wasting food, and choosing cheap products over socially and environmentally responsible ones?

What understanding is being instilled in the child in the long run, then? Would this not water down, or even negate, the efforts by schools or public campaigns?

Many parents today grew up during a period when "climate change" was not on the radar, and "environmental sustainability" was unheard of. The absence of critical understanding on the connections between our everyday actions and environmental impact has led to misconceptions that climate change is something happening far away, has no urgency, and does not affect us.

  • About the writer

  • Dr Nanthinee Jevanandam, 36, has a PhD in ecology from the National University of Singapore and more than eight years' experience in ecological research and sustainability consulting. She runs her own firm, Earthys Sustainability Consulting.

    As a sustainability consultant, she has worked with master planners, landscape architects, water resource specialists and environmental engineers to develop sustainable solutions, and ecologically functional designs for a variety of development and infrastructure projects for both private developers and the government sector.

    Apart from Singapore, her research and consulting experience covers South Africa, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In a well-oiled nation like Singapore where streets are kept clean and landscapes well manicured, many are lulled into perceiving the Government will deal with such global issues, leading to complacency.

Most adults have seen the best that earth has to offer, and find it difficult to reconcile with the alarming scenarios projected for climate change, for example, extreme weather, vector-borne diseases and health impacts.

The truth is, even the simple act of buying a pair of jeans can contribute to one's carbon footprint.

According to an environmental impact study by denim maker Levi Strauss, close to 3,000 litres of water is used to manufacture a pair of jeans, while 20kg of CO2 is emitted from the energy used for production.

These figures do not take into account the environmental impact from pesticide infiltration of waterways during the production of cotton crops, or the heavy use of synthetic dyes.

A lack of understanding of these connections prevents climate change from acquiring importance on a personal level, which leads to sustainability being overlooked as essential home teaching.

Younger and subsequent generations will likely pay a heavy price for our decades of negligence, but will also shoulder the responsibility of remedying our faults.

It is, therefore, important that they are brought up to understand what it means to be a citizen of planet Earth, and to act accordingly in all areas of life, all the time.

When I was a child, my mother used to rescue injured or starving stray kittens and take them home for rehabilitation. Because animals cannot verbalise, we had to try to understand what their afflictions were, be they hunger, fear or pain.

It is through these experiences that I understood how vulnerable animals were to our actions - or lack of - and that was how my love and compassion for them was nurtured. This compassion that started with stray animals, with time graduated into a passion for the environment as a whole, and so began my journey into sustainability.

I learnt by example from my mother. Likewise, parents must take the lead in educating themselves in environmentally responsible behaviour, and cascading this learning down to their children.

Instead of looking to public campaigns and school programmes to initiate change, parents can get pro-active in researching sustainable lifestyle options and actions.

Even without medical degrees, people actively research medical information online in an effort to understand their ailments.

Well, right now the earth is sick.

The responsibility parents bear is akin to the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities Principle of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Sustainable Development which states: "In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, states have common but differentiated responsibilities.

"The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command."

What this roughly translates to is the common responsibility for all nations to protect the environment. But nations that have contributed more towards its degradation have a greater responsibility towards protecting it.

Likewise, while we all have a responsibility to protect our environment, those who have children increase their consumption of environmental resources, and therefore have a greater responsibility towards protecting it.

What has been acknowledged internationally between nations now has to be acknowledged by parents. It is time for parents to step up and take ownership of their differentiated responsibilities in the fight against climate change.

The choice to have children is deeply personal, but with it comes great environmental responsibility that transcends the personal domain. Given opportunity, nurturing and knowledge, our younger generation can be better stewards of the environment than we have ever been.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'Caring for the environment begins at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe