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Taking climate crisis to colleges: lessons in unlearning

It is not the most enviable of tasks - to announce to anyone that the future is not what it used to be. More so if the audiences for our apocalyptic messages are gleamy-eyed youngsters, with supposedly a heady mix of hope, irreverence and apathy (they can ill-afford, if you ask us). And what reason do we have to snuff out the rosy future they’ve imagined for the world? The ‘ambiguous’, ‘invisible’ and ‘deniable’ omnibus of reasons called climate crisis/emergency.

But we embarked on this experiment this February, when we organised a series of outreach efforts as part of the Climate Action Month 2020. A small group worked to reach out to over 2,000 students in colleges and schools to hone in a singular message - that climate crisis is real and happening, and Chennai is no exception. If anything, the coastal city is more vulnerable, and we ought to have pressed the panic button and blared the alarm bells already.

We’re a bunch of researchers with varied interests and expertise, conjoined in our concern over the environment. So what luck did we have in conveying our findings of despair to the ‘short-spanned’, ‘headline-hungry’ insta-millennials? How do we tell them the city’s popular landmarks, from its beaches to its heritage buildings that make the city what it is, would be inundated in ten years?

Aware of our inadequacies, but adequately motivated by the challenge, we set forth. We had amid us a college student volunteer. He was to be the youth ambassador in our outreach. Not one to mince words, he was effusive in praise and unrestrained in blame. “A mere lecture to students is pointless; students will forget your message before you leave the podium”, he warned. A month-long sustainability challenge evolved to help the students keep at it. The presentations evolved to earn his nod of appreciation. 

Slide by slide, speech by speech, we learned. And unlearned. Sharing with you a smattering of the insights we gleaned, and the lessons we unlearned:

The small stuff does matter
Often, we preach reduction in carbon footprint, but even in doing so, we also contribute to that. It is a tightrope we are painfully aware of, which leads us to interesting (and exasperating) quibbles for seemingly trivial issues. Should we print or handmake environmental price tags for a display section we planned in colleges? (Answer: handmade, always) Should I buy chocolates for a display that asks people to not buy them because of their water intensiveness (1 kg of chocolate consumes about 17,000 litres)? What does one do to a barely-there tissue roll after it has soaked in pathogens from days of outdoor exposure in the info-walkway we created? You think they could be thrown (waste, shudder!)?

But, do the students care? Does popular culture not see them as indifferent and shortsighted?

As if to throw stereotypes to the window, came conversations from students. We had planned on a quiz for students, and had to zone in on rewards. Fruit it was. We kept off the apples from New Zealand (food miles), but a student asked why it had to come from Shimla either? For our insistence on reducing carbon footprint, why did we not pick the locally available guavas and pomegranates? Outreach at another college later, we went carrying (local) pomegranates in a fraying unbleached cloth bag. 

Make the ugly beautiful
Staid presentations may belong in the boardroom, clearly not classrooms. In the past, we ensured that environmental crime scenes like coal power plants were not glossed or airbrushed in our visual material, to let the ‘ugliness’ speak for themselves. In step with that, we kept our presentations intentionally raw and real for the first few colleges. The disengagement with students showed.

Upon feedback that we should go for something more visually appealing, we glammed it up for the latter few colleges we reached out to. In the process, we transitioned from Microsoft powerpoints to animated presentations over Canva. Dare I say the medium did affect the uptake of the message, from feedback.

Generalisations lie; students care
I’m no votary of generalisations and stifling straitjackets. And this was an occasion to reinforce that generalising does a lot of students disservice. We were pleasantly surprised when our underestimation of college students and their understanding of environmental issues were disproved. ‘We’ve complained several times to the college administration to allow us to use paper on both sides’, said a student dismayed at her concern not reflecting yet in college policy. Student- 1; Adult- 0. ‘What is inhibiting us from accepting and responding to climate crisis? This has been my research of a year,’ said a student of psychology. True, a lot of students did not know how much electricity they consumed, nor did they see any confrontation in serving us prepackaged food items. But to be summarily dismissive of the youngsters as indifferent or ignorant does them gross disservice.

But, for all the effort, not every outreach endeavour was a success. At one venue, we tried every trick in our bag, to yawning and disinterest. Even the mandatory reference to belting out statistics like Vijayakanth, fell flat. That Climate Crisis is not an illuminati conspiracy, at which students perk up usually, left them unmoved. We bit the dust, yes, but that’s okay I guess. We picked up our bruised egos and mutilated spirits and moved on, pleasantly, to better received events in the next few weeks.

The college reach outs are not over. Nor do we see them as fleeting engagements. If anything, this will be a work in progress that will cover many more students and unfurl many more lessons. True, the future is not what we used to think it to be. But now we know that neither are the college students. And for the latter, we are definitely thankful.


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