Wednesday, February 1

Preparing our children for a sustainable future

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Educating children in developing regions about sustainable development is the key. – Photo via www.unicef.org/sdgs

The chaotic year of 2022 has come to an end.

Earlier this month,I delivered a lecture to over 100 young fellows who came all the way to Sunway University from Indonesia, including a handful from Kalimantan and at least one from West Papua, to attend the Youth Innovation Forum.

In the lecture, I explained the linkages between land use, agriculture, and the 17 SDGs, illustrating how they affect each other and cannot be simply treated separately.

Many hands raised in the air right after I finished talking. I was flooded with dozens of questions. The youths were not only so eager to learn more about sustainable development but also very passionateabout sharing their ideas and solutions in tackling some of the most pressing issues they care about.

The topics raised include poverty, tourism, education, democracy, capitalism, and many more. The discussion was very intellectually stimulating.

The world has becomevery different. The key difference lies in the speed of change. Rapid (and dramatic) changes have become the norm.

Thanks to technological advances, our generation has more than enough to eat, has become relatively healthier than our parents, and has been experiencing a population explosion. More talents than ever have emerged, driving technological revolution on an unprecedented scale.

However, various indications show that this state of affairs is unsustainable. The Earth’s resources are limited. As far as current technology is concerned, we have not yet found an effective way to slow down our consumption of resources.

The rapid increase in consumption volume and rate has put the earth under tremendous pressure. We see rapid changes in climate, sea level, water resources, biodiversity, etc. Some scientists have proposed to name this age of Great Acceleration as the ‘Anthropocene’. Changes are happening so quickly that our next generation will likely face a distinctive world.

Climate change may increase the risk and frequency of natural disasters, such as floods and land fires, pests and plagues, land degradation and crop failures, etc. Scarcity and uneven distribution of resources may widen the wealth gap and deepen social conflicts, leading to incidents like food shortages and energy crises. It is scary to imagine what will actually happen.

Many people place their hopes on technology – there will always be some intelligent people who can come up with some magical technologies to save the world.

The scenes from Hollywood movies may come true, but the recent pandemic has taught us a lesson – the process will be very painful. Many will suffer, and some will lose their lives.

We need to have the capability to withstand or recover quickly when exposed to exceptionally adverse situations. What prevents us from building resilience is our ignorance and negligence of the changing world.

To make ourselves more resilient and reduce the impact of shocks, I believe that the key is education for sustainable development for our children. Knowledge and, more importantly, shared values will be our children’s greatest assets in dealing with crises in the future.

And this is not just about children in elite schools or the cities. We need everyone to be on board as our fate is tied together. All of us have to realise that we are all in the same boat.

The determination to embrace sustainable development depends on the degree to which young people understand the risks we are facing. Suppose anti-science like Trump is allowed to preach ‘alternative facts’ and damage our society’s trust in science. In that case, our next generation will probably face a more chaotic situation than what we have seen in the past few years.

I also believe that the education received before adulthood is a determining factor. While we may agree that social media have now become the primary way to influence young people’s thoughts, schools still have a very special position in shaping children’s world views.

The call for climate education has grown louder in recent years in many countries. Some skilfully integrate the climate elements into the existing syllabus, while others try to develop new subjects and teaching materials.

Especially, educating children in developing regions about sustainable development is the key, as the vast majority of young people in the future will come from there. However, with limited resources, many countries are not ready to implement education for sustainable development.

As far as Malaysia is concerned, I understand that school teachers already have a heavy workload. Additional support is needed to promote the concept of sustainable development in various ways as much as possible.

One effective way could be storytelling combined with field studies. Through interesting stories and activities, students can immerse themselves in real-world experiences, observe the connection between humans and nature, and interpret these connections from a scientific perspective. These activities can be organised by people outside the classroom, including college students, professionals, and civic organisations.

The scope should not be limited to science and technology but also include humanities, economics, and local studies, so that children have a more comprehensive understanding of the complexity of the problem.

We may also encourage students to engage more deeply in actual work, such as participating in the efforts of building a zero-emission and zero-waste campus and learning to manage resources scientifically. They may be given appropriate recognition for their contributions.

I believe that a sustainable future depends on how well our children are prepared to face various challenges. As a parent, I truly hope to see a further integration of sustainable development in our schools in Malaysia – not just those in the cities, but every single one.

I look forward to a better year in 2023.

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Sunway University and Harvard University. His research interests lie within the intersection of bio-economy development and environmental restoration, with a special focus on both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.