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The environment in the IIT's curriculum
By Claude Alvares



Despite all the technologies and gadgets available to human beings, they still depend almost wholly on services provided by nature. This is not commonly or adequately perceived or readily accepted because both formal education and urban life-styles do not encourage either active interaction with mother nature or respect for her ways, says environment activist Claude Alvares addressing a group of students from IIT Mumbai.

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I am not here to add any new facts to the millions of facts you’ve been getting into your heads from the age of 3 or 4. I do not attend seminars as a matter of routine. I do not know how people like you can sit for the whole day listening to a whole lot of things thrown at you. If this is all that you can do without rebellion, you are obviously beyond salvation.

I have come to share some feelings and perceptions about our continuing disquiet about the fact that the environment remains an externality in the curriculum as it is to the economy. In the economy, the environmental issue takes on an either/or debate, or one to be done at the expense of the other. We have yet to graduate to a perspective in which both (economy and ecology) advance and enrich each other, using human intelligence. Maybe this is too idealistic a proposal for today’s set of realities.

As far as the curriculum in institutions like this is concerned, the attitude is similar. Discussion on the environment is fine, and we shall do something about it, but the syllabus must be completed first. Anything that takes time out from the completion of the syllabus or from course work and is not assessed for examination marks or grades needs to be kept in its place. Like “extra-curricular” activities. We do something about the environment at institutions like the IIT because it looks bad if we don’t, everyone is talking about the environment these days. So we cannot appear to be so primitive. There is even some anxiety that institutions like the IIT actually contribute more and more environment-bashers every year to the general population as a matter of done duty. But I am not into that at this moment.

Let’s keep some kinds of “environment education” safely out of discussions like these. My favourite example of seriously depraved environment education is the respect we seek to inculcate in children for trees. We have these beautiful pictures of trees printed on paper which comes from the flesh of living trees. Our children look at these books sitting on wooden benches which also come from the slaughter of trees. In our not so recent past, children developed fondness for trees by climbing them or swinging from them or concealing themselves in them. That is forbidden activity today.

The environment cannot be chopped up and brought into the classroom in pieces, if we concede that it is about dynamic, symbiotic/hostile relationships between land and air and water and organisms.

Let me show you three sets of pictures, before we proceed further:

a) Amazon: engineering of plant life

   

What is the characteristic of these three pictures of forests that you see in the slides? The absence of human engineers. In fact, industrial systems and forest systems are always in conflict. Industrial systems which have money power have become the most serious threat to forest systems. One kind of engineering with very little history is wiping out the better, more beneficial production system. The industrial system’s only role in climate change – after generating it – is to exacerbate it.

b) Water crystals: impact of engineering on water

     

Look at these pictures taken by Minaru Emoto whose work is well circulated on the internet. Nature rejuvenates water by aerating it in springs, waterfalls, movement over rocks and pebbles, swirls and eddies and a hundred various other techniques. Human engineers dam water bodies, stop flows, create conditions for water that is biologically dead. Here is a picture of a water crystal from water that is biologically dead:

c) Waste: inadequate engineering of materials

When they are not stopping natural water flows, engineers are polluting water bodies by careless technological design. Look at the pictures of what we have done to our water through industrial engineering. The last picture is of a new landfill coming up in Gujarat. This huge landfill is for storing for the next generation the poisonous, toxic hazardous waste that we generate as a matter of policy in industrial design. We are not forced to minimize waste because we can gift it to the generations that follow.

   

Modern day technical education is based largely on how to be good engineers. This is the box in which we operate. If we saw the box located within a bigger bubble, then we would begin to see that our activities must not damage the bubble. Almost all that we are taught is understanding of engineering principles that have come as a wholly imported intellectual tradition, most if not all related to the industrial mode of production as it developed in the West.

But industrial production is open-ended, not cyclical. It’s more of an input-output operation. This is what you put in, this is what you get out. “From the perspective of the second Law [of Thermodynamics], organized coherent motion is most precious, very high (and very low) temperature is next most precious, and heat at a temperature near ambient (lukewarm, cool) is degraded energy.”

C V Seshadri (CVS) used to point out that if we accepted this definition, we would have a poor idea of the “work” that nature does at ambient temperature, like the annual monsoon exercise in which millions of tones of water are transported from sea mass to land mass due at ambient temperatures, or slight differences in ambient temperatures.

We are not even close to the work that is done on this planet using principles of “natural design”. One of the qualities of natural design is that there is no concept of “waste”. The idea of waste does not exist in nature. Similarly with the idea of production. Human engineers produce, but do not know how to break down what they produce. Nature however always does both. She did not produce plastic or strontium-90. She produced instead the leaf which merges with the soil after the process of photosynthesis is no longer required by the plant.

CVS for example designed artifacts like the windmill by building into the natural cycle, using local materials and local available energy. We are unable to do that nowadays, since industrial design disregards local materials and local energy. Local energies are free and freely available. Industrial production costs every single step of the way, and some costs it does not ever pay. If we did pay up all those costs, we would have to call a halt to industrial design.

The crisis of climate change is the most serious challenge to the rationality underpinning industrial design.

So there is bound to be a conflict between a curriculum that teaches natural design engineering principles and laws and a curriculum that teaches design laws to further industrial production based on fossil fuels.

If we wish to be serious about the use of engineering to meet the environmental challenge, there is need to make a serious and complete break in our thought processes dealing with design. If we are unable to design systems which, like nature, do not waste, we are in the wrong profession. Human engineering should be superior to natural engineering, not inferior.

(Notes from talk delivered at CTARA 25 years commemorative IIT Powai April 29, 2010)

Claude Alvares  |  ofaigoa@gmail.com

Claude Alvares is a renowned activist and writer based in Goa, India. He is the Director of Goa Foundation and the editor of Other India Press. He is a strong proponent of sustainable farming and development practices.

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