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What’s up with our Air? What’s up with the Food we eat? - Exploring Interconnectedness

Notes from the GenWise Bite-Size (30 hours) session at Vidyashilp Academy, Oct 13-17, 2018, attended by students from Vidyashilp, Greenwood High and NPS Indiranagar

In these sessions that took place over 1.5 days, students tried to understand what is happening in the air around and above us. Subsequently, they tried to understand how the human food system and lifestyle choices impact and influence what is happening in the air around and above us too!

Starting with local air quality in Bengaluru, students tried to answer questions like- how do we know whether our air is polluted or not? What does ‘monitoring’ mean? Who monitors the air and how? What is the meaning of limits? Who sets these limits and why is it important to have limits? The exploration continued to a discussion of air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR). This led to an extensive discussion on relating the local and regional causes and effects of air pollution in the NCR: from bursting crackers and extensive use of private vehicles to burning of crop stubble in Punjab, Haryana and U.P. Through an activity of trying to establish cause – effect relationships, students learnt about the interconnectedness of actions and responses.

Some of the inferences drawn by students during this session included: If we choose to eat more diverse grains rather than only wheat and rice will we be able to reduce stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and U.P? Will this help NCR? If we use public transport more e.g., metros and buses then we could reduce air pollution in Bengaluru. This was the first step towards taking a ‘systems’ view of life- considering the system as a whole, rather than looking at parts as disconnected.

Interconnectedness and the cyclic nature of life were further explored through discussions about the East Asia haze over Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Through this, students were able to appreciate the need for collaboration and collective engagement to arrive at responses to problems. This elicited interesting comments from students: Humans are strange, they create problems without knowing and then spend their time trying to fix the problem which then creates other problems! Another comment was about responsibility: So we could be doing things that could impact somebody quite far away. How will we know it? That means we need to really understand cause and effect!

The formation of the ozone hole was discussed next. Students were excited and inspired by the idea that when countries came together it was possible for the ozone hole to be repaired. It was interesting to see how they were deeply disturbed when they learnt about the ozone layer depletion and were significantly relieved that the process had been reversed. This inspired them to think about how global warming could be mitigated.

It was enjoyable to see how vibrantly and enthusiastically the students grappled and engaged with the complexities of not just the science of these atmospheric changes but also the social and political aspects. To further deepen understanding, students were provoked repeatedly with questions that would allow them to connect these changes to their own lives. For instance, they were asked to go home and find out: if their refrigerators at home were CFC-free, how many people does the metro in Bengaluru transport every day, where is the nearest air quality monitoring centre and so on. This also allowed them to anchor their thinking and discussions around something tangible rather than remain in the intellect and abstract.

Having studied the air around and above us, students were engaged in an activity around their favourite foods (this activity was designed to help students appreciate the relationship between our food system and global warming, though students were not aware of this). Students analyzed their favourite foods in terms of key constituents (types of grains, pulses, vegetables, fats, meats etc.). This led to an understanding of how by focussing and choosing to consume only a few kinds of foods, humans were contributing to eroding diversity, promoting greater fossil fuel consumption and impacting the lives of farmers. They also understood the connections between overconsumption, erosion of seasonality and diversity of foods and global warming. It was a thought-provoking session with excellent inputs from the students, wide-ranging questions around taste of food, nutrition, ecological and social impacts etc. They were also able to understand and draw connections between the East Asia Haze discussed the previous day and the consumption of palm oil: some of the children decided not to eat Oreo cookies at break time because they found palm oil listed as an ingredient! In summary, what students seemed to relate to and appreciate was how closely their own choices and consumption patterns were connected to what was happening in the atmosphere!

At the conclusion of the session some moving inputs from the students included: wanting to start a Farmers' Fund to support farmers who are being impacted by consumption patterns and global warming, using technology to respond to air pollution, making changes in their own consumption patterns and in those of their family and friends to contribute to mitigating global warming.