Every pupil in primary and secondary school practices environmental conservation of some kind. In some schools, marks are often awarded to the cleanest classroom and dormitory and the winning members given a treat. This culture is inculcated so much in the minds of pupils that disposing rubbish properly and generally doing environmental work in their vicinity becomes their second nature. And to prove the pupils’ grasp of this issue, many award-winning plays and poems, scripted on an environmental theme, continue to be performed.
In addition, a measure of environmental consciousness is ingrained in the school science syllabi and many clubs infuse a green earth agenda in their activities.
So what happens to our youth’s environmental consciousness when they transit to college and university? The tight schedules of studies and examinations effectively relieve them of any greater environmental awareness unless they are pursuing courses directly linked with the environment. Their earlier conservation lessons wane. The little that they may do in the way of ecological conservation is the occasional public gimmicks of street cleaning or walks to raise funds for this or that endangered species. And from astute conservators, they become liberal polluters who, like everybody else, are not averse to discarding litter all over so that hordes of paid cleaners can earn their pay!
College and university students, like the rest of us, suffer the “tragedy of the commons.” This term, coined by scientist Garrett Hardin in 1968, describes how we can easily come to an environmental catastrophe when individuals act in their own best self interests and ignore what is best for the whole group.
According to Hardin, people’s behaviour sometimes causes civilisation-threatening situations, not initiated by malicious outside forces, but rather by the innocent decisions of individuals and small groups acting alone.
For example, each individual in a pastoral community may naturally feel entitled to keep “just a few cattle.” But in essence they collectively raise huge herds that the environment cannot sustain, leading to vicious wars over pasture and water and quickening their shared and unintended catastrophe.
When a college student hoists his or her rubbish through the hostel window onto the footpaths and flower beds, because someone is paid to collect it anyway, he or she may see this act as inconsequential. But if the whole college does the same, a monumental eye sore is created, courtesy of the plastic carrier bags, used condoms and sanity towels and so on that they discard with abandon.
Frequently, many youths graduate from college having perfected this “tragedy of the commons.” As adults in many walks of life, they become totally blind to the bigger harm of their little acts of recklessness like throwing litter off moving vehicles, constructing buildings without proper sewage systems and decimating the remaining wildlife.
This calls for a concerted effort by teachers to impart life long environmental lessons in their pupils. Conservation must move away from a mere syllabi requirement and open pupils’ eyes to the assured extinction of planet earth and their role in reversing it.
We must incorporate real Kenyan pollution and environmental degradation facts and figures in locally produced textbooks to bring conservation home.
There are examples galore like the near-death of lakes Naivasha and Nakuru, the industrial fumes of Thika and the plastic bag “flowers” dotting our urban centres.
Teachers can lead this war by creating an environment day every term full of practical activities in their schools. Our college and university tutors must come out of their ivory towers, roll up their shirt sleeves and lead in weekly and visible campus conservation activities. Our preachers too must be compelled to include a homily on environmental conservation in all their sermons every week.
It is only by a sustained practical and ideological onslaught on all fronts that this war can be won.