Leading environmental educator speaks at MIT

“Increase your handprint and decrease your footprint” is the message from Kartikeya Sarabhai.


Kartikeya Sarabhai showed the audience two pictures side by side: the canopy of a forest, and an exquisitely sculpted garden. “Why,” he asked, “does the human eye see disorder in one and order in the other?” In the forest, “every leaf has positioned itself where it can get the right amount of light and moisture. It doesn’t require a gardener.”

His point was this: “There are different levels to order. When human beings first looked at the stars, they seemed completely random. But it is actually a very ordered way in which stars move.”

Sarabhai is the director of the Centre for Environment Education, an India-wide organization that, for the last 30 years, has been the leader in educating India’s public on climate issues and the natural world. An MIT alumnus, he spoke on campus Monday in a session jointly hosted by the Tata Center for Technology and Design and CITE.

The lecture, “Sustainable Development, Challenge & Opportunity” covered matters existential–as in the garden/forest dilemma–and practical, including methods for engaging students and for envisioning a future of smart, sustainable cities.

“Sustainable development needs a total approach,” he said. “It cannot be done through one person or organization.”

CEE, headquartered in Ahmedabad, has established centers all over the country that are tuned in to the specific ecosystem of the area and the concerns of the residents. “We realized that unless we had a presence in these places, you can’t really work.” The key is to “develop education materials and initiatives that are relevant throughout the country. [India] is so diverse.”

Their method puts an emphasis on community involvement. “With a sense of ownership, you see completely different results.”

Sarabhai was asked how countries can develop, and meet the rising aspirations of their people, without increasing their ecological footprint. “There is no one country that is really there. If you take it section by section—water, transport, et cetera—then you find good examples. The particular mix we might need in any one place, is not coming from any particular country. We have to take ideas from everywhere.”

The key seems to lie in looking for the unique solutions that will work in a particular ecosystem, rather than trying to apply techniques globally. Educating people to recognize these “different levels of order” has been Sarabhai’s life work.

“We can look at the Indian sari, a very well designed garment, but the person who wears it can drape it the way they want to. Our educational material, while it should be robust, should be something that the user can adapt to their own necessity.”