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Harbingers of Change: Initiating Environmental Awareness in Saudi Arabia

By Uma Shankar Singh
Harbingers of Change: Initiating Environmental Awareness in Saudi Arabia

American cultural anthropologist and author Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This quote resonates well within the cultural context of international schools in Saudi Arabia. I felt it might be helpful to share my experience initiating environmental projects in this context, outlining some of the challenges others may encounter and offering some suggestions about ways to address the cultural mindsets in collaboration with parents in the hope of promoting eco-friendly practices and sustainable consciousness among our young learners. The resource curse The “resource curse” is an idea put forward by Richard Auty in 1993, describing the tendency among countries with greater economic resources to experience lower economic growth in relation to nations with fewer economic resources. Many Middle Eastern countries possess an abundance of resources. It has not gone unnoticed that recycling and conservation efforts have typically had trouble finding traction here. In a report published by the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture in 2018, Saudi Arabia ranked number one in the world for food waste. No less than 30 percent of the total food produced in the country was wasted, amounting to US$13 billion in losses. How much of this food was recycled? Almost none. So what’s the solution? Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing a lot of social changes. Though the general mindset remains under the sway of the “resource curse effect,” we have seen that progress is in fact possible if we ingrain in the minds of future leaders (students) from their earliest years the notion that resources are in fact exhaustible and must be used wisely. Recent developments in the country, such as the treaty signed between the Saudi Community Sports Union and Saudi Food Bank, have made it possible for teachers to discuss such initiatives not only with students but also with their parents. These conversations about social changes among teachers, students, and parents is crucial if we are to see a shift in mindset. It’s also essential that parents have these conversations at home with their children, to enhance their problem-solving skills and encourage students to come up with outside-of-the-box ideas to rectify various issues. At school, projects to promote greater environmental awareness can involve asking questions about trends in food consumption, or exploring ways to compost or even donate leftover food to an organization. Such projects will enhance students’ understanding of their surroundings and the power of making judgments, helping them to become responsible citizens and to critically examine family practices that may be environmentally damaging. This, in turn, will help build empathy for issues facing the planet. Consumer culture The resource curse in the Middle East has led to the emergence of a consumer culture that is more focused on buying new commodities than on recycling the old ones, creating an ecological imbalance. Consumerism among Middle Eastern countries has developed in response to the availability of vast oil resources, but also the internet, shopping centers, advertising, and urbanization. If a child’s family believes in buying a new article to replace a commodity that could have simply been repaired, that’s where our concern begins. Resources being used sustainably and rationally is one aspect of this undertaking, but another involves promoting the view that articles can be repaired, refurbished, and recycled when damaged, thereby increasing their productivity and longevity. Discussions related to untreated landfills, building extra revenue through recycling, or saving the climate from a methane imprint that’s bound to cause global warming are a few entry points that teachers can explore to let students think about their consumerist practices and encourage them to alter their behaviors. Organizations such as EcoMENA, WASCO and NESMA are doing ground-breaking work in terms of recycling plastics, metals, paper, and glass in the Middle Eastern countries. These can be great references when initiating discussions with parents about actions that can be taken to minimize the consumerist streak among the younger generation and encourage them to create something new out of the old, initiating the sort of change that Margaret Mead advocated. Uma Shankar Singh serves as Assistant Librarian and Digital Literacy Coach at Misk Schools in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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