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Sustainable Development ~ Education

Author: Dr Eureta Rosenberg

( Article Type: Sustainable Development )

Education for Sustainable Development

Within business, society, government and educational institutions

‘Education for sustainable development is a life-wide and life-long learning endeavour which challenges individuals, institutions and societies to view tomorrow as a day that belongs to all of us, or it will not belong to anyone.’ (UNESCO, 2004:9)

The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) was initiated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where everyone agreed that without education, sustainable development will remain nothing more than an interesting idea. This global initiative has sparked inspirational innovations around the world.


But what exactly is education for sustainable development?

For many, there is little difference between environmental education and education for sustainable development (ESD). The Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa (EEASA) has for years argued that environmental education is about sustaining all life, in socially just and economically fair ways. EEASA members have seen ‘environment’ as the inter-relationships between ecological life-support systems and the economic, political and other social systems interacting within and with the natural world. They have recommended that environmental education be not just for kids and teachers, but for everyone, in particular those who, as corporate or political decision-makers, have an immediate impact on the world.

However, this understanding of environmental education is not widely shared, and many assume that environmental education is only for children to learn about nature. The Decade of Education for Sustainable Development provides an opportunity to broaden the public understanding of the role of education in moving towards ecological sustainability and social justice.


Environmental Education and Millennium Development Goals 

The lead agency for the Decade, UNESCO, advises that countries and groups can interpret education for sustainable development differently in ways that suit their particular context. UNESCO itself has interpreted the idea as an umbrella concept for its various initiatives including the ‘Education for All’ campaign associated with the Millennium Development Goals, as well as gender-sensitive education, rural development, health care, community involvement, literacy, HIV/Aids, human-rights education, peace education … and environmental education!

While these initiatives have considerable merit, there is a very real danger with such a full ‘mixed bag’ that the environmental dimension of sustainability may be separated from other development goals, and lost or conveniently left out of the equation. For example, a company running business training for rural development could promote their courses as ‘education for sustainable development’, even if they never mention the need to use natural resources sustainably or to minimise pollution.


Four Domains of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

For a sense of what education for sustainable development might involve, consider the four domains of the Implementation Plan for the Decade:

  • Creating access to basic education for all
  • Re-orienting existing education programmes
  • Raising public awareness and understanding
  • Vocational and professional training for sustainability. 
The idea is to have Education for Sustainable Development 'in thousands of local situations on the ground, involving the integration of the principles of sustainable development in a multitude of different learning situations'. (UNESCO).

1. Creating access to basic education for all

The UN argues that if countries are to develop sustainably, everyone should have a basic education. In parts of the world, formal education (especially for girls), is not yet universal. In South Africa schooling is compulsory. But, despite government subsidies, many children still don’t go to school because of crippling poverty, too few schools and poor communications.

More insidious is the fact that even those who are enrolled in schools are often absent. Where social support is inadequate, many learners stay home to care for babies and sick parents. In the many schools without ablution facilities, teenage girls are forced to miss classes each month. Some 40% of South Africa’s children are kept out of school to perform domestic duties or work in the fields. And even if a child makes it to school, government’s limited capacity to deploy existing resources often results in poor facilities and poor teaching. Thus thousands of learners are deprived of the education that is not only their right, but the country’s key to social and economic development.

Any meaningful (rather than token) efforts to improve the quality of teaching, the facilities at schools, and the health of communities are valuable steps to increasing access to basic education, and meeting the Millennium Development Goals, which are integral to sustainable development.


2. Re-orienting existing education programmes

This important exercise involves reviewing the curricula that are being taught in schools, universities, universities of technology, agricultural colleges and other education institutions, to see how they contribute – or fail to contribute – to sustainable development.

In the case of schools, the South African government has ensured that the environment features prominently in the new curriculum, along with human rights and social justice.

The challenge now is to help teachers to meet their obligations and do justice to the exciting possibilities in the curriculum. Teachers can contact EEASA or the SADC Regional Environmental Education Programme for resources and advice.

Many universities also have programmes to support education for sustainable development. 


3. Developing public awareness and understanding of sustainability

ESD also involves the challenging task of making sustainability a commonly understood concept within business, government and the wider society. Challenging, because the idea of sustainable development requires a new way of thinking about development. The UNDP suggests that sustainable development implies a new concept of economic growth – ‘one that provides fairness and opportunity for all the world’s people, not just the privileged few, without further destroying the world’s finite natural resources and without compromising the world’s carrying capacity‘. They view the minimum requirements for sustainable human development as:

  • The elimination of poverty
  • A reduction in the population growth rate
  • An improved understanding of the diversity of ecosystems and the environmental impact of development activities
  • Sustainable development 'puts the human development paradigm within the context of our finite environment and ensures future sustainability of the ecosystem'.

How can the public participate?

Knowing that landfill sites are full, we can reduce the amount of packaging we buy, and recycle the rest. Knowing that local children are hungry, we can start a permaculture food garden. Knowing that our long-term health is threatened by too many chemicals, we can insist on and consume safer, more natural foods and products. Knowing that local wildlife is threatened by extinction, we can plant indigenous vegetation and lobby for corridors to be created between protected areas. Knowing that our rivers are being polluted, we can investigate the sources and start a campaign to reduce and divert the waste. Journalists, NGOs and other partners need to raise awareness of the issues, and to identify the opportunities for taking action, so that sustainability becomes a practical concern in which everyone can participate. For further suggestions, see our Eco-Logical Living Guide


4. Training for sustainability

All sectors of the workforce, from forestry and fisheries to mining, commerce and tourism, require ESD in the form of vocational as well as professional training. The challenges are considerable. Local governments need to consider the requirements of sustainable development within their planning frameworks, but employees may have little sense of how they can do this while they are trying to deliver on their core functions. Businesses, too, need to explore what sustainable development means for their operations. But while it is easy to see that energy efficiency and reducing the waste stream is good for profit margins, some other goals of sustainable development, such as wider employment and economic fairness, may at first appear more difficult to reconcile with shareholder interests.


What does training for sustainability involve?

Along with an understanding of new legislation and concepts, and the integration of sustainable development with existing industry, business and governance objectives, training for sustainable development needs to engage employees and contractors in working out more sustainable processes of resource management, production and pollution control.

Sustainability is not a formula that can be taught on a flip chart or PowerPoint slide. The ways forward must be worked out by managers, workers, trainers and authorities, together, through taking action and reflecting critically and ethically on our actions and choices. This requires a more active and interactive training model, including workplace-based training with expert support. Training institutions and employers need to work with government’s Sector Education Training Authorities to develop and run the appropriate learnerships. 


Develop your own guidelines for education for sustainable development

As a business, government agency, educational institution or NGO, you should certainly develop your own programme of education for sustainable development. One starting point may be to visit for resources. 

To educate yourself about ways for making sustainability a reality in your daily operations, see our Eco-Logical Living Guide.