The seeds of education for sustainable development were laid at the 1977 Tbilisi Conference on Environmental Education. At this intergovernmental conference, organised by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), delegates from 68 countries unanimously agreed on “the important role of environmental education in the preservation and improvement of the world’s environment, as well as in the sound and balanced development of the world’s communities.”
Almost 40 years later, this phrase has only become more valid, more urgent, and more widely recognised. We are seeing increasing evidence and the emergence of a widespread concern that our current predominant model of development is unsustainable. It is a model based on the unsustainable consumption of resources, the degradation of ecosystems, and the exploitation of people. Instead, we will need to redefine this way of life towards a model which strives to enhance the well-being of all, within the limits of our planet.
This development of sustainable societies, minds, and processes will not happen overnight. In fact, the final result is not yet known. Sustainable development, therefore, is a continuous learning process in which education should play a pivotal role in enabling people to live together in ways that contribute to long-term resilience. As envisaged by the authors of the Tbilisi Declaration, education should have a far-reaching goal of a holistic learning for economic, social, cultural, and environmental aspects of development.
However, at present, education often contributes to unsustainable living. Through an educational system designed for the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution , learners are taught to reproduce and repeat, while being insufficiently stimulated to question their own lifestyles and the systems and structures that promote them. In terms of sustainability, this translates into young people copying the unsustainable models and practices they are seeing around them.
Education for sustainable development, on the other hand, helps to develop students’ capacity for critical reflection, for creative thinking, and for cooperative learning and doing — all with the aim of transforming our societies into more sustainable and resilient ones.
What’s in a name — ESD / SE / EfS
When communicating about education and sustainability, three terms are often used synonymously and interchangeably: education for sustainable development (ESD), sustainability education (SE), and education for sustainability (EfS). While all of these cover the concept of teaching for sustainability, education for sustainable development has been the most widely used term, including in UN and EU documents, and will therefore be used in most of this paper as well. (Note: The diverging use of ‘sustainable development’ versus ‘sustainability’ has its origin in the different approaches of process and result, with government and business sources predominantly using ‘sustainable development’ as an indicator of a continuous, incremental change process, while academics and civil society prefer to stress the final desired outcome, i.e. the ability of humans to continue to live within environmental constraints.)
The cross-section between education and sustainability can be divided in three areas: sustainable education, education about sustainability, and education for sustainability. First, sustainable education deals with the practical sustainability of the educational institution itself, its energy and water efficiency, the food choices of its canteen, or its social policies. This is often also the first step taken by universities interested in sustainability.
While of course significant, the relatively limited scope of activities of most educational institutions means their transformative potential through these measures is largely overtaken by their impact on the future lives of the thousands of students entering and exiting through their gates. This is where the field of sustainability education comes in.
Where present in formal school curricula, sustainability has mainly been touched upon through education about sustainability. This more theoretical approach is useful for teaching students about the issues we face regarding sustainability, but education for sustainability can achieve much more, when breaking free from the constraints currently inherent to most forms of formal education (i.e. top-down knowledge transfer, little attention for practical learning-by-doing, and formal settings).
The role of Education for sustainable development
In recent years, sustainability has gone mainstream. From corporate strategies, to hotel laundry policies, to academic curricula, everyone and everybody seems to have embraced the concept of adapting for a durable future. According to John R. Ehrenfeld, a long-standing and influential voice in the sustainability debate, however, “these are all just the trappings that convince us we are doing something while in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse.”
Despite all these initiatives, he says, sustainability still has not entered our consciousness. While we claim to be introducing sustainability into every aspect of politics, business, and society, we are avoiding any meaningful appreciation of the fundamental problem: reducing unsustainability, while essential, does not create sustainability. We therefore need to start from the beginning, fundamentally shifting the way we think and organise our society.
Education can be a powerful tool in this, by equipping individuals and groups with the skills they need to make conscious choices for a liveable world. Schools should not be expected to solve our sustainability issues on their own; rather they should provide learners with the opportunities for self-development which will enable them to search for solutions in cooperation with others. An expectation which is being voiced by the authors of the ‘Manifesto for Tomorrow’ in the Netherlands:
“We, students of Dutch universities (…), would like to work towards a more sustainable society. A society with a future based on a cyclical economy that runs on sustainable energy. A society that offers a comfortable environment; here and now and there and tomorrow. We would like to acquire the knowledge and skills to create such a community.”
Position of AEGEE-Europe
To this end, AEGEE-Europe considers ESD must be integrated into existing curricula after extensive consultation of, and in close cooperation with all stakeholders, including students, parents, teaching and other staff, and school management. Its content should be adapted to the local situation, while positioning the community within the regional and global context. In addition, these formal curricula must be complemented with non-formal and informal learning, to provide life-wide as well as life-long learning.
Policy on Education for sustainable development
Recognising that education is an indispensable element for achieving sustainable development , the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2005—2014 the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD). Its aim is to “integrate the principles, values and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning.” To this end it tasked UNESCO with drafting an international strategy and invited all governments to adopt implementation measures.
With the DESD coming to an end next year, its legacy nonetheless seems secured beyond 2014 as well. In the outcome document of Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Member States — including all 28 members of the EU — committed to strengthening ESD, and to “integrate sustainable development more actively into education beyond the UN Decade.
As a foundation for regional implementation, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) adopted a Strategy for ESD in 2005. It encourages member states to incorporate ESD into formal, non-formal, and informal education, establishes a number of principles and guidelines for the development of ESD content, and sets a timeline for evaluating ongoing national efforts (2007) and implementing the strategy’s provisions (2010).
Within the European Union, the Lisbon Treaty reaffirmed the position of sustainable development as one of the fundamental objectives of the EU. The EU Sustainable Development Strategy (updated 2009) highlights the role of education as a prerequisite for promoting the behavioural changes and providing citizens with the key competences needed to achieve sustainable development. Meanwhile, many countries have either adopted national ESD strategies or updated their educational standards to reflect a higher attention for sustainability.
Recommendations for NGOs
First, AEGEE-Europe invites NGOs to increase the attention for sustainability in their activities. When talking about education, formal education institutions often receive most attention. A survey among AEGEE members in 27 European countries however, showed that many only learned about sustainability when entering the field of non-formal education. Not only did they see NFE as a crucial complement to formal education on sustainability, one in three also considered it to be better suited for this particular task.
Second, NGO’s are urged to keep track of and document the current state of implementation of international and European ESD commitments in their national curricula, and to submit these, as well as their remarks and suggestions, to the relevant European, national, regional, and local authorities, and to decision-makers in the education field.
Finally, AEGEE-Europe recommends cooperation with other NGOs and with sustainability experts, in the development and implementation of ambitious and organisation-wide strategies to improve environmental and social performance, as well as in reporting about their progress to their members and stakeholders.
Recommendations for stakeholder action
First, AEGEE-Europe strongly recommends university staff and management to set and observe high sustainability standards in the operation of their institutions. The integration of Education for sustainable development is a responsibility of all actors within and around the university. It is therefore crucial that everyone within a university becomes aware of the importance of sustainability — and of their role in bringing about change.
At the receiving end of education, students are equally part of the solution. A united student union like in the UK, demanding attention for sustainable development could have a significant impact on decision-makers in other countries as well, including university boards and ministries of Education.
With regards to the ways of implementing ESD, AEGEE-Europe considers a balanced combination to hold the best cards for long-term success. A course specifically focused on sustainability should be introduced for all first-year students to boost their knowledge on the topic. Sustainability should then further be integrated in courses throughout the rest of the curriculum in order to help students understand the importance and applications of sustainability in all aspects of life and society.
Recommendations for policy-makers
First, AEGEE-Europe recognises the difficulties in developing and coordinating common educational policies and practices across Europe. Despite the limited competences of the European institutions in the field of education, AEGEE-Europe urges policy-makers to encourage Member states to further implement their international and European commitments, as well as to increase their cooperation on ESD through the establishment of networks for the exchange of experiences, practices, staff, and students.
Second, Member states are encouraged to make available the necessary human, infrastructural, and financial resources to increase the baseline competences of students in higher education, and to further develop and deliver curricula with an increased focus on sustainability, paying special attention to those courses where sustainability is less obvious.
Finally, AEGEE-Europe urges the relevant authorities to integrate ESD into teacher education and training, equipping current and future teaching staff with the required competences for delivering ESD, and preparing and supporting them for the shift towards integrated complexity studies rather than the current model of separated disciplines.
AEGEE/ European Students’ Forum was born in 1986 with the vision of creating a unified Europe, based on democracy and respect for human rights, bringing together students with different cultural backgrounds. Today, AEGEE is Europe’s largest interdisciplinary youth organisation: 40 countries, 200 cities, 13 000 friends.
This network provides the ideal platform for young volunteers to work together on cross-border activities such as international conferences, seminars, exchanges, training courses, and case study trips. In line with the challenges young people are currently facing in Europe, AEGEE’s work in the period 2011-14 is focused on three main areas: promotion of youth participation, development of European relations with its neighbours, and inclusion of minorities.
AEGEE’s work on environment and sustainability is relatively new. Its diverse membership however, provides a great potential for the development of cross-disciplinary efforts in this field — a role taken up with increasing success by its Environmental Working Group, the Sustaining our Future project in 2008-09 , and since 2012 its Policy Officer on Sustainability.