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Learning to Be

by Will Swanson
As auto manufacturers race to create more efficient engines and governments struggle to convert to green energy, an international movement sets its sights on the single most influential agent of climate change: people. Proponents of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) place education at the centre of their hope for a liveable future. They believe that universal education focusing on principles of sustainability will usher in a new historical era.

ducation reform is not a spectacular process, but its effect can be momentous. ESD supporters count on that potential. A coalition of educators, policymakers and academics aims to radically transform society through education. They hope that a better-informed, more virtuous public will rise to the challenges humanity faces – before it’s too late.

ESD reframes education as a tool for generating lifestyles aligned with sustainable development (SD). The term SD first gained currency in a 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, where it is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It originally pertained only to environmental issues, but its meaning has expanded. Today, SD is shorthand for a holistic vision of development integrating environmentally sound practices with wide-ranging humanitarian concerns, such as gender equality, human rights, health and intercultural dialogue.

The concept is broad, abstract and unfamiliar to most outside of specialised circles. That’s where ESD takes its cue. By incorporating SD principles into all forms of education – from pre-school to higher education, as well as adult, vocational and corporate training – ESD uses existing channels to increase public awareness.

Global sustainability ultimately depends on global participation, so ESD is bound with other international initiatives committed to universal education, such as Education For All and the second UN Millennium Development Goal.

The essence of ESD is transformation: it seeks global ethical reorientation. Unlike traditional skill-based education, it focuses on people, not performance, to foster virtues like integrity, solidarity and responsibility. Its teaching methods emphasise ethics, creativity and critical thinking, and transdisciplinary projects build the skills necessary to fight complex and interlocking problems like climate change.

Speaking at a recent UNESCO world conference in Bonn, convened to mark the halfway point of the UN Decade of ESD (DESD), Graça Machel named the global financial crisis as proof of the urgent need for ESD: “A growing moral bankruptcy has fuelled an economic bankruptcy, and unless we act decisively, it is our children who will reap the whirlwind of another generation’s irresponsibility.” Machel, former minister of education and culture in Mozambique, also attributed environmental problems to an underlying value deficit.

Over 900 participants from more than 150 countries – representing government, civil society and academia – gathered at the conference to assess progress and plan for the second half of the DESD. Participants expressed unanimous approval of ESD principles, but the difficulty of a global ethical rehabilitation was clear. Many criticised a lack of political will and reported lingering confusion. Teachers tend to see ESD as one more topic to add to already-crowded curricula, instead of a new holistic approach. In a review of progress in 22 Arab countries, Abdel Moneim Osman reported that ESD is often conflated with environmental education, ignoring its economic and social aspects.

Muhammad Ibrahim, director of the Bangladeshi NGO Centre for Mass Education in Science, pinpointed what is perhaps the fundamental challenge facing ESD and its moral agenda: Knowledge doesn’t necessarily result in action. The success of ESD ultimately depends on the ability of individual teachers to motivate change beyond the classroom. Will Swanson