The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

By Richard Clugston
[M. Wanner/UNEP/Still Pictures]

The fundamental challenge for humanity in the 21st century is to build a peaceful world in which environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability are commonplace. To do this, we must change our economic bottom line to value full human development in healthy ecosystems; we must eliminate subsidies for unsustainable practices; and we must shift production and consumption patterns to reduce poverty, to support biological and cultural diversity, social justice and future generations.

The Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), from January 2005 to December 2014, provides a significant opportunity for educators of all types to collaborate in creating a sustainable future. This article quotes extensively from an executive summary of UNESCO's Draft International Implementation Scheme for the Decade, to provide background on the debate over the meaning of sustainable development, and the nature of education for it.

UNESCO's Leading Role

In 2002, the United Nations General Assembly, recognizing that sustainable development is an urgent social and ecological need, and that education is an indispensable element for achieving it, declared the 10-year period beginning 2005 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. UNESCO has been designated as the lead agency for the promotion of this Decade. As the lead agency, UNESCO was required to develop a draft International Implementation Scheme (IIS) which would establish the DESD's relationship with other global initiatives already in existence, especially the Education for All (EFA) Dakar Framework for Action, the UN Literacy Decade (UNLD) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

UNESCO is also expected to provide recommendations for governments on how to promote and improve the integration of education for sustainable development (ESD) in their respective educational strategies and action plans.

The UNESCO strategy for the Decade states: "Education for sustainable development has come to be seen as a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology and equity of all communities. Building the capacity for such futures-oriented thinking is a key task of education."

This statement reinforces the notion that progress toward sustainability requires education that cultivates respect for diversity, more caring relationships between humans and the natural world, and more environmentally and socially responsible forms of development.

A Framework for the Draft IIS was prepared, and over 2,000 responses to it were received from many stakeholders. The IIS will be presented to the General Assembly this fall (2004). UNESCO has also set the frame for national launches and regional strategies and developed a range of communications materials.

What Is Sustainable Development?

The success of the DESD depends, in part, on the extent to which we share a common vision of the meaning of sustainable development (SD), and the educational content and processes which are effective in achieving it. As UNESCO notes, "the concept of SD itself is vast and vague--anyone can fill it with their own meaning."

The most widely quoted definition of SD emerged from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report "Our Common Future." SD is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The Earth Scouts are a new movement for children and youth in the US based on the Earth Charter [Barbara Goldstein]

This definition sought to find the right balance between protecting the environment and maximizing economic development, especially for underdeveloped countries. The WCED set the challenge that UNCED, the Rio Earth Summit, responded to. Over 170 countries then adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive set of commitments for creating a sustainable world.

The Political Declaration of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development states that SD is built on three "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars"--economic development, social development and environmental protection. This paradigm recognizes the complexity and interrelationship of critical issues such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, gender inequality, health, conflict and the violation of human rights.

The IIS presents four principal elements of SD--society, environment, economy and culture:

Society: an understanding of social institutions and their role in change and development.

Environment: an awareness of the fragility of the physical environment and the effects on it of human activity and decisions.

Economy: a sensitivity to the limits and potential of economic growth and their impact on society and on the environment, with a commitment to assess personal and societal levels of consumption.

The fourth element--culture--is often omitted as part of SD. However, the values, diversity, knowledge, languages and worldviews associated with culture form a pillar of SD and a basis for ESD.

Continuing Debate

However, there is still considerable debate over the meaning of SD, ranging from an emphasis on ecoefficiency and sustainable economic growth, to an emphasis on the spiritual nature of our global crisis.

Ecoefficiency recognizes that in order to sustain economic growth on a finite planet, our ability to produce products and provide services will require a manyfold (perhaps 10 times) increase in our efficiency in the use of energy and materials. Its major thrust is to improve productivity through the widespread diffusion of innovative "green" technologies.

Daisaku Ikeda, president of the SGI, emphasizes the importance of spiritual values in an essay on "Education for a Sustainable Future." He quotes the Thessaloniki Declaration, which states, "Sustainability is, in the final analysis, a moral and ethical imperative in which cultural diversity and traditional knowledge need to be respected."

Mr. Ikeda recognizes the need for a common values framework such as the Earth Charter, and stresses, "At the very heart of the values we seek must be a profound reverence for life itself. Such a sense of respect and reverence can awaken people to a sense of connection with all forms of life with whom we presently share this Earth as well as a sense of oneness with future generations."

The Earth Charter

The Earth Charter attempts to synthesize the diversity of perspectives on SD into a common vision. It is an international declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful world. It is the product of a decade-long worldwide cross-cultural dialogue on common goals and shared values integrating environmental, social and economic dimensions of our global concerns and was completed in the year 2000.

Mary Shuma, WWF environmental education specialist in Tanzania, (third from right) with women in Zambia [© WWF-Canon/Luc DESLARZES]

The 32nd General Conference of UNESCO recently adopted a resolution that recognizes the Earth Charter as an important ethical framework for SD and a valuable educational tool. UNESCO is planning to use the Earth Charter as an educational instrument during the DESD.

The Charter's first four main principles provide an overview of its ethical vision:

1. Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.
2. Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion and love.
3. Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable and peaceful.
4. Secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

The promise of the Earth Charter is that it provides an integrated ethical vision of sustainable development, building on a broadly participatory global consultation. It can assist in articulating a new framework for economic and social policies oriented not primarily toward short-term economic gain, but toward the full flourishing of life.

As Steven Rockefeller, chair of the Earth Charter drafting committee, states, "The Earth Charter focuses attention on the critical ecological and social challenges and choices facing humanity, and emphasizes that in the final analysis the problem is an ethical one." (See

The Educational Challenge

The challenge is to arrive at a widely shared vision of the meaning of SD and a practical agenda for achieving it. The Earth Charter process as well as the results of the various UN Summits and the Millennium Development Goals offer a set of principles, goals and practical actions to meet this challenge. One of the tasks of the DESD is to consolidate these significant global efforts into a coherent and manageable program for realizing a sustainable future. A second task is to shape education, training and public awareness initiatives which prepare individuals, organizations and governments to practice sustainable living in their diverse cultural and social contexts.

The content and methods of most education and training, as well as the messages delivered by mass media, are currently socializing us to live unsustainably. As Robert Bellah pointed out in Habits of the Heart, all religions and philosophies teach us that the good life cannot be achieved through ever-increasing consumption of material goods--yet this is precisely the message preached to us through advertising media and the globalizing economy.

The critical question is, what sort of education is necessary for us to pursue our various cultural and context-specific paths toward sustainability?

Participants at an Earth Charter Community Summit experience interconnectedness [Barbara Goldstein]

UNESCO in the IIP states that "ESD is fundamentally about values, with respect at the center: respect for others, including those of present and future generations, for difference and diversity, for the environment, for the resources of the planet we inhabit. Education enables us to understand ourselves and others and our links with the wider natural and social environment, and this understanding serves as a durable basis for building respect. Along with a sense of justice, responsibility, exploration and dialogue, ESD aims to move us to adopting behaviors and practices which enable all to live a full life without being deprived of basics."

According to UNESCO, ESD demonstrates the following characteristics:

  • Interdisciplinary and holistic: learning for SD embedded in the whole curriculum, not as a separate subject;
  • Values-driven: sharing the values and principles underpinning sustainable development;
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving: leading to confidence in addressing the dilemmas and challenges of SD;
  • Multi-method: word, art, drama, debate, experience . . . different pedagogies which model the processes;
  • Participatory decision-making: learners participate in decisions on how they are to learn;
  • Locally relevant: addressing local as well as global issues, and using the language(s) which learners most commonly use.

ESD is for everyone, and it takes place within a perspective of lifelong learning, engaging all possible spaces of learning, formal, nonformal and informal, from early childhood to adult life. ESD calls for a reorientation of educational approaches--curriculum and content, pedagogy and examinations. Spaces for learning include nonformal learning, community-based organizations and local civil society, the workplace, formal education, technical and vocational training, policy-making bodies . . . and beyond.

We are each challenged to reform the various educational systems which touch our lives and the lives of others in our various communities, and to link with each other in the larger context of the DESD.

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Richard Clugston is executive director of the Center for Respect of Life and Environment, Washington DC, and publisher and editor of Earth Ethics. He directs the Secretariat of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future and is on the Earth Charter Initiative Steering Committee.