Most countries aspire to greater economic growth and increased consumption and education systems reflect these aspirations of the culture they are part of. It is a telling fact that the countries with the highest education levels also have the highest ecological footprint. But Education for Sustainability challenges these aspirations for growth and allows us to imagine a better future for all and it encourages people to reflect on how our values, beliefs and behaviour affects our collective ability to create such a future. 

Education for Sustainability

Many people find the term ‘sustainable development’ ambiguous. The idea of development – as in growth – is seen to be at odds with notions such as ‘conservation’, ‘protection’, ‘prevention’, ‘mitigation’ and ‘restoration’. A definition of ‘sustainable development’ can conceivably include all of these concepts and when it does it should simply be called Sustainability – a term which encompasses a lasting balance between development and protection.

Education for Sustainability (EfS) is not actually new education – it’s just education with a new vision. Sustainability is an interdisciplinary approach and provides a useful framework for the teaching of existing curriculum. In the words of See Change, a 2004 report published by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, “Education for sustainability could therefore be considered as an umbrella term across the entire curriculum”.

EfS is not just education about sustainability either. Many ‘environmental education’ programmes include education about sustainability which creates awareness and challenges current systems as well as teaching about potential solutions. Whilst including these aspects EfS goes much further and uses education as a driver to achieve sustainability. EfS is therefore transformative and empowering. It empowers students to envision better futures, to reflect and think critically, to think in terms of whole systems, to build partnerships and to assume responsibility and get involved in decision-making.

Transforming Culture

It is perhaps the idea of transformation that people find difficult to understand. Daniella Tilbury and David Wortman in their book Engaging People in Sustainability explain what it means:

“…education for sustainability seeks a transformative role for education, in which people are engaged in a new way of seeing, thinking, learning and working. People are not only able to explore the relationships between their lives, the environment, social systems and institutions, but also become active participants and decision-maker in the change process.”

It is culture transforming itself through education. We live in a culture that values economic growth and this is preserved by our education system. What we aren’t taught is that it is actually easier to have prosperity without growth. We aren’t taught it is possible for people to lead happy and fulfilling lives without having ever-increasing levels of consumption. We aren’t taught that sustainability means a good life for everyone – now and in the future.

The truth is we need to learn, not just for our lifetime, but for many lifetimes.