30 Sep 2011

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), where are you?

Something which Stephen Martin and me have argued for some time (see “Educating Earth-literate Leaders” or “World Wise: Can universities be models for ethical and sustainable communities?”), becomes more and more urgent by the day. It is the question about both the effectiveness of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and its most important target audience.

In 40 years of Environmental Education and Development Education and well over fifteen years of ESD the focus has been on turning pupils and students into human beings fully equipped with the competencies to cope with the challenges of a world which the present and the last generation have turned into anything but paradise. In other words, the target audience has always been the next generations which is disingenuous on two counts: first we expect those who aren’t responsible for the mess we’re in to clean it up and second, it is an implicit but stark admission on our part that we are not capable of cleaning it up ourselves. All we can do, so we signal, is hope that our successors will turn out to be a notch cleverer than we are.

To come back to the audience question, this means that those who really need to be educated, who need ESD, who clearly lack the competencies to deal with our sustainability crisis, are the current political and economic and spiritual leaders. If Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, wants to take the lead in tackling Climate Change in Europe and at the same time makes every effort to exempt German car manufacturers from more stringent (but still wholly inadequate) new CO2 emission limits, if Doris Leuthard, member of the Swiss Government, says that tackling Climate Change cannot mean less economic growth, one is sadly reminded of George ‘the older’ Bush’s punch line for the Rio Earth Summit of 1992: ‘The American Way of Life is not negotiable’.

In reality, statements (and the ensuing politics) like the above mean that these leaders have not even grasped the most basic fundamentals of sustainable development. For the industrialised Euro-American societies of this planet, there are 3 of these basic laws:

  1. There is no unlimited growth in a materially non-growing system like planet Earth.
  2. If you have taken over many years, if not centuries, more than your fair share, it’s time to give back and make do with (much) less.
  3. If your way of life, taken as a role model and emulated by the rest of humankind, is a sure recipe for destroying the life-support system Earth, it’s time to abolish it, deter anybody from copying it and to establish pretty fast a new one that is sustainable (i.e. one-planet living).
As soon as you hear points like these uttered by leading politicians and economic leaders, you know that ESD has started to work and you can safely turn your attention towards pupils and students (but not before!). Rolf Jucker, 30/9/2011


  1. Hi Rolf. Thanks for this! I would argue that something like the circular economy would be a great model for everyone to start following NOW. What are your thoughts on the CE concept?

    But I completely agree that our focus might need to be on current leadership to get things moving urgently. And students need to learn how to contribute under a new system...? Maybe?

  2. Dear Heather

    thanks for that comment. I haven't been familiar with the term circular economy, but with the concept which I found out when checking it out. Of course, you are right: this is exactly the way to go: the economy is the big IF but also the decisive factor with regard to sustainability. If we aim to build a circular economy and do this honestly (and not with all the hype currently attached to Cleantech and Green Economy, which comes down to: let's just adopt this new fad because it allows us to continue to believe in the growth model), this would be a hugh step forward.

    And of course there is a place for young people in building a sustainable future: I'm just arguing that they shouldn't be the center of our educational attention, but rather junior members of communities of practice of adults. They would be looking over the shoulders and participate in the processes of active transition to a sustainable society, but the key actors here is the current generation of adults. We should invest a lot more energy into building those communites of practice/transition.

    Rolf, 14.10.2011

  3. Rolf
    I have never bought into the idea that if we educate the young generation everything will be OK in the future. Apart from the fact that there is a lack of time, given the current crises, at a school level we now that in general parents have a greater influence over children that school/teachers, so unless the parents generation is educated/changed patterns will be repeated.