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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Towards the UN Decade for ESD: looking backwards, looking forwards

John Fien
John Fien is Professor of Environmental Education at Griffith University, Brisbane.

January 1, 2005 marks the beginning of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development - an exciting opportunity to intensify efforts to ensure that all people around the world, young and old, come to understand the wisdom of living more sustainably. The Decade is an opportunity to ensure that new ways of thinking and working with Nature are explored and that, as citizens of the world, we learn how to create a fairer, more peaceful and less troubled world.

A brief overview of some of the work done in Environmental Education since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro helps point to opportunities and challenges for the Decade ahead.

A vision of education as central to sustainable development was a key element of Agenda 21, the report from the Earth Summit. As Chapter 36, on Education, Awareness and Training stated: 'Education is critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making. Both formal and non-formal education are indispensable to... sustainable development.'

The 1997 'Rio+5' conference in New York was devoted to a review of Agenda 21. In its appraisal of action on Chapter 36, it noted that because education was 'a decisive factor in enabling people to become productive and responsible members of society' and 'a means of empowering youth and vulnerable and marginalized groups, including those in rural areas', countries should recognise that:

  • A fundamental prerequisite for sustainable development is an adequately financed and effective educational system at all levels, particularly the primary and secondary levels, that is accessible to all and that augments both human capacity and well-being
  • The core themes of education for sustainability include lifelong learning, interdisciplinary education, partnerships, multicultural education and empowerment
  • Priority should be given to ensuring women's and girls' full and equal access to all levels of education and training
  • Special attention should also be paid to the training of teachers, youth leaders and other educators
  • Education for a sustainable future should engage a wide spectrum of institutions and sectors, including but not limited to business/industry, international organisations, youth, professional organisations, non-governmental organisations, higher education, government, educators and foundations, to address the concepts and issues of sustainable development
  • Even in countries with strong education systems, there is a need to reorient education, awareness and training so as to promote widespread public understanding, critical analysis and support for sustainable development
  • [Education for a sustainable future] should also include the preparation of sustainable development education plans and programmes
  • It is necessary to support and strengthen universities and other academic centres in promoting cooperation among them, particularly cooperation between those of developing countries and those of developed countries.
Extract from the report of the 19th Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations (June 1997) (A/S-19/29, paragraphs 105-106).

While couched in diplomatic language, this appraisal was a call to governments to increase their efforts. The General Assembly also called for the concept of education for a sustainable future to be further developed by UNESCO, in cooperation with others. This is a significant point. Progress towards the goals agreed for education has been slow for many reasons. Lack of understanding of - or commitment to - the holistic, all pervasive nature of education for sustainable development is a major one. However, another barrier has been the lack of clear advice to policy makers from the education community.

As a result, UNESCO and some of its partners gave a priority to clarifying the nature, scope and purpose of education for sustainable development (ESD). The first phase in our understanding of ESD was as an extension of environmental education or an integration of development and environmental education. However, as a result of discussions that began at the Thessaloniki Conference in 1997 and many seminars and demonstration projects since then, a second phase has emerged. By the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, there was wide agreement that ESD is a catalytic process for social change that seeks to foster - through education, training and public awareness - the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future.

Sustainable development thus came to be seen not so much as a technical concept but as an educational one - not so much the end goal of a government policy but a process of learning how to think in terms of 'forever'. This means that ESD involves learning how to make decisions that balance and integrate the long term future of the economy, the natural environment and the well-being of all communities, near and far, now and in the future. Such an approach involves a vision of education that seeks to help people better understand the world in which they live, and to face the future with hope and confidence, knowing that they can play a role in addressing the complex and interdependent problems that threaten our future such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, gender inequality, health, conflict and the violation of human rights.

The goal of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is to have this vision of education integrated into education plans at all levels and all sectors of education.

Despite progress in this direction in many areas in Australia, many issues and challenges remain. While progress has been significant, it has been uneven. No one education system in Australia displays all the possible dimensions of ESD, and no government has integrated education into all aspects of its sustainable development plans.

Thus, the significant challenge for us in the Decade in Australia is to formalise ESD as a goal and framework for all education policies, programmes and practices.

At the policy level, this will involve:

  • integrating ESD into national, state and local economic, environment and social policies
  • addressing issues of intra-government coordination for ESD across Ministries of Education and Ministries of Environment, Natural Resources, Agriculture, etc.
At the programme level, this will involve:

  • developing and implementing policies, guidelines and strategic plans on ESD more widely
  • emphasising ESD in non-formal education as well as in formal education
  • strengthening institutional capacity building and professional development processes for improved planning and implementation of ESD
  • increasing monitoring, evaluation and reporting of ESD initiatives and their outcomes and impacts.
At the level of education practice, this will involve:

  • knowledgable, caring and committed teachers who embrace an ethic of sustainability and make it an all pervasive part of their teaching - just as we have come to do with the ethics underlying multicultural, anti-racist and gender-sensitive education
  • regular access to and participation in professional development
  • use of a wide range of learner-centred teaching strategies appropriate to developing the 'heart' (values) and the 'hands' (action) of life as well as the 'head' (cognitive learning).
Reorienting ESD during the Decade will require additional financing but, above this, it requires political will, from governments willing to model an inter-departmental, cooperative approach to sustainable development. Schools, other educational institutions and the community at large could then take up that lead with whole-of-school, community-inclusive approaches that aim to engage each individual, adult and child, in the process of seeking sustainable lifestyles.

Sustainability is the goal; it is a goal that cannot be reached by technological 'fixes', by scientific research, or by government edict. It is a goal that requires commitment from across the community, a commitment that can only be developed through education. For me, building this commitment is the ultimate purpose of the International Decade.


United Nations (1997) Report of the 19th Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations (June 1997) (A/S-19/29
UNESCO (2002) Education for Sustainability from Rio to Johannesburg: Lessons Learnt from a Decade of Innovation, UNESCO, Paris.


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