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Author's note

What is E S D?
Reorienting Education
Localizing the Global Initiative
Challenges and Barriers to E S D
Community Sustainability Goals
Case Study: Toronto, Canada Board of Education
Managing Change
Public Participation
Concluding remarks
Tools to Introduce the Concept of Sustainable Development
Tools to Create Community Goals
Tools to Reorient Education to Address Sustainability
Tools for Managing Change
Web resources

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ESD is more than a knowledge base related to environment, economy, and society. It also addresses learning skills, perspectives, and values that guide and motivate people to seek sustainable livelihoods, participate in a democratic society, and live in a sustainable manner. ESD also involves studying local and, when appropriate, global issues. Therefore, these five (i.e., knowledge, skills, perspectives, values, and issues) must all be addressed in a formal curriculum that has been reoriented to address sustainability. Simply adding more to the curriculum will not be feasible in most schools; they already have a full curriculum. Deciding what to leave out - what does not contribute to sustainability or is obsolete - is an integral part of the reorienting process. Let's look more closely at these five components of an education reoriented to address sustainability.


Sustainable development encompasses environment, economics, and society. Therefore, people need basic knowledge from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities to understand the principles of sustainable development, how they can be implemented, the values involved, and ramifications of their implementation. Knowledge based on traditional disciplines supports ESD.

The challenge for communities in the process of creating ESD curriculums will be to select knowledge that will support their sustainability goals. An accompanying challenge will be to let go of those topics that have been successfully taught for years but are no longer relevant. In the event that your community has not defined sustainability goals, you can substitute principles and guidelines for sustainability. (See following box.) Section XII of this Toolkit, Tools to Create Community Sustainability Goals through Public Participation, includes exercises that will assist communities in identifying community sustainability goals.

Guidelines for Sustainable Development

To identify a knowledge base that will support sustainability goals, citizens must first select goals. To help in this process, here is a list of statements, conditions, and guidelines for sustainability, which have been identified by prominent authors.

Herman Daly, author of For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, gives three conditions of a sustainable society:

  1. Rates of use of renewable resources do not exceed their rates of regeneration.
  2. Rates of use of nonrenewable resources do not exceed the rate at which sustainable renewable substitutes are developed.
  3. Rates of pollution emission do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.

Other authors consider peace, equity, and justice necessary for a sustainable society.

Donnella Meadows, author of Limits to Growth, outlined these general guidelines for restructuring world systems toward sustainability:

  1. Minimize the use of nonrenewable resources.
  2. Prevent erosion of renewable resources.
  3. Use all resources with maximum efficiency.
  4. Slow and eventually stop exponential growth of population and physical capital.
  5. Monitor the condition of resources, the natural environment, and the welfare of humans.
  6. Improve response time for environmental stress.

Julian Agyeman, Assistant Professor at Tufts University, interprets that "[sustainability] places great emphasis upon the need to: ensure a better quality of life for all, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems."

Of course, communities must choose culturally appropriate and locally relevant sustainability goals that reflect their current and future life conditions and needs. With time, major guiding principles selected for the curriculum will become infused into local worldviews.


ESD focuses largely on the major social, economic, and environmental issues that threaten the sustainability of the planet. Many of these key issues were identified at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and are found in Agenda 21. Understanding and addressing these issues are the heart of ESD, and locally relevant issues should be included in any program related to educating for sustainability.

Agenda 21: Chapters, Statement, and Conventions

Section 1 - Social and Economic Dimensions

International cooperation, Combating poverty, Changing consumption patterns, Population and sustainability, Protecting and promoting human health, Sustainable human settlements, Making decisions for sustainable development.

Section 2 - Conservation & Management of Resources Protecting the atmosphere, Managing land sustainably, Combating deforestation, Combating desertification and drought, Sustainable mountain development, Sustainable agriculture and rural development, Conservation of biological diversity, Management of biotechnology, Protecting and managing the oceans, Protecting and managing fresh water, Safer use of toxic chemicals, Managing hazardous wastes, Managing solid waste and sewage, Managing radioactive wastes.

Section 3 - Strengthening the Role of Major Groups Women in sustainable development, Children and youth, Indigenous people, Partnerships with NGOs, Local authorities, Workers and trade unions, Business and industry, Scientists and technologists, Strengthening the role of farmers.

Section 4 - Means of Implementation Financing sustainable development; Technology transfer; Science for sustainable development; Education, awareness and training; Creating capacity for sustainable development; Organizing for sustainable development, International law; and Information for decision making.

Accompanying the 40 chapters of Agenda 21 were the Rio Declaration and the following conventions and statement of principles: Statement of Forests, Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on Desertification.

While Agenda 21 clearly identifies many of the critical issues that governments around the world agreed to address, additional issues were discussed for which no formal international agreement or plan of action could be reached. In addition, issues that are important to enhancing the understanding of sustainability (e.g., globalization) have continued to emerge since the Rio de Janeiro conference. These additional issues, not included in Agenda 21, are part of international discussions of sustainability and include, but are not limited to, topic such as war and militarism, governance, discrimination and nationalism, renewable energy sources, multinational corporations, refugees, nuclear disarmament, human rights, and media influencing rapid change of worldviews. These issues are pertinent to reorienting education to address sustainability and should be included when relevant. Including local issues will foster innovative solutions and develop the political will to resolve them.

The last major content area in educating for sustainability stems from the major UN conferences in the 1990s and new millenium that expanded our understanding of sustainable development. Key examples of the issues explored are Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (Barbados, 1993), International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995), Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1996), Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Istanbul, 1996) and World Food Summit (Rome, 1996). Each conference advanced understanding of issues that cause much suffering and threaten global sustainability. Each conference also developed a series of requests for public awareness and understanding and identified the individual responsibilities and behavior changes that would ameliorate each issue.

Communities creating ESD curriculums cannot teach all of the issues associated with Agenda 21, the statements of principles and conventions, and these major UN conferences. The quantity of study would be overwhelming. Communities should, however, select a few issues in each of the three realms - environment, economics, and society. The issues selected should be locally relevant. For example, a land-locked country could study sustainable mountain development and either ignore or lightly cover protecting and managing the oceans. Some topics, such as women in sustainable development or combating poverty, have relevance to every country.

Framework for Teaching or Analyzing Environmental Issues*

Teachers should be equipped to help pupils identify and think about the complexities of issues from the perspectives of many stakeholders. Older pupils and university students need to acquire skills to analyze issues, analyze proposed solutions to those issues, understand the values underlying opposing positions on issues, and analyze conflicts arising from those issues and proposed solutions. The following framework of 13 questions is for analyzing an environmental issue whether the issue confronts a local community or a country on the other side of the world.

  1. What are the main historical and current causes (i.e., physical/biotic, social/cultural, or economic) of the issue?
  2. What is the geographic scale, the spatial distribution, and the longevity of the issue?
  3. What are the major risks and consequences to the natural environment?
  4. What are the major risks and consequences to human systems?
  5. What are the economic implications?
  6. What are the major currently implemented or proposed solutions?
  7. What are the obstacles to these solutions?
  8. What major social values (e.g., economic, ecological, political, aesthetic) are involved in or infringed upon by these solutions?
  9. What group(s) of people would be adversely impacted by or bear the costs of these solutions?
  10. What is the political status of the problem and solutions?
  11. How does this issue relate to other environmental issues?

    The next two questions help people integrate knowledge into daily living.

  12. What is a change you can make in your daily life to lessen the problem or issue?
  13. Beyond changes in your daily life, what is the next step you could take to address the issue?

* This framework for teaching, studying, and analyzing environmental issues was developed for North American university students through a research process by Rosalyn McKeown and Roger Dendinger.


To be successful, ESD must go beyond teaching about these global issues. ESD must give people practical skills that will enable them to continue learning after they leave school, to have a sustainable livelihood, and to live sustainable lives. These skills will differ with community conditions. The following list demonstrates the types of skills pupils will need as adults. Note that skills fall into one or more of the three realms of sustainable development - environmental, economic, and social.

  • The ability to communicate effectively (both orally and in writing).
  • The ability to think about systems (both natural and social sciences).
  • The ability to think in time - to forecast, to think ahead, and to plan.
  • The ability to think critically about value issues.
  • The ability to separate number, quantity, quality, and value.
  • The capacity to move from awareness to knowledge to action.
  • The ability to work cooperatively with other people.
  • The capacity to use these processes: knowing, inquiring, acting, judging, imagining, connecting, valuing, and choosing.
  • The capacity to develop an aesthetic response to the environment (McClaren, 1989). In addition, pupils will need to learn skills that will help them manage and interact with the local environment. Such locally relevant skills may include learning to:
  • Prepare materials for recycling.
  • Harvest wild plants without jeopardizing future natural regeneration and production.
  • Grow low-water-need cotton.
  • Draw water from unpolluted sources.


ESD carries with it perspectives that are important for understanding global issues as well as local issues in a global context. Every issue has a history and a future. Looking at the roots of an issue and forecasting possible futures based on different scenarios are part of ESD, as is understanding that many global issues are linked. For example, over-consumption of such consumer goods as paper leads to deforestation, which is thought to be related to global climate change.

The ability to consider an issue from the view of different stakeholders is essential to ESD. Considering an issue from another viewpoint besides your own leads to intra-national and international understanding. This understanding is essential for creating the mood of cooperation that will underpin sustainable development.

The following is a partial list of perspectives associated with ESD. Students understand that:

  • Social and environmental problems change through time and have a history and a future.
  • Contemporary global environmental issues are linked and interrelated between and among themselves.
  • Humans have universal attributes (e.g., they love their children).
  • Looking at their community as well as looking beyond the confines of local and national boundaries is necessary to understand local issues in a global context.
  • Considering differing views before reaching a decision or judgment is necessary.
  • Economic values, religious values, and societal values compete for importance as people of different interests and backgrounds interact.
  • Technology and science alone cannot solve all of our problems.
  • Individuals are global citizens in addition to citizens of the local community.
  • Individual consumer decisions and other actions effect resource extraction and manufacturing in distant places.
  • Employing the precautionary principle by taking action to avoid the possibility of serious or irreversible environmental or social harm even when scientific knowledge is incomplete or inconclusive is necessary for the long-term well-being of their community and planet.

When taught to a generation of pupils, such perspectives will become infused into local worldviews.


Values are also an integral part of ESD. In some cultures, values are taught overtly in the schools. In other cultures, however, even if values are not taught overtly, they are modeled, explained, analyzed, or discussed. In both situations, understanding values is an essential part of understanding your own worldview and other people's viewpoints. Understanding your own values, the values of the society you live in, and the values of others around the world is a central part of educating for a sustainable future. Two common techniques - values clarification and values analysis - are useful to the values component of ESD.

In ESD, values have different roles in the curriculum. In some ESD efforts, pupils adopt certain values as a direct result of instruction or modeling of accepted values. In other cultures, studying the relationship between society and the environment leads pupils to adopt values derived from their studies. In cultures where inquisitiveness is encouraged, pupils come to value curiosity and questioning. In democratic societies, pupils also develop shared values around concepts of democratic process, community participation in decision making, volunteerism, and social justice. Each of these approaches contributes to the overall goal of sustainability.

World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development

In some countries, the religious values and ethics of the dominant religion are taught in schools; in other countries they are not. The Bahá'í International Community has articulated a statement of ethics, which follows, that supports sustainability.

"The greatest challenge facing the world community as it mobilizes to implement Agenda 21 is to release the enormous financial, technical, human and moral resources required for sustainable development. These resources will be freed up only as the peoples of the world develop a profound sense of responsibility for the fate of the planet and for the well-being of the entire human family.

"This sense of responsibility can only emerge from the acceptance of the oneness of humanity and will only be sustainable by a unifying vision of a peaceful, prosperous world society. Without such a global ethic, people will be unable to become active, constructive participants in the world-wide process of sustainable development."

"[W]orld Citizenship... encompasses the constellation of principles, values, attitudes and behavior that the people of the world must embrace if sustainable development is to be realized. "World Citizenship... encourages a sane and legitimate patriotism, it also insists upon a wider loyalty, a love of humanity as a whole. It does not, however, imply abandonment of legitimate loyalties, the suppression of cultural diversity, the abolition of national autonomy, nor the imposition of uniformity. Its hallmark is 'unity in diversity.'

World citizenship encompasses the principles of social and economic justice both within and between nations; non-adversarial decision making at all levels of society; equality of the sexes; racial, ethnic, national and religious harmony; and the willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Other facets of world citizenship - all of which promote human honor and dignity, understanding, amity, cooperation, trustworthiness, compassion and a desire to serve - can be deduced from those already mentioned."

"So long as disunity, antagonism and provincialism characterize the social political and economic relations within and among nations, a global, sustainable pattern of development can not be established."

Social justice is another realm of study that involves values. Social justice, which is considered a central part of ESD in most countries, includes meeting basic human needs and concern for the rights, dignity, and welfare of all people. It includes respect for the traditions and religions of other societies and cultures, and it fosters empathy for the life conditions of other peoples. Ecological sustainability and resource conservation are considered part of social justice. Preserving and conserving the resource base of others prevents people from living in disadvantaged circumstances. Social justice concerns related to preservation of resources (e.g., fossil fuels, old-growth forests, and species diversity) extends to future generations; this is called intergenerational equity.

Values taught in school need to reflect the larger values of the society that surrounds the school. Where appropriate, the opinions of community members can be solicited. Then, a full range of values influenced by local traditions, aboriginal groups, ethnic populations, immigrants, religions, media, and pop culture will be revealed, inventoried, and considered for relation to and inclusion in ESD. In addition, curriculum decision-makers will decide if new values, which will help communities reach their goals of sustainability, need to be included in the curriculum.

The Earth Charter

The Earth Charter is a synthesis of values, principles, and aspirations that are shared by a growing number of women, men, and organizations around the world. Drafting the Earth Charter was part of the unfinished business of the Earth Summit. The Earth Charter was written with extensive international consultations conducted over many years. Currently, the Earth Charter is being disseminated to individuals and organizations in all sectors of society throughout the world and it says in part:

"We urgently need a shared vision of basic values to provide an ethical foundation for the emerging world community. Therefore, together in hope we affirm the following interdependent principles for a sustainable way of life as a common standard by which the conduct of all individuals, organizations, businesses, governments, and transnational institutions is to be guided and assessed."

  1. Respect and care for the community of life
    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 peaceable.
    4. Secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

  2. Ecological Integrity
    1. Protect and restore the integrity of Earth's ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
    2. Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.
    3. Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.
    4. Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.

  3. Social and Economic Justice
    1. Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
    2. Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.
    3. Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
    4. Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

  4. Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace
    1. Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.
    2. Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.
    3. Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
    4. Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.

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