Education is held to be central to sustainability. Indeed, education and sustainability are inextricably linked, but the distinction between education as we know it and education for sustainability is enigmatic for many. The following section describes the components of education for sustainability.
ESD carries with it the inherent idea of implementing programs that are locally relevant and culturally appropriate. All sustainable development programs including ESD must take into consideration the local environmental, economic, and societal conditions. As a result, ESD will take many forms around the world.
ESD was first described by Chapter 36 of Agenda 21. This chapter identified four major thrusts to begin the work of ESD: (1) improve basic education, (2) reorient existing education to address sustainable development, (3) develop public understanding, awareness, and (4) training. Let's look at each of the four components.
Improving Basic Education - The First Priority
The first priority of ESD as outlined in Chapter 36 was the promotion of basic education. The content and years of basic education differ greatly around the world. In some countries, for instance, primary school is considered basic education. In others eight or 12 years is mandatory. In many countries, basic education focuses on reading, writing, and ciphering. Pupils learn to read the newspaper, write letters, figure accounts, and develop skills necessary to fulfill their expected roles in their households and community. Girls, for example, may learn about nutrition and nursing. Pupils also learn how their government functions and about the world beyond their community.
Simply increasing basic literacy, as it is currently taught in most countries, will not advance sustainable societies. Indeed, if communities and nations hope to identify sustainability goals and work toward them, they must focus on skills, values, and perspectives that encourage and support public participation and community decision making. To achieve this, basic education must be reoriented to address sustainability and expanded to include critical-thinking skills, skills to organize and interpret data and information, skills to formulate questions, and the ability to analyze issues that confront communities.
In many countries, the current level of basic education is too low, severely hindering national plans for a sustainable future. In Latin America and the Caribbean, many countries have six to eight years of compulsory education with approximately five to 15 percent of the students repeating one or more years. In parts of Asia, especially Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, many children only attend school for an average of five years. A complicating factor in this region is that many girls receive fewer years of schooling to create that average. In parts of Africa, where life is disturbed by drought or war, the average attendance in public education is measured in months, not years. Unfortunately, the lowest quality of education is often found in the poorest regions or communities. The impact of little and/or poor-quality education severely limits the options available to a nation for developing its short- and long-term sustainability plans.
As nations turned their attention to education in the 1990s and the new millennium, they have made much progress in basic education. In fact, enrollment rates in primary education are rising in most regions of the world. Also, enrollment of girls has increased faster than that of boys, which is helping to close the gender gap evident in so many countries. At the global level, the gender gap in both primary and secondary school is narrowing. Despite all of this progress, too many female children remain out of school, and the gender gap will not close prior to the "Education For All" target date of 2005.
The recognition of the need for quality basic education sets ESD apart from other educational efforts, such as environmental education or population education.
Reorienting Existing Education - The Second Priority
The term "reorienting education" has become a powerful descriptor that helps administrators and educators at every level (i.e., nursery school through university) to understand the changes required for ESD. An appropriately reoriented basic education includes more principles, skills, perspectives, and values related to sustainability than are currently included in most education systems. Hence, it is not only a question of quantity of education, but also one of appropriateness and relevance. ESD encompasses a vision that integrates environment, economy, and society. Reorienting education also requires teaching and learning knowledge, skills, perspectives, and values that will guide and motivate people to pursue sustainable livelihoods, to participate in a democratic society, and to live in a sustainable manner.
The need to reorient basic and secondary education to address sustainability has grabbed international attention, but the need at the university level is just as great. Society's future leaders and decision makers are educated there. If these young people are expected to lead all sectors of society (e.g., government, medicine, agriculture, forestry, law, business, industry, engineering, education, communications, architecture, and arts) in a world striving toward sustainability, then the current administration and faculty members must reorient university curriculums to include the many and complex facets of sustainability.
In reorienting education to address sustainability, program developers need to balance looking forward to a more sustainable society with looking back to traditional ecological knowledge. Indigenous traditions often carry with them the values and practices that embody sustainable resource use. While returning to indigenous lifestyles is not an option for the millions of urban dwellers, the values and major tenets of indigenous traditions can be adapted to life in the 21st century.
Reorienting education to address sustainability is something that should occur throughout the formal education system - that includes universities, professional schools (e.g., law and medicine), and technical schools in addition to primary and secondary education.
Public Understanding and Awareness - The Third Priority
Sustainability requires a population that is aware of the goals of a sustainable society and has the knowledge and skills to contribute to those goals. The need for an informed voting citizenry becomes ever more important with the increase in the number of democratic governments. An informed voting citizenry, which lends support to enlightened policies and government initiatives, can help governments enact sustainable measures. Citizens also need to be knowledgeable consumers who can see beyond the "green wash" (i.e., public-relations efforts that highlight the activities of corporations that are more environmentally responsible while ignoring or hiding the major activities that are not). In today's world, people are surrounded by media (e.g., television, radio, newspapers, magazines) and advertisements (e.g., bill boards, banners on World Wide Web sites, and logos on clothing). As a result, people must become media literate and able to analyze the messages of corporate advertisers.
Years of resource management has shown that a public that is aware of and informed about resource-management decisions and programs can help achieve program goals. In contrast, an uninformed public can undermine resource-management programs. Education has also been essential in many other types of programs, such as public-health efforts to stop the spread of specific diseases.
Training - The Fourth Priority
Training was also stressed in Chapter 36. The world needs a literate and environmentally aware citizenry and work force to help guide nations in implementing their sustainability plans. All sectors - including business, industry, higher education, governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and community organization - are encouraged to train their leaders in environmental management and to provide training to their workers.
Training is distinct from education in that training is often specific to a particular job or class of jobs. Training teaches workers how to use equipment safely, be more efficient, and comply with regulations (e.g., environmental, health, or safety). For instance, a training program might teach workers to avoid changing the waste stream without notifying their supervisor. Further, if an employee is involved in a nonroutine activity, such as cleaning a new piece of equipment, she or he is instructed not to dispose of the cleaning solvent by pouring it down a storm sewer drain that leads to the river. Some training, such as training women to use solar cookers rather than cooking on open, wood-fueled fires, involves tremendous change in social dynamics and practices. In this case, women must not only learn the mechanics of solar cookers, but they must also change daily routines of meal preparation to cook while the sun is high in the sky, rather than in the evening.
Training informs people of accepted practices and procedures and gives them skills to perform specific tasks. In contrast, education is a socially transforming process that gives people knowledge, skills, perspectives, and values through which they can participate in and contribute to their own well-being and that of their community and nation.
Formal, Nonformal, and Informal Education
For a community or a nation, implementing ESD is a huge task. Fortunately, formal education does not carry this educational responsibility alone. The nonformal educational sector (e.g., nature centers, nongovernmental organizations, public health educators, and agricultural extension agents) and the informal educational sector (e.g., local television, newspaper, and radio) of the educational community must work cooperatively with the formal educational sector for the education of people in all generations and walks of life.
Because ESD is a lifelong process, the formal, nonformal, and informal educational sectors should work together to accomplish local sustainability goals. In an ideal world, the three sectors would divide the enormous task of ESD for the entire population by identifying target audiences from the general public as well as themes of sustainability. They would then work within their mutually agreed upon realms. This division of effort would reach a broader spectrum of people and prevent redundant efforts.