Education for living sustainably is a new and evolving concept in contemporary educational thinking. Historically it has always been deeply embedded in the survival strategies of indigenous communities, but the modern movement to link education and sustainable development only began in the early 1990s as educators began to think of ways to respond to the UN’s ‘Agenda 21’ of 1992.
An important feature of Agenda 21 is that it is a decentralised action plan through which governments, local communities, NGOs, professional associations and international agencies can work in partnership, sharing responsibility for local implementation. The Agenda contains different chapters on ways in which over forty different social and economic sectors and activities can be structured to support sustainable development as an international cultural socio-economic ideology. Chapter 36 is on 'Education, Awareness and Training', which deals with the need to reorientate education towards living sustainably. This is reflected in the following paragraph:
‘Education, including formal education, public awareness and training, should be recognised as a process by which human beings and societies can reach their fullest potential. Education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues. While basic education provides the underpinning for any environmental and development education, the latter needs to be incorporated as an essential part of learning. Both formal and non-formal education are indispensable to changing people's attitudes so that they have the capacity to assess and address their sustainable development concerns. It is also 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. To be effective, environment and development education should deal with the dynamics of both the physical/biological and socio-economic environment and human (which may include spiritual) development should be integrated in all disciplines; and should employ formal and non-formal methods and effective means of communication’.
The international scale of the task of reorienting education towards sustainability is that there are nearly 60 million teachers and between 1.5 and 2 billion students. But regardless of size, reform in any area of education is always a difficult and protracted undertaking. In the case of education for living sustainably, a major limiting factor is bias against the cross-curricular knowledge frameworks required. This limiting factor arises from the inflexible mindset of teachers confined within the walls of national curricula, which enshrine subject divisions designed to maintain ever-increasing economic growth. The above extract from Agenda 21 reflects this in that it takes the view that sustainability should be taught as a theme within existing subjects. What is really needed is a root and branch approach to create an entirely new professional discipline to support the future of Homo sapiens balanced precariously on the finite productivity of a relatively small planet.
‘Environment matters’ takes the view that the latter approach is the only way forward. The educational outcome is to make progress towards global well being ‘with no less than a decent environment for all whilst taking no more than a fair share of Earth’s resources’. However, this has to begin by bringing together knowledge from conventional subjects to form a new mandatory curriculum, with progress being measured with conventional global, national and domestic performance indicators of sustainability. In this context, ‘Education Matters’ is envisaged as a stand alone discipline. It should be a mandatory body of knowledge at all levels, having the same status as existing subjects within examination systems, so that it can form a cultural thread from which specialisms can branch out. The various ways in which this might be achieved may be explored within the following web sites. Some important topics and issues are considered in the right hand pages menu.