Perspective: Education for Sustainable Development

In the face of urgent global problems like terrorism, HIV/AIDS, and severe poverty in Africa , it is sometimes hard to focus on the long term needs of humanity.

But with the launch in 2005 of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, there is an opportunity to re-think the manner in which we approach long range global challenges.

There are few issues more important to our collective future than sustainable development, a term which has over the years come to be understood as encompassing a whole range of issues that relate to the on-going success of humanity's stay on this planet.

These issues certainly include environmental conservation and the challenge of appropriate development — the two main planks of “sustainable development.” But they also extend to the whole gamut of concerns relating to population and human consumption, human rights, women's advancement, food security, energy, industrial growth, urban planning — and even issues of peace and security.

All these things relate to the ability of humanity “to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as sustainable development was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.

As with most good and important ideas, the real problem facing humanity today in terms of achieving sustainable development is how to motivate people to change underlying behaviors and activities that are problematic — in this case “unsustainable.”

How, in other words, do we motivate people to use less energy, to contribute more to help alleviate poverty, undertake development that does not pollute or otherwise squander precious resources, and, ultimately, to make peace with each other?

Here is where the idea of a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) has a special role to play: in showing how various processes of education —which lie at the heart of promoting changes in human behavior — can be used on a global level to help turn things around.

In calling for the Decade in 2002, the UN General Assembly declared that “education is an indispensable element for achieving sustainable development.” It called on governments, UN agencies and civil society to promote the Decade, with the goal of promoting and improving “the integration of education for sustainable development in their respective educational strategies and action plans...”

The call to civil society is especially important. While governments and international agencies can make top-level policy changes, pass new laws, and re-structure institutions, new social programs are ultimately effective only to the degree that real changes take place at the grassroots.

Put another way, social action inevitably begins with individual citizens. And citizen action, focused through civil society organizations, has proven in many cases to be the best way to achieve lasting change.

Gary Gardner, director of research at the Worldwatch Institute, recently wrote that religious people and institutions can make powerful contributions to promoting sustainable development.

Religions “shape people's worldviews, wield moral authority, have the ear of multitudes of adherents, often possess strong financial and institutional assets, and are strong generators of social capital, an asset in community building,” wrote Mr. Gardner in a 2002 paper entitled “Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World.” “All of these assets can be used to help build a socially just and environmentally sustainable world.”

For Bahá'ís, the concept of sustainable development connects strongly with their religious beliefs. Bahá'u'lláh wrote more than 100 years ago that humanity has been created to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization” — a statement that Bahá'ís understand as a clear mandate for sustainable development. The Bahá'í writings also stress the oneness and interdependence of humanity and nature. One of the hallmarks of the sustainable development paradigm is its emphasis on the interdependence of human society, economics, and the natural environment.

Bahá'ís also believe that the foundation for lasting social change lies with individual and community transformation. “Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men,” Bahá'u'lláh wrote. “This can best be achieved through pure and holy deeds, through a virtuous life and a goodly behavior.”

The Bahá'í writings also emphasize the importance of education as a means of spiritual advancement and social progress. “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value,” wrote Bahá'u'lláh. “Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”

As the story on page one of this issue reports, Bahá'ís have begun to examine how they can contribute to the Decade, in particular by exploring how the moral and spiritual values that underpin sustainable development can best be integrated into a program of education for sustainable development.

Such a discussion of spiritual and moral values in education is much needed. The power of education as a tool for social progress has long been recognized. But too often educational systems have been structured so as to reinforce “unsustainable” values and goals.

Traditional educational systems have emphasized immediate material success and progress over long term thinking and moral action. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated.”

With the call for a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the world has a chance to take a fresh look at the underlying role of education itself in creating new directions in society ­— and to test the possibilities for remolding educational systems so as to bring positive change.

Accordingly, as the world at large ponders how best to participate in the Decade, it would do well to consider how education itself can best be transformed so that it can contribute to the long term progress and prosperity of global human society. In that light, it will be important to ensure that the positive moral and spiritual values that are found in all religions are thoroughly integrated into the process.