Religions ponder new efforts to "educate" for sustainable development

Faith groups gear up for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development; how a seminar in Florida reflects the Bahá'í community's global approach.

ORLANDO, Florida, USA – It's become something of a cliché to speak about “thinking globally” but “acting locally” when you talk about large scale problems like environmental degradation and international development.

But the truth is that some of humanity's biggest challenges can best be tackled step by step on an individual and community level. Governments can pass laws and create agencies, but unless individuals change their behavior, results are not always forthcoming.

One example of this is in the arena of sustainable development, which encompasses environmental protection, global economic development, and a visionary approach to the future. To work properly, sustainable development requires millions if not billions of people to change the way in which they approach everyday activities, whether recycling, using less energy, or making new choices as consumers and producers.

In an effort to promote such changes at the grassroots level, the United Nations recently launched a 10-year initiative to promote “education” for sustainable development. Known as the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), the effort began in 2005 and runs until 2014.

A number of faith groups have embraced the concept of the Decade and begun to develop new approaches, with the view that religious belief offers a powerful tool for individual and social transformation. At various meetings and conferences, diverse groups from Buddhists to Zoroastrians have begun to exchange ideas, develop activity plans, and devise curricula aimed at advancing the process of education for sustainable development both within their communities and outside of them.

“This is a new way of thinking for many people in the ‘traditional' education for sustainable development community, which has tended to be composed of people in higher education and focused on curriculum development,” said Steve Cochran, who currently serves as “Interim Steward” of the United States Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

“The very notion of coming from the personal and intimate level of one's faith and building outward from there,” added Mr. Cochran, “is one of the most effective ways to get people engaged.”

In the Bahá'í community, the direction and scope of this effort was recently reflected at a two-day seminar held in December 2005 in this Florida resort city. Titled “Education for Sustainable Development: The Spiritual Dimension,” the seminar drew some 50 participants from 10 countries, and featured a number of innovative brainstorming exercises designed to stimulate creative thinking and new approaches.

Using innovative group process methodologies such as “World Café” and “Open Space Technology,” the seminar sought to lead participants through a collective exploration of how Bahá'í communities around the world could increase awareness of the need for sustainable development and better incorporate its concepts into their activities.

Snapshot of activities

The result was not only a proliferation of new ideas, which participants vowed to take back to their local communities, but also a snapshot of the kinds of education for sustainable development efforts that members of the worldwide Bahá'í community are already engaged in. These projects include:

• In Australia , an effort to include environmental awareness in a national curriculum of Bahá'í education; another component was the sponsorship of an “ecological camp” for junior youth in September 2005.

• In Canada, Bahá'ís are involved in an interfaith initiative called “Renewing the Sacred Balance,” which seeks to build support for The One Tonne Challenge, a government-led initiative that aims for each Canadian to reduce his or her contributions to greenhouse gas emissions by one ton.

• In Haiti , a Bahá'í couple has founded a community-based NGO to clean up a local river and organize other development activities.

• In Swaziland , educators are working to include sustainable development concepts in the curriculum of Bahá'í schools in Mbabane , which include a preschool, a primary school, and the highly regarded Setsembiso Sebunye High School .

• In the United States, Bahá'ís have created an on-line learning course entitled “Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind”; as well, the community's semi-monthly children's magazine, Brilliant Star , has undertaken to publish a series of articles on sustainable development.

“As Bahá'ís, we see the idea of education for sustainable development in a long term perspective, and we want to make a contribution in our own way, wherever we are in our communities, certainly at the national level but also at the local level,” said Peter Adriance, a board member of the International Environment Forum (IEF), a Bahá'í-inspired NGO that co-organized the Orlando seminar.


The idea of a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development was proposed by the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg , and then officially proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December that year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been designated as the lead agency for the Decade's promotion.

According to UNESCO, the overall goal of the Decade is to “integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning.” The idea is to “encourage changes in behavior that allow for a more sustainable and just society for all.”

The UNESCO plan for reaching these goals calls for partnership not only with UN agencies and national governments, but also with a full range of civil society organizations, including businesses, academic institutions, community groups — and faith-based organizations.

Around the world, a number of religious groups have begun to discuss how to participate in the Decade. In recent years, religious organizations have become major players in the promotion of sustainable development, going back to the World Wide Fund for Nature's sponsorship of an interfaith gathering on conservation at Assisi , Italy , in 1987, and the subsequent founding of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in 1995.

“Many faith communities are already well practiced in terms of environmental protection and concern,” said Mr. Adriance, who is also a member of the executive team of the US Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and also the US Bahá'í community's NGO liaison. “So now it is a matter of making the transition to the larger question of sustainability — and how to promote it through education.

“Faith communities recognize the moral dimension of the need to achieve sustainability,” Mr. Adriance continued. “The sacred writings of the world's religions are a powerful source of motivation for many people, and an essential ingredient in making the transition to sustainability.

“Without the spiritual principles brought by religion, how are we going to generate the political will to make the necessary changes in behavior? Religion has a key role to play in motivating people to contribute to the ongoing well-being of humanity, instead of just to their own immediate comfort,” said Mr. Adriance.

According to Mr. Adriance and others, recent efforts by faith-based organizations to respond to the Decade include a wide range of efforts by religious groups to begin to incorporate education for sustainable development in their curricula, outreach, and other activities.

Last April, to cite but one example, at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, a group of faith-based NGOs sponsored a side event entitled “Engaging Faith Communities in the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.” Among those sponsoring or participating in the event were individuals representing the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Brainstorming in Orlando

The International Environment Forum saw the Orlando seminar as part of the start of a decade-long process by which Bahá'í organizations and agencies might draw on their collective experience to devise a distinctly Bahá'í approach to how education for sustainable development might be best developed and promoted. The seminar was organized by IEF in collaboration with Educators for Social and Economic Development, another Bahá'í-inspired NGO, and the US Partnership for the DESD. The seminar was sponsored by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States.

In many respects, the Orlando seminar with its emphasis on generating new ideas typifies the early phase of activity as faith groups approach the goals of the Decade.

“In recent years, it has become apparent that you can't talk about protecting the environment in isolation of factors like poverty and social disintegration and so forth,” said Mr. Adriance. “And sustainable development education is about making connections between these issues and re-framing how we think about the impact that each of us has on the welfare of society as a whole.”

To that end, organizers created an event that was very much designed to stimulate an interchange of ideas between participants, using a combination of new methods for idea generation along with the principles of Bahá'í consultation, a group decision-making tool.

One session, for example, used the “World Café” methodology, a small-group discussion format created by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology that is designed to create meaningful and in-depth conversations about challenging topics.

Another session made use of “Open Space” technology, a method created by Harrison Owen that uses loosely regulated parallel working sessions organized around a central theme of strategic importance as a means to create new agendas for action.

These processes spawned a number of discussion groups on topics such as “the integration of business, sustainable development and spirituality,” “using film and television to encourage learning and training in rural communities,” the “moral dimension of sustainability,” “gender equality and sustainable development,” and “using the arts to promote peace and sustainable development.”

One discussion group explored possible responses to the UN Decade by Bahá'í-inspired schools, of which there are several hundred worldwide. Among other things, the group discussed establishing a network to exchange information on existing initiatives, such as the Ray Myer Australian Teacher Training Program, the South African EcoSchools Program, and the Junior Youth Animator Program. The group also discussed the need to form partnerships with other faith-based schools and programs on ESD.

Gender issues discussed

The group on gender equality and sustainable development concluded, among other things, that gender equality needs to be presented as a moral imperative; that the education of boys and men for gender equality should be integrated into curricula on a variety of subjects; and that the moral obligations to act sustainably within marriage should be explored.

The group discussing “the moral dimension of sustainability” concluded that “sustainability boils down to decisions that individuals make, especially those in positions of power, that affect the lives of others.” In its summary report, the group suggested that individuals must learn to “see the relationship between our personal choices and the impact on the environment, for example where we buy our clothes, recycling, etc.,” and that educational processes towards this must contain an understanding of life's spiritual dimension if they are to be effective in “shifting the foundations of society.”

The seminar was held in conjunction with the 13th annual Bahá'í Conference on Social and Economic Development for the Americas , held here 15-18 December 2005. The larger event, which this year took the theme “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Service,” drew more than 700 people from 25 countries. Sponsored by the Orlando-based Rabbani Trust, the annual event focuses on talks and workshops designed to help individuals and communities become involved in projects aimed at serving humanity at large.

Participants in the ESD seminar came from Australia , Canada , Finland , Germany , Haiti , New Zealand , Swaziland , Switzerland , United Kingdom , and the United States . For the most part, they came as volunteers, traveling on their own money and time. And many said in the closing session that they found great inspiration in the ideas that were discussed, and that they hope to apply them in projects and activities in their home countries.

“The conversations here have been very valuable,” said Bruce Saunders, the national advisor for social and economic development for the Bahá'í community of Australia . “It has really crystallized certain points of focus for my work for the next year. Also, the focus on spiritual principles has been just brilliant.”

Joell Vanderwagen, a writer, planning consultant, and environmental advocate from Canada , said “I've been totally gratified by the process of going through the last couple of days. It is really cutting edge. I've been able to connect with kindred spirits and develop certain ideas and share certain ideas with people which couldn't have happened if it had been a formally planned, top-down agenda.”

Mr. Cochran of the US Partnership, who is not a Bahá'í and who came to lead the group through the “Open Space” session, said he was impressed with the degree to which participants had a desire not just to learn theory but to take what they had learned into action.

“People were primed for this. Nobody was assigned to come here, or just showed up by accident,” said Mr. Cochran. “Here it seems there is a real desire to go forth and make sustainable development a foundation of living their faith.”