Thursday, September 16, 2010

Education for Sustainable Development

[I had delivered the following keynote address at a conference of heads of teacher education institutions in Karnataka about two years ago in Bangalore.  In view of its perennial relevance and importance, I am reproducing it in its entirety here, with two visuals inserted for added effect]

Education for Sustainable Development
Issues and Concerns for Teacher Education

The World Commission on Environment & Development (WCED, 1987)(1) , better known as the Brundtland Commission after its famous chairperson and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, described sustainable development as one that “...meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.  In the language of kindergarten teachers, this might simply mean; “Don’t take more than your share!”  Mahatma Gandhi addressed the issue with his characteristic eloquence and directness when he said; “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” 
Sustainable development is one of the major goals of Environmental Education (EE) that has become a vital part of education at all levels in recent decades – for students, teachers, teacher-educators and indeed for all citizens of all nations.  In India, EE received a huge boost from a landmark Supreme Court judgment in 2003(2) calling for the ‘compulsory introduction of EE as a subject at all levels of education, including courses leading to the first and second degrees’. It reflects rather poorly on the educational system of the country that it had to be stirred into action by such a judicial intervention without taking proactive measures to address the issue on its own initiative. 

The Constitution enjoins the state to take measures to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the Country (Article 48-A). The Constitution also makes it a fundamental duty of every citizen ‘to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have ecological compassion for the living creatures’ (Article 51-G).  These constitutional provisions make sense only when taken in consonance with another fundamental duty expected of all citizens, viz. to develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.  In this context it is relevant to remind ourselves that EE is a process aimed at ‘developing a world population that is aware of and concerned about the total environment and its associated problems and which has the knowledge, attitudes, commitments and skills to work individually and collectively towards the solution of current problems and prevention of new ones’.

In the formal education sector in the country, EE is a significant part of the curriculum at all stages of schooling.  It is a multi-disciplinary area of study and its scope is very broad based, encompassing physical, chemical, biological, social, cultural and human dimensions of study.

The ecosystem comprising the entire earth and the living organisms that inhabit it is called the biosphere.  The vital role of the biosphere in human affairs can be gauged from two statements made by Anthony Cortese, founder and president of the Sustainability Education Organization called Second Nature: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the biosphere” and “The biosphere provides everything that makes life possible, assimilates our waste or converts it back into something we can use.”  But there are limits to how much the flexibility of the biosphere can be exploited and we seem to be getting dangerously close to these limits.  

As far back as 1972, the possible consequences of a rapidly growing world population and the finite nature of the resources to support it were examined in a seminal study published under the title “Limits to Growth” (3).  A recently updated study (4) comparing the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 finds that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of an economic collapse in the 21st century.  We are indeed heading towards a catastrophe in this century if we continue to exploit our planet’s resources recklessly, focusing on development without addressing the intertwining issue of its sustainability for future generations.

The National Policy on Education (1986) and the National Curriculum Frameworks (1975, 1988, 2000, and 2005) have always emphasised EE at all levels of schooling, graduating from an exploration of the environment at the primary stage to studying the larger social and economic implications of the human-environment interaction at the secondary stage.  ‘Environmental Studies’ was made an independent subject at the primary level and topics related to environment were suitably infused with different general science and social science subjects at all stages of schooling. 

Institutions of teacher education are looked upon as major agents of transformation in the global education scenario as they have the potential to bring about changes within educational systems that can promote, among other things, education for sustainable development (ESD) and influence future generations.  In India, this expectation has to be greatly tempered with the realization that the quality of teacher education has suffered severely due to an uncontrolled and epidemic growth of institutions in recent years.  However, the pre-service teacher education curriculum itself looks good on paper and has been updated to provide the basic knowledge and conceptual understanding of EE as well as to develop relevant skills and attitudes.  A matching effort in educating in-service teachers is a crying need and requires a massive programme of action.  It is hoped that institutions of higher education in the country will address this issue head on and come up with viable action plans.

Environmental Education is a process aimed at developing a world population that is aware of and concerned about the total environment and its associated problems and which has the knowledge, attitudes, commitments and skills to work individually and collectively towards the solution of current problems and prevention of new ones. The major goals of EE are: (i) To enable people to understand the interdependence of all life on this planet, and (ii) To increase people’s awareness of the economic, political, social, cultural, technological and environmental forces which foster sustainable development.

The first inter-governmental Conference on EE held at Tbilisi in 1977 (5) established the objectives of EE. These are to develop the following qualities in individuals and social groups:

  • An awareness of the environment and its problems.
  • Basic knowledge and understanding of the environment and its interrelationship with man.
  • Social values and attitudes which are in harmony with environmental quality.
  • Skills to solve environmental problems.
  • Ability to evaluate environmental measures and education programmes.
  • A sense of responsibility and urgency towards the environment so as to ensure appropriate actions to solve environmental problems.
Some guiding principles for any curriculum of EE should include the following:

  • Consider the environment in its totality.
  • Treat EE as a continuous lifelong process.
  • Bring to bear an interdisciplinary approach to EE.
  • View EE with an international perspective, even while focusing strongly on local issues and cultural appropriateness.
  • Accommodate the evolving nature of the concept of sustainability.
  • Focus on the well being of all three realms of sustainability – Environment, Society, and Economy.
  • Encompass all forms of education – formal, non-formal and informal.
  • Ensure cooperation at all levels and with all stakeholders.
  • Consider environmental aspects in all developmental plans.
  • Ensure true participatory learning.
  • Emphasize the complexity of environmental problems
  • Bring in a broad array of educational approaches.
In 2005, the UNESCO published an important document titled “Guidelines and Recommendations for Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability” (6).  It is still good enough to guide any efforts towards developing/reforming teacher education curricula in ESD/EE.  The basic strategies required for strengthening both pre-service and in-service teacher education programmes are:  (i) Reviewing and modifying the existing pre-service and in-service teacher education programmes in view of the need for making ESD/EE an integral part and providing theoretical and practical inputs specifically focusing on environment related issues and concerns; and (ii) Familiarizing teachers and student-teachers with planning, organizing and conducting projects, activities and case-studies in EE and enabling them to generate desired action amongst learners.  This document contains appropriate recommendations pertaining to the following areas:

  • Ministerial & National Involvement
  • Community & Regional/Provincial Involvement
  • Change within institutions of Higher Education:
a) Across institutions of Higher Education
b) Within faculties of Education
c) Pre-service & In-service teachers
d) At the level of individual faculty member
  • Funding and other resources
  • On developing partnerships
  • On the need for meaningful and productive research in ESD/EE
  • On communications among all stakeholders
  • Information Technology Opportunities

University departments of education and institutions for higher education need to take up and promote a vigorous programme of research addressing all aspects of ESD/EE and at all levels of education.  These should be able to provide evidence and experience based inputs for a continual exercise of curriculum review and renewal in schools and colleges. Most importantly, such curricular interventions should be able to produce, in the not too distant future, a reversal of the current process of environmental degradation and an observable and measurable impact on the quality of the environment for future generations.  This should be the guiding principle for any vision of ESD in the 21st century.  Let us all join together to preserve, protect and defend our environment – whatever is left of it!

  1. Our Common Future, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Published as Annex to UN General Assembly document A/42/427, Development and International Co-operation: Environment August 2, 1987
2.   Supreme Court of India Directive in M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India and Others, SOL Case No. 865, 2003
  1. The Limits to Growth. Donella H Meadows, Dennis L Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W Behrens III (1972);New York: Universe Books
  2. Limits to Growth, the 30‑Year Update (2004); Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows
  3. Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education, Tbilisi (USSR) 1977; UNESCO & UNEP
  4. Guidelines and Recommendations for Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability; Education for Sustainable Development in Action, Technical Paper N° 2 – 2005, UNESCO Education Sector
7.   Strategies in Environmental Education - Experiences from India; K V Sarabhai; International Meeting of Experts in Environmental Education, Spain; UNESCO November 2000.
8.   Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit; Rosalyn McKeown; July 2002; Energy, Environment and Resources Canter University of Tennessee, USA.
9.   Indian Initiatives in Environment Education; Rajaram S Sharma; RIE Mysore


A V G Rao said...

We are a nation of great thinkers. But when it comes to the question of taking sustainable actions (about anything), well, ------

Gananath said...

Timely post. The situation is far worse than what is projected in the mainstream and media and this demands REAL REAL urgent action.

Who will bell the cat?

Thanks for sharing. BTW, do you have the book "Limits to growth" and /or its sequel? I would like to borrow it if possible.