Education for Sustainable Development

Author/Producer Henry Liebling / ESCalate
Published in ESCalate news (Autumn 2007)
Date Published 23 October 2007
Pages 3


An Article outlining what needs to be done to engagae effectively with ESD and how ESCalate will respond to growing interest across the sector



Henry Liebling has agreed to act as a consultant to support and direct ESCalate’s work in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Over the next year, Henry will help develop the ESCalate website to provide annotated guidance on a range of resources. Henry is also interested in the theoretical and research issues that impact at HE level. ESCalate has been working in the area of ESD for two years, mainly in collaboration with two groups; the HE Academy’s ESD group led by Simon Smith (Associate Director of the Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies), and the Centre for Sustainable Futures, based at University of Plymouth.

In this article Henry spells out some core challenges for education in general before taking a look at what students and tutors working on primary Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes can do to develop ESD.

The background to the current interest in ESD includes the Rio Summit of 1992, the UN comprehensive plan of action, Agenda 21[1], the Kyoto Protocol[2] of 1997, the Millennium Development Goals[3], Sustainable Schools[4] by 2020, and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development[5] 2005-2014. With all this international attention, it’s easy for a lack of clarity to develop over what the issues are for education in particular.

What is ESD?

Education for sustainable development enables people to develop the knowledge, values and skills to participate in decisions about the way we do things individually and collectively, both locally and globally, that will improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future. (National Curriculum 2000)

What is Sustainable Development?

Sustainable development is a way of thinking about how we organise our lives and work –including our education system– so that we don’t destroy our most precious resource, the planet.

From over-fishing to global warming, our way of life is placing an increasing burden on the planet, which cannot be sustained. Things which were once taken for granted such as a secure supply of energy or a stable climate do not look so permanent now.

We need to help people in all parts of the world to find solutions that improve their quality of life without storing up problems for the future, or impacting unfairly on other people’s lives.

Sustainable development means much more than recycling bottles or giving money to charity. It is about thinking and working in a profoundly different way.
(National Framework for Sustainable Schools accessed 12 July 2007 Teachernet 2007[6])

Why this? Why now?

Across ESD there is a co-operative mood to generate and share approaches and materials. Nationally there is a ubiquitous sense of ‘greening’, with a range of motives, from diverse contexts such as Socially Responsible Investment and Ethical Awards[7][8]. There are government eco-initiatives in all areas as well as some big business groups moving towards zero carbon and carbon neutral policies, conscience-salving carbon off-setting with uncertain but potential benefits, organic ‘Fairtrade’ own brand goods in supermarkets, Triodos and Co-operative Bank offering greener financial services, and numerous NGOs linking together for G8 interventions and Jubilee Debt Relief. In short there is a growing feeling of interconnectedness and coming together in a way which could only be dreamt about thirty years ago.

All the great issues of today are interconnected. An improved quality of life for all could mean a reduced standard of living for the most voracious consumers. How could that be managed and what part should education play? Higher Education needs to engage with these changes. Many students and tutors are personally committed and want to work in organisations which recognise this shift. Individual HE organisations cannot afford to be labelled as lacking green credentials. For those involved in teacher education and in research there are two challenges. If university education is to retain its distinctive character, it needs to maintain an enthusiastic but critical stance. All that looks green isn’t ESD and a university education should at least provide the skills and knowledge to challenge the unscrupulous and the misinformed. For those working in teacher education, there is a double responsibility to provide high quality education to others, in schools and colleges. Can we become more aware? Can ESD help us in this endeavour?

Dennis Meadows (2004)in a 30-year update of his earlier groundbreaking work, reminds us of two properties of complex systems germane to sustainability:

  • Information is the key to transformation
  • Systems strongly resist changes in their information flows, especially in their rules and goals
Meadows also identifies some essential characteristics for any society that hopes to survive over the long term: visioning; networking; truth-telling; learning; loving, (compassion?).

Changes to ESCalate website

In order to effect transformation through information, we propose to develop an open access alternative portal for and with students, tutors, teachers and pupils working on Education for Sustainable Development. We wish to involve and network with partners in HE and both government[9] and NGOs[10]. The initial work will be in the area of Primary ITE in HE in the UK.

We will start to select some hard and soft resources to complement the government’s National Framework for Sustainable Schools Eight Doorways site. These links, annotated lists of books, resources, organisations and websites should be up and running on the ESCalate site by the end of 2007. We intend to add links, references, reviews and provide downloads (mainly pdf) of resources. We need to work collaboratively and hope you will offer, recommend and review resources.

We will try to find and make links to materials you request, if we can. This system of ‘Offers and Requests’ can change the flow of information and can work well in such a dynamic and fast moving area as ESD in HE.

ESD is not new and lineage can be found in both Environmental Education[11] and Development Education[12] over the past 50 years. There is also a vast legacy of knowledge and understanding from the earliest human thoughts about survival, what matters to us and our relationship with everything that surrounds us, through the development of religious, philosophical and scientific thought and systems of education by many varied societies over the whole planet. Currently we are dominated by a reductionist paradigm which is now failing us. We expect a logical, rational explanation for all things, but our blame culture increasingly produces uncertainty, chaos and extreme weather. We rarely if ever consider the consequences of our actions on seven generations of our descendants let alone one!

We envisage offering and inviting:

  • Links to websites such as Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), Teacher Training Resource Bank (TTRB), Teachernet, Eco-schools, Oxfam’s Cool Planet, WWF, FoE, Practical Action, Treehugger, Teach Global, Educating for a Sustainable Future, and Global Dimension
  • We will be enhancing ourannotated commentary and reviews of materials such as books, software and websites
  • We will gather news and other information
  • Resources to go on the ESCalate web site

Many people welcome getting started with ESD through soft entry points e.g. WWF posters.

For students working in ITE we will develop links to resources including examples from work in school; materials for subject specialists and students following Education Studies programmes. Resources are likely to overlap with Social work, Health & Early Years.

Look out for the inclusion of specific ESD resources on the ESCalate site and please respond with comments and additional links, resources and ideas.


Meadows D. et al (2004) The Limits to Growth. Chelsea Green Publishing

[2] UN Convention on Climate Change
[3] UN Millennium Development Goals