With climate change at the forefront of the challenges facing the global environment, innovation and a focus on sustainability are needed more than ever. Sustainability education begins in the classroom and educators have a critical responsibility to their students – it’s up to them to help grow and empower the next generation of environmentally conscious, self-sufficient citizens of the world. Sustainability education gives students the skills necessary to improve the planet and make the world a better place for those who inhabit it.
Sustainability education is frequently referred to as education for sustainable development (ESD), and is defined as:
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): “ESD allows every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future. ESD means including key sustainable development issues into teaching and learning; for example, climate change, disaster risk reduction, biodiversity, poverty reduction, and sustainable consumption. It also requires participatory teaching and learning methods that motivate and empower learners to change their behaviour and take action for sustainable development. ESD consequently promotes competencies like critical thinking, imagining future scenarios and making decisions in a collaborative way. ESD requires far-reaching changes in the way education is often practised today.”
And, according to the Council of the European Union: “ESD is essential for the achievement of a sustainable society and is therefore desirable at all levels of formal education and training, as well as in non-formal and informal learning.”
And lastly, according to a 1998 Sustainable Development Education Panel report: “ESD is about the learning needed to maintain and improve our quality of life and the quality of life of generations to come… ESD 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.”
Education for sustainable development is vital at all levels of the education system, from primary education, to secondary and tertiary as well. It’s important to ingrain a sustainability mindset on children from a young age so that they will grow to appreciate the environment and understand their role in its preservation and protection.
Students of all ages should be made aware of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals as they provide the roadmap to the future. The goals range from building sustainable cities and communities in harmony with nature; ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy; to taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impact.
Students need to learn certain fundamental truths about the environment, such as the interdependence between humans and the natural world. The environment is our source of food and gives us everything we need to survive, yet its vital importance is often overlooked in the modern world. To combat carelessness, students need to experience interdependence first-hand. One idea is to have students develop a garden space where they grow food, giving them a hands-on opportunity to explore how humans and the environment sustain each other. This allows students to understand the profound connection between nature and human existence.
Teachers should guide their students in making ethical purchasing decisions by helping them identify environmentally friendly companies. This will lead to an eco-friendlier future society as the next generation grow up and develop their own sustainable business endeavours. In order to build a sustainable future, businesses practices are an ideal place to begin.
Starting early with ESD shapes children growing up and teaches them why the environment is crucial, how to treat it, and how they play a critical role in its future. More sustainable habits lead to the conservation of resources and less polluting. Respect for the planet should be cultivated from a young age.
Climate change means that the world of a few decades from now will be radically different. Through ESD, the youth will be better prepared to the future and will be able to adapt to its challenges. If students are educated now, they will have the ability to survive the uncertainty that the future brings. With a sustainability education, today’s generation may grow up to be scientists and activists who will work to mitigate the damage caused by climate change.
A 2020 survey by Students Organizing for Sustainability International (SOS) showed that 92% of respondents agreed that sustainable development is something that all universities and colleges should actively incorporate and promote, and 90% said they would take a salary sacrifice to work in a company with a good environmental and social record. This shows that there is a hunger among students to strive towards a more sustainable future.
The world is in a state of change and through ESD and focusing on environmental themes in schools and colleges, the students of today will develop the tools they need to tackle the trials of tomorrow.
Written by Rob Ewart