What is ESD?
Sustainable Development: an Evolving Concept

World Commission on Environment and Development

The importance of environment and its link to development and quality of human life were first addressed on a global level at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. The then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, pointed out at this Conference that "environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty", thus highlighting the link between environment and development.

In the years following the Conference, there was a growing realisation among the global community of the need to balance economic and social progress with concern for the environment and the stewardship of natural resources.

The concept of sustainable development gained worldwide support with the publication of the Bruntland Report, Our Common Future, by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The Commission defined sustainable development in the publication as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Earth Summit, Rio
Sustainable development was a key issue on the agenda at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), or the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro. The presence of over a hundred heads of States and Governments at the Earth Summit was proof of the widespread acceptance of this alternate paradigm of development.

Over 170 countries adopted Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, in a great show of commitment to a "global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem".

WSSD, Johannesburg
Ten years after Rio, at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, the world community came together to review accomplishments of the Earth Summit, and to adopt concrete measures and targets for better implementation of Agenda 21, and the more recent Millennium Development Goals.

The Political Declaration adopted at the WSSD states that sustainable development is built on three "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" - economic development, social development and environmental protection - which must be established "at local, national, regional and global levels". This paradigm recognises the complexity and interrelationship of critical issues such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, gender inequality, health, conflict, and the violation of human rights.

Education for Sustainable Development

The recognition of the key role of Education and Communication in enabling and enhancing sustainable development came later. Originally perceived as education about sustainability, it is being increasingly recognised, through the influence of Agenda 21 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, as more than the dissemination of knowledge.

Education at all levels can shape the world of tomorrow, equipping individuals and societies with the skills, perspectives, knowledge and values to live and work in a sustainable manner.

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is a dynamic concept that utilizes all aspects of public awareness, education and training to create or enhance an understanding of the linkages among the issues of sustainable development. Education for sustainable development is a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the earth’s natural resources.

ESD applies transdisciplinary educational methods and approaches to develop an ethic for lifelong learning; fosters respect for human needs that are compatible with sustainable use of natural resources and the needs of the planet; and nurtures a sense of global solidarity.

Pursuing sustainable development through education requires educators and learners to reflect critically on their own communities; identify non-viable elements in their lives; and explore tensions among conflicting values and goals. ESD brings a new motivation to learning as pupils become empowered to develop and evaluate alternative visions of a sustainable future and to work to collectively fulfil these visions.

What is Education for Sustainable Development?
Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, is devoted to ‘Promoting Education, Public Awareness and Training’. It identifies four major thrusts of Education for Sustainable Development:

  • Promotion and Improvement of Basic Education
  • Reorienting Existing Education at all Levels to Address Sustainable Development
  • Developing Public Understanding and Awareness of Sustainability
  • Training

Quality Education

In defining what "quality education" means in the context of educating for sustainability, UNESCO calls for the "reorient[ation of] education systems, policies and practices in order to empower everyone, young and old, to make decisions and act in culturally appropriate and locally relevant ways to redress the problems that threaten our common future."

Thus, quality education is a prerequisite for education for sustainable development.
Achieving sustainable development requires:

  • Recognition of the challenge
  • Collective responsibility and constructive partnership
  • Acting with determination
  • The indivisibility of human dignity

Education provides the skills for:

  • Learning to know
  • Learning to live together
  • Learning to do
  • Learning to be

    Education not only provides scientific and technical skills, it also provides the motivation, justification, and social support for pursuing and applying them. The international community now strongly believes that we need to foster — through education — the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future.

WSSD: Reaffirming the Role of Education

Education as the foundation of sustainable development was reaffirmed at the WSSD. The Plan of Implementation recognised education as critical for sustainable development in its own right, but also saw education as a key agent for change and a tool for addressing such questions as gender equality, rural development, health care, HIV/AIDS and consumption patterns. The Plan also called for synergy among global initiatives in education, specifically mentioning the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All (EFA), in which literacy, gender issues, and quality education play central roles and are essential for sustainable development and the Millenium Development Goals on universal primary education. Finally, the Plan recommended that the UN General Assembly consider adopting a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development starting in 2005.