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 Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) Taking it Forward Together

Kartikeya V. Sarabhai
Director, Centre for Environment Education 

Talk delivered at the 23rd session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum held at Nairobi, Kenya, from 21-25 February 2005

The Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) is something which many of us have looked forward to. We wondered when the world would finally wake up and recognize that Education for Sustainable Development is not something which a small group does as a peripheral development activity, but is something which has to be mainstreamed, an essential tool towards reaching the goal of Sustainable Development.

As we look back we realize that it took decades for people to realize that environment and development needed to be seen together. It took another while to realize that, if one wanted to prevent the rapid destruction of our life support systems, the development paradigm had to change. That, you needed to think of development as sustainable development. It then took another few years to recognize that education is an essential tool in this process. And education is required because true and grassroot-level democracy – the participation of people in development – is really at the heart of a new sustainable world.

Today, I would like to share some thoughts from a wonderful conference which we had to launch in our way, in a civil society way, the coming decade. The ESF (Education for Sustainable Future) conference, which was held on Jan 18-20, 2005, had 900 people from 50 countries. Some of you are here today. One of the outputs of this conference was a Declaration. Meeting as we did in Ahmedabad, where Mahatma Gandhi began his movement in India, we recalled what he said on education: “Education for Life, Education through life and Education throughout life”. Said so many years ago, it is still so relevant as we begin the DESD. It makes one realize that if we really have quality education, if we have education which is meaningful for life, we perhaps don’t need this separate heading called Environmental Education or ESD. Indeed, all education would be EE and ESD. Today, we are far from that goal of education. We need to give that extra push. Extra emphasis is required, and that’s what all of us need to do during this decade.

When I was asked to comment on whether we are adding an extra burden on the students, teachers and the system, I am reminded of a story. When the Zoroastrians first came to India, over 1200 years ago they landed at Sanjan in Western India. When asked for permission to land and make this their new home, the king of that province sent a full glass of milk to suggest that his land was full up. The Zoroastrians added sugar to milk and sent it back. The message was that they would not add to the “pressure”, but would add sweetness to the entire system. In fact, that is what they have done.

In many ways what we are talking about in this decade is not adding one more subject, another burden on the student, another textbook to carry. ESD needs to be integrated into the system and throughout it. We can not, for instance, be gender sensitive from 9:30 to 11:30 and then forget about it for the rest of the day. This is something which has to be addressed as part of every activity. ESD has to translate into a lifestyle; it has to be something which is a part of what we do.

At the Ahmedabad conference, youth representatives were emphatic in pointing out that individuals have to first commit to what change they will make in themselves. When we go home tonight, can we ask what change we brought about in ourselves? If we start with ourselves, we will be able to take everyone else with us.

The Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is a wonderful opportunity; let us take it forward together. Let us do this in the spirit of partnership. Let us not look at it as a programme of one agency or another. It is our programmme, we are there together. A wonderful network is already developing, and we look forward to working continuously with UNESCO, UNEP and all the other partners during the coming decade and beyond.

This conference has been undertaken with part financial support of the
Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development
Agency (CIDA)