Towards more critical and more meaningful education and learning for sustainability – moving beyond the DESD

This is the year in which the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development will end and during which the field of EE will be fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary. When considering the state of the Planet today we can only conclude that despite some patchy progress in certain parts of the world, the overall picture remains rather grim as we are facing continued loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, runaway climate change, and increased toxicity in our waters, air, soils and bodies.

When looking at the state of the People we can see that many people across the globe have become wealthier with access to consumer goods, ICT and, increasingly, to education. However, even today there are close to one billion people without access to clean drinking water and access to fair and meaningful jobs. One billion people are currently malnourished while another one billion is overweight or even obese. Abuse of power, inequality and marginalization remain prevalent. when considering the triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit over the last 50 years we can only conclude that the ‘P’ of profit has done dramatically better than the other two Ps. apparently 50 years of EE and 10+ years of ESD, not to mention a number of other related educations, have not been able halt the train of economic globalization and to enable a transition from ‘doing the things we do better and more efficiently’ to ‘doing better things’.

Perhaps the only thing that has changed is the interest of the private sector in environment and sustainability. Although policy-makers welcome the interest of the corporate world and the private sector in environmental and, particularly, sustainability education, educators are cautious in embracing this interest as they fear that people and planet are being hijacked by profit. In the end it is not the green economy but the green society that matters, a society in which people and planet are served by the economy and not the other way around. The same holds true for education: while we are seeing education and (life) long learning being re-oriented to the world-of-work to serve economic interests, education and learning designed with people and planet in mind is at risk of being squeezed out. Fortunately there are growing niches both in education and the world of business where alternative educational and economic models with people and planet in mind are being designed and implemented.

With the state of people and planet in continued decline and the urgency to respond greater than eve we urgently need to reconsider and re-imagine the role of education and learning in finding ways for people – young and old – and planet to develop in harmony.

First let us recognize that continuous and inevitable problem for both educators and policy-makers is that although we have quite a good sense of what is ‘unsustainable’, we have little certainty about what in the end will proof to be sustainable. In fact we will never have such certainty. It can be argued that the essence of sustainably and associated learning lies in the ability to respond, reflect, rethink and recalibrate, and not just once but periodically when changing circumstances demand us to do so. To complicate things further: how this is done and to what kind of society (school, neighborhood, company, city, etc.) this will lead, will be different from place to place as no situation is identical.

It is no surprise that given these uncertainties and the inevitable lack of full proof solutions that withstand the test of time and work no matter where you are, the meaning of sustainability is shifting towards the ability to continuously reflect on the impact of our current actions on people and planet here and elsewhere, now and in future times. Perhaps a key lesson from the DESD is that we now recognize that sustainability as such is not a destiny or a way of behaving that can be transferred or trained but rather a capacity for critical thinking, reflexivity and transformation. The DESD reviews show that much ‘work’ is being done around the world under the umbrella of ESD but that this capacity for critical thinking, reflexivity and transformation is hardly emphasized or developed in practice. As such ESD unwillingly runs the risk of replicating systems and lifestyles that are inherently unsustainable.

When zooming in on the capacities or capabilities needed to transition towards a more sustainable world we can distinguish – but not separate in developing them – anticipatory thinking, systems thinking, inter-personal skills, critical thinking and mind-sets that like empathy, solidarity and empowerment (Wiek 2011). Furthermore, dealing with insecurity, complexity and risk are considered critical capacities or competencies for moving people, organizations, communities and, ultimately society as a whole, towards sustainability (Wiek et al. 2011 ). During the DESD social learning has gained popularity as a form of multi-stakeholder engagement that is increasingly seen as particularly promising in developing such capacities and mind-sets and as a mechanism to utilize diversity in generating creative routine-braking alternatives.

To allow for the development of these capacities and enable social learning there is a need to create spaces for so-called hybrid learning (Wals et al, 2014).  This refers to hybridized environments in which people can learning in new and more meaningful ways (involving different societal groups, perspectives, etc.) in unconventional localities (often outside of institutional boundaries). Only then can we begin to engage in the sustainability challenges of our time (e.g. climate change, malnutrition, loss of food security and biodiversity). This ‘hybridization’ also calls for a culture that embraces the authenticity of multiple voices and cultural and theoretical perspectives, new forms of representation, and more change-oriented and community-based approaches.

This above perspective connects well with emergent forms of ICT-supported Citizen Science or Civic Science which emphasize the active involvement of citizens, young and old, in the monitoring of local socio-ecological issues by collecting real data and sharing those data with others doing the same elsewhere through social media and on-line platforms (Wals et al, 2014).

The ICT-component does raise another challenge, one largely neglected during the DESD, namely, how to connect biophilia and videophilia:  that is, study ways in which ever-present technologies and cyberspaces can be used to help people (re)gain a deeper and more empathetic contact with each other and with the world (presently these technologies and spaces tend to lead to the exact opposite). Environmental education and so-called place-based education can offer a lot to remediate this shortcoming of the DESD.

In the future Global Action Plan for ESD the importance of education serving people and planet rather than just serving the economy needs to be emphasized much more strongly than was the case during the DESD. The current push for innovation, competence, and a lifelong of learning for work and competitiveness, is resulting in the marginalization in education of people and by squeezing out place-based learning, arts, humanities and the development of values other than those driving consumerism and materialism. Our schools and universities are becoming an extension of economic globalization if they are unable to take on their emancipatory human development roles and erode their culture of learning, critical thinking and curiosity, to into a culture of accountability, outcomes and efficiency. Fortunately there are some schools and university that are beginning to make more systemic changes towards sustainability by re-orienting their education, research, operations and community outreach activities all simultaneously or, which is more often the case, a subset thereof (see for instance the work done in the context of CoDeS involving schools and communities or in the Living Knowledge Network in the context of universities and communities).

In parallel our universities will need to strengthen  what we might call ‘engaged scholarship with a planetary conscience.’  With the increasing complexity of societies, the interdisciplinary nature of people-society-environment relationships, the problems faced at local and global scale, and the uncertainty of their solutions or resolutions, there is a need for new spaces for collaborative and transformative approaches to research. Such space need to be created particularly in higher education where some of the brightest people on Earth gather and could direct their collective wisdom towards healing the Earth rather than to its rapid demise which currently seems to be the case unfortunately.

Finally, let me close by stressing the importance of linking environmental education with sustainability education. The upcoming WEEC 2015 in Gothenburg which has as its ove-arching theme ‘Planet and People: how can they develop together’ tries to do this by identifying eleven sub-themes that connect the two. I will introduce just a few of them (for a full description please refer to the WEEC2015 website) that connect with this brief essay.

Reclaiming sense of place in the digital age

Place-based approaches emphasizing the importance of place and place-based identity in determining our relations with the planet are on the rise across the globe. The focus on place and identity is timely as the complexity and uncertainty brought on by globalization and the rapid pace of technological and social change resulting in enormous cultural shifts which include a search for meaning and affiliation in locally defined identities. Although there are some who are worried about ‘the disconnect’ between people and place that results from a pre-occupation with and dependency on information and communication technologies, there are also those who see the use of ICTs as a way to reconnect people and places. There are numerous examples of citizens monitoring changes in the environment (e.g. changing bird migration patterns, changing quality of water, soil and air, changes in biodiversity) using GIS, cell phones, and specially designed monitoring apps. This strand explores the opportunities for reconnecting people and planet locally in a rapidly changing world.

Environmental education and poverty reduction

As the millennium development goals are being replaced by sustainable development goals and there appears to be a shift from ‘education for all’ to quality education for all, an important question is: what is the role of EE in reducing poverty? Already in 1975 (Belgrade Charter on EE) and 1977 (Tbilisi Declaration) EE was assigned a role in overcoming inequality and questioning unsustainable economic models to help alleviate poverty but what has EE done concretely since? And why has reducing inequity and poverty been under-emphasized in the DESD? As poor people around the world are disproportionately affected by the impact of climate change, mining, resource depletion, loss of food and nutrition security, and so on, environmental and sustainability educators need to look for ways to engage multiple stakeholders (schools, communities, governments, private sector and civil society organizations) in strategies to reduce poverty and improve livelihoods. In this strand we look for researched practices from around the world that seek to do so.

Learning in vital coalitions for green cities

Transition towns, eco-villages, urban agriculture, green schools with edible school gardens, are becoming more and more mainstream and widespread. These initiatives all require forms of joint learning with sometimes unlikely partners. Organizing such learning, sometimes referred to as multi-stakeholder social learning, requires a new role for environmental and sustainability educators and policy-makers. A new task might be: brokering and supporting vital coalitions that are both energizing and generative in engaging citizens, including children and youth, meaningfully in greening urban areas in order to contribute to local food security, health and ecological stewardship. This strand explores these emerging and expanding initiatives from a learning perspective: What kind of learning is taking place? Who is learning? How can such learning be supported? What is the impact of these coalitions on the learners themselves, the organisations they represent and the community they seek to improve?

(Re) emerging concepts for environmental stewardship and sustainability

Since the birth of environmental education in the sixties of the last century emphasis has been placed on systems thinking and a more holistic approach to problem solving or situation improvement. Over the years many learning activities and curricula have been developed by environmental educators but still the challenge of enabling people to see connections, relationships and interdependencies, is as big as back then but the urgency to so is greater than ever.  In meeting this challenge there are calls for re-discovering and utilizing indigenous ways of knowing but at the same time there are new concepts such as biomimicry, cradle to cradle and life cycle analysis that show promise in strengthening integral thinking and design. In this strands the educational potential of old, new and blended ways of ‘thinking the earth whole’ is explored.

Assessing environmental and sustainability education in an era of competition and action

This strand connects with theme number 7 but here the focus is on assessment of learners in school settings (k-12 and vocational education). In many countries there is a call for climbing the rankings and excelling in math, science and languages (e.g. the Pisa rankings) which often leads to a focus on the testing of ‘universal’ knowledge. At the same time schools need to pay attention to sustainability, health, citizenship, arts and humanities on the one hand and to preparing learners for a rapidly changing world and workplace. These claims seem to be competing with one another. How can environmental and sustainability education navigate this force field? Are there alternative ways of assessing learners that provide more space for meaningful learning around real/authentic issues?

Beyond the green economy: educating and learning for green jobs in a green society

Driven perhaps by mostly economic interests and technological innovations companies and governments  are beginning to re-orient themselves to what is commonly referred to as the ‘green economy’ and its related ‘green skills’ and ‘green jobs’.  The demand for a workforce that is capable to work in such an economy is on the rise and (vocational) schools are responding by re-orienting their curricula. From an environmental and sustainability perspective is important to critically follow this trend in order to make sure that the P for People and the P for Planet receive at least equal attention to the P for Profit or Prosperity. In this strand we invite participants to discuss the role of environmental and sustainability education at the interface between school-community and the world of work.



Wals, A.E.J., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Stevenson, R.B. (2014) Convergence Between Science and Environmental Education, Science, 344, p. 583-584.

Wals, A.E.J. (2009a). Review of Contexts and Structures for ESD. Paris: UNESCO.

Wals, A.E.J. (2009b). A mid-decade review of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 3(2), 195–204.

Wals, A.E.J. (2012). Shaping  the education of tomorrow: 2012 full-length report on the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Paris: UNESCO.  Accessed 19 April 2014.

Wals, A.E.J., van der Hoeven, N. & Blanken, H. (2009). The acoustics of social learning.  Wageningen, Wageningen Academic Publishers, p. 32.

Wals, A.E.J., Meng Yuan Jen & Mukute, M. (2014). Social Learning-oriented ESD: meanings, challenges, practices and prospects for the post-DESD era. Paris: UNESCO.

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L. & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 203–218.

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