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Transforming sustainability education

It is widely agreed that education is the most effective means that society possesses for confronting the challenges of the future. … Education, to be certain, is not the whole answer to every problem. But education, in its broadest sense, must be a vital part of all efforts to imagine and create new relations among people and to foster greater respect for the needs of the environment. (UNESCO, 1997, cl. 38)

Whilst research in the physical sciences has typically been seen as the solution the world’s problems and thus the precursor for the notion of sustainability, our mechanistic thinking and reliance on scientific rationality is not enough to addressing the complexity of socio-environmental issues because it prevents us from being fully responsive to the problems facing the world (Selby & Kagawa, 2010; Sterling, 2001). The changes we need must be cultural and behavioural (Ferreira, 2009); in all avenues of life — lifestyle, politics and economics (Sterling, 2010).

The long-term task of environmental education is to foster and reinforce attitudes and behaviours compatible with an ethic that embraces plants and animals we well as people, in order for human societies to live in harmony with the natural world on which they depend for survival and wellbeing. (IUCN, UNEP, & WWF, 1980, cl. 13)

What are the limitations of this statement?

Shiva (1989) has called for a new approach to environmental education based upon indigenous epistemologies, the relationship between ecology and everyday life, and a vision of science as a servant of social and ecological change. From this perspective, as Fien (1995) emphasised, education for sustainability should embrace alternative epistemologies and value diverse ways of knowing; it should identify with the people and communities it purports to serve, and extend the focus of environmental education from schools into the community, becoming a participatory process.

Such forms of education have the power to guide people in reflection and action on different interpretations of sustainability through the process of critical inquiry that encourages people to explore the complexity and implications of sustainability as well as the economic, political, social, cultural, technological and environmental forces that foster and impede sustainable development (Tilbury et al., 2002), offering potential and possibilities for cultural transformations (Ferreira, 2009).

Emerging research in eco-humanities suggests that changing our relationship with our places is as important as techno-scientific solutions — we all have places that we are attached to, that we know and care about, that are linked to our memories. Understandings of place can offer alternative insights about the relationships between cultures and environments and emphasise the more-than-human aspects of places as active participants in our knowledge making, as constituted in stories, as embodied and local learning, and as a contact zone of cultural contestation (Somerville et al., 2011).


 What are places?

What is your earliest recollection of a place?

What are some of the special places that you hold close to heart?

What emotions do these places evoke?



Ferreira, J. A. (2009). Unsettling orthodoxies: Education for the environment/for sustainability. Environmental Education Research, 15(5), 607-620.

Fien, J. (1995). Teaching for a sustainable world: The environmental and development education project for teacher education. Environmental Education Research, 1(1), 21-33

IUCN, UNEP, & WWF. (1980). World conservation strategy: Living resource conservation for sustainable development. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, UNEP and WWF.

Selby, D., & Kagawa, F. (2010). Runaway climate change as challenge to the ‘closing circle’ of education for sustainable development. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 4(1), 37-50.

Shiva, V. (1989). Staying alive: Women, ecology, and development. London, England: Zed Books.

Somerville, M., Power, K., & de Carteret, P. (2011). Landscapes and learning: Place studies for a global world. Rotterdam,  The Netherlands: Sense.

Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Dartington, England: Green Books for the Schumacher Society.

Sterling, S. (2010). Living in the Earth Towards an Education for Our Tim. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 4(2), 213-218.

Tilbury, D., Stevenson, R. B., Fien, J., & Schreuder, D. (2002). Education and sustainability: Responding to the global challenge. Cambridge, England: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation. (1997). Educating for a sustainable future: A transdisciplinary vision for concerted action. Accessed 1st Nov, 2016. Retrieved from   http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_a/popups/mod01t05s01.html#iii