Reflection on Education for Sustainability 02/04/2019 #GMITMATL

Never had the topic of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) been more relevant than today. This education approach derived from the term Sustainable Development, originally proposed in a United Nations conference in 1972, which was then coined in the paper Our Common Future, released by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. In it, sustainable development is described as “the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The two key concepts  are “needs”, in particular, the essential needs of the world’s poorest people, to which they should be given overriding priority; and the idea of “limitations” which is imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet both present and future needs.

Following a similar framework, ESD is part of a United Nations program, and is described as an “interdisciplinary learning methodology covering the integrated social, economic, and environmental aspects of the formal or informal curriculum”.

Citing the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, “we live in a strange world…”. She continues this sentence by saying “…where the people who have contributed the least to this (climate) crisis are the ones who are going to be affected the most”. Almost 50 years have passed since the first ideas on Sustainable Development started to be widely spread, and almost 50 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Yet, despite the scientific and social progress that humankind has faced since, we still face many environmental crises such as biodiversity loss, climate change, marine litter and microplastic pollution. These environmental crises contribute to social and economical unbalances worldwide, while causing environmental and human health problems.

Initiatives such as GMIT’s Green Campus are particularly relevant to reduce carbon footprints, raise awareness of environmental issues and take practical actions under the Green Campus themes.

Citing Greta again, “the only thing we need more than hope is action. Once you start to act hope is everywhere.” This hope that she mentions can be fostered in the classroom by using humanistic approaches to teaching and learning and to make students and everyone around us aware that the future is now, and what we do now will impact all humankind.

Taking into consideration the National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland, 2014-2020 from the Department of Education and Skills, the priority areas of ESD are leadership and coordination; data collection and baseline measurement; curriculum at pre-school, primary and post primary; professional development; further education; training and higher education; research and promoting participation by young people and sustainability in action.

This strategy is a long-term education plan aimed at making positive changes over several generations while empowering young people to act. The Strategy provides several recommendations highlighting existing activity relating to ESD, new development and resources and sharing of best practices.

Goals described in the document are set taking into consideration the age of the student (pages 12 to 15), but also focus on higher education and professional development, showing that this topic should be carried out throughout a person’s entire life.

The Strategy concludes by identifying as needs leadership and coordination; specific baseline data acquisition; clear focus on the need to support learners to acquire knowledge and develop key skills and dispositions to enable them to make informed sustainable choices and also prepare them for difficult trade-offs which are often required when hard choices have to be made. This leads to the final two needs which are related to progress, as in priority action areas and acknowledgement of the progress that is already being made in relation to ESD.

To conclude, I go back to the Brundtland report and to the message of empowerment of Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai and of the climate activist Greta Thunberg who dedicated/are dedicating their lives to raise awareness to environmental issues, by sharing the message that derived from sustainable development and which is  “think globally, act locally”.


Online resources and references:

United Nations Education for Sustainable Development

The disarming case to act right now on climate change | Great Thunberg

United Nations Our Common Future

The Irish National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland, 2014- 2020

Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement

Photo in post by Tim Marshall (