In mid-May, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) made a fervent call for a fundamental transformation of development to avert the environmental, social and economic crises that are endangering life on the planet.
To achieve this polar shift, it put its hopes on education in all its aspects as a powerful enabler to change mindsets and worldviews towards paths that nurture the well-being of all.
These aims are at the core of the Berlin Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which was adopted at the Unesco world conference on that theme from May 17 to 19.
The urgency of this mission is reflected in the ESD for 2030 framework, the guiding document for Unesco’s Decade of Action on this front.
The short time left to achieve the epic change required stands in stark contrast to the modest progress on educational reform that has been made to date.
A review of how environmental issues are integrated into primary and secondary education policies and curricula over 46 Unesco member states showed that 45% of the documents made little-to-no reference to environmental themes.
The report entitled “Learn for our planet” noted that although 92% of the analysed documents included at least one reference to environmental themes, the treatment of the matter was largely superficial.
Among public figures who highlighted the scale of the challenge before the world, Laurent Fabius, who had headed COP21, the historic Paris climate talks of 2015, provided sobering evidence during the opening session of the Unesco conference.
Fabius noted that a recent survey of the French people showed that 85% of those polled did not know about the greenhouse effect, which is the way heat is trapped close to the Earth’s surface by gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, causing the warming of the atmosphere.
It would be easier, he said, to fight climate change due to the rising levels of greenhouse gases for over a century if this were taught in school.
And should we need reminding, some speakers pointed out that if we continue to live the way we do today, we will need the resources of three earths by 2050.
Clearly, much needs to happen very quickly.
Expectedly, the Unesco conference heard impassioned calls for action from opinion leaders of all regions. Referring to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and the Paris Agreement’s target of achieving a climate neutral world by mid-century, Prof Jeffrey Sachs said: “We have a rendezvous with destiny, and so far, we are far off course.”
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the renowned economist pointed out, more than 250 million young people of school age were not in school.
Much more finance is needed for access to education before we can talk about ESD, he argued.
Still, the conference was a platform for governments to demonstrate their commitment to make the world a better place, and they did that in all earnestness. Over two days, national delegates took turns to present evidence of how ESD is moving from the margins to the mainstream in their education systems.
As the conference rapporteur noted, more and more governments are beginning to see the importance of delivering quality education and making their students more curious, critical, committed, capable and empathic citizens.
Their efforts could be summed up into five themes that point to a growing realisation that education must address the problems of today’s world in a holistic, integrated manner.
First is the idea of a Whole Earth. Education needs to restore the connection between people and planet and improve relations among people of different backgrounds and circumstances. This also involves the relationship between the human and non-human worlds. The idea now becoming dominant is that nature is at the centre and that we are part of nature.
The second concept is that of the Whole Community. This is the recognition that local environments and communities with their wide range of stakeholders and existential issues are excellent spaces for social learning and contributing to meaningful change.
Within these spaces, people can jointly explore issues around food, water, energy, climate and biodiversity as well as issues around fairness, inclusion and social and environmental justice.
The third idea is that of the Whole School. ESD is not an additional topic for the curriculum but rather a catalyst to redesign how schools operate. It is a way to focus more on local issues and issues that are relevant to the living world of students, and also a way to bring in new forms of teaching and learning such as inquiry-based learning, experiential learning and solution-oriented learning.
All these approaches require boundary-crossing not only between different subject areas, but also between the school and community.
The fourth concept is that of the Whole Brain. There is more talk within ESD about social and emotional learning, whereas currently education typically focuses on cognitive learning. This implies not just creating more space for the arts and humanities, but also for asking different kinds of questions.
The fifth theme is that of the Whole System. ESD is not just about focusing on changing behaviour, but also on capacity building and collaborative action for changing dominant systems and institutional structures. This includes reforming economic structures in favour of circularity and regenerative economies and cultures.
Although these inspiring concepts spell hope for our troubled world, the rapporteur could not help but express concern that some of them may remain in the realm of good intentions.
Indeed, the disconnect between intention and outcome haunts not just such conferences, but reform initiatives at all levels, big and small.
There is a vital ingredient missing from these efforts that condemns us to search endlessly for new approaches to the existential problems of our times.
Among speakers at the conference who pointed this out was International Islamic University Malaysia rector Prof Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak.
Addressing a session on the testimonies of people who have undertaken transformative action for sustainable development, Dzulkifli identified values as the key element that must be given attention.
“Values are usually not very well enshrined in our education systems,” he said.
It is a question of having a sense of purpose that is larger than just acquiring an education, preparing for employment or just making a living.
“These values motivate us from the inside out rather than outside in,” said Dzulkifli.
Additionally, he stressed, ideas about spirituality, consciousness and intuitiveness are extremely important in the context of making sustainable development happen.
Commenting on the examples of the panellists who shared their personal experiences in advancing sustainable development practices, Dzulkifli said that their values drive them to make change happen “not because someone is pushing us to do it, but out of a sense of duty to contribute to humanity”.
On the other hand, he pointed out, current education priorities fail to nurture sympathy and empathy in students.
“Unless we learn to sympathise with other people, sustainable development will not take root,” Dzulkifli asserted.
Responding to a question about obstacles that could prevent ESD from taking shape, Dzulkifli said: “We keep talking about policies and politics which are factors outside us, when the problem is within us. What the microcosm of the human person is all about is reflected by the macrocosm. Until and unless we learn to live a balanced life, we will not be able to solve the problem of climate change because our life remains unbalanced.”
Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is an associate editor at The Edge