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Education for Sustainability: Some Questions for Reflection

Number 17 - December 1998

J. Fien & D. Tilbury


It was the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which alerted the world to the complex nature of the issues underlying environmental sustainability. Perhaps the most pertinent was the increasing divergence between the northern ‘environment’ agenda and the ‘development’ agenda shared by the poorer nations. Many countries who were eager for economic development used the Summit to bring the world’s attention to the stark choices they face between development, environmental protection and the need to overcome poverty. However, the realisation at Rio that the existing development trends leave increasing numbers of people poor and vulnerable served to redefine and clarify the links between environment and development concerns.

Those present at the Summit saw the need to tie the achievement of environmental sustainability with overcoming the interdependent problems of poverty, illiteracy and militarism. Elizabeth Dodswell, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has highlighted the new vision of sustainability emerging from the Earth Summit:

The Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro saw the essential indivisibility of environment, peace and development. It also recognised that global independence could no longer be conceived only in economic terms. Alongside, there was the calculus of military parity. They were related to the instability sprawled by widespread poverty, squalor, hunger, disease, illiteracy. They were connected to the degradation of the environment. They were enmeshed with inequity and injustice (Dodswell 1995 p.2).

Recognising that no nation could resolve these issues on their own, those attending the Summit signed agreements on international co-operation in tackling development and environment concerns. These concerns included ‘the perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy and a continuing deterioration of the eco-system on which we depend for our well-being’. Most significantly, Agenda 21, of the conference called for ‘a global partnership for sustainable development’  (UNCED 1992, Preamble).

Unfortunately, linking the concept of sustainability with development has served to strengthen rather than question the basic suppositions of economic progress. It has given strength to those whose preference is ‘sustainable economic growth’. For this reason, the concept of sustainable development is popular with both western industrialists, because it retains the principle of development, and developing countries since it is ‘seen to offer hope for a better share of the world’s wealth’ (Smyth 1995 p. 12).

As a consequence, the term ‘sustainability’, is preferred by many reputable bodies and is espoused in Caring for the Earth (International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Caring for the Earth represents an attempt to identify the limits to the compromises possible and still maintain social and ecological sustainability. In order to avoid semantic arguments over the meaning of sustainable development, they coined the term sustainable living, and defined it as:

‘... a kind of development that provides real improvements in the quality of human life and at the same time conserves the vitality and diversity of the Earth. The goal is development that meets these needs in a sustainable way... Living sustainability depends on a duty to seek harmony with other people and with nature. The guiding rules are that people must share with each other and care for the Earth. Humanity must take no more from nature than nature can replenish. This in turn means adopting lifestyles and development paths that respect and work within nature’s limits. It can be done without rejecting the many benefits that modern technology has brought, provided that technology also works within those limits’
(IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1991, p. 8).

It proposed that government, industry and families need to live by a new world ethic of sustainability. This ethic contains several values that together define a comprehensive set of criteria for sustainable development. In summary form, these values fall into two groups - those related to our responsibility to care for nature (or ecological sustainability) and those related to our responsibility to care for each other (social justice).

Four values may be identified in each group:

A World Ethic for Living Sustainably

People and nature: Ecological sustainability

Interdependence : People are a part of nature and depend utterly on it. They should respect nature at all times, for nature is life. To respect nature means to approach nature with humility, care and compassion; to be frugal and efficient in resource use; to be guided by the best available knowledge, both traditional and scientific; and to help shape and support public policies that promote sustainability.

Biodiversity : Every life form warrants respect and preservation independently of its worth to people. People should preserve the complexity of ecosystems to ensure the survival of all species, and the safeguarding of their habitats.

Living lightly on the earth: All persons should take responsibility for their impact on nature. They should maintain ecological processes, the variety of life, renewable resources, and the ecosystems that support them. They should use natural resources and the environment carefully and sustainably, and restore degraded ecosystems.

Interspecies equity : People should treat all creatures decently, and protect them from cruelty and avoidable suffering.

People and People: Social Justice

Basic human needs: The needs of all individuals and societies should be met, within the constraints imposed by the biosphere; and all should have equal opportunity for improving their lot.

Inter-generational equity: Each generation should leave to the future a world that is at least as diverse and productive as the one it inherited. To this end, non-renewable resources should be used sparingly, renewable resources should be used sustainably, and waste should be minimised. The benefits of development should not be consumed now while leaving the costs to the future.

Human right: All persons should have the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion, expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

Participation: All persons and communities should be empowered to exercise responsibility for their own lives and for life on earth. Thus they must have full access to education, political enfranchisement and sustaining livelihoods; and they should be able to participate effectively in the decisions that most affect them.
(Adapted from IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1990, p.22; Fien 1997 p.4)

Achieving Sustainability: The Role of Education

There is wide agreement that education has an important role to play in motivating and empowering people to participate in the changes towards more sustainable lifestyles. It was a quarter of a century ago, that education was described by Schumacher (1973 p.64) as the ‘greatest resource’ for achieving a just and ecological society. Since then, the major international reports have emphasised the critical role education is to play in the search for sustainable living.

The Brundtland Report, (WCED 1987) argued that teachers had ‘a crucial role to play in helping to bring about the extensive social changes’ (p.xiv) necessary for sustainable development. The 1980 World Conservation Strategy was more explicit about the role of education in bringing about such changes. It argued that:

A new ethic, embracing plants and animals as well as people is required for human societies to live in harmony with the natural world on which they depend for survival and well-being. The long term task of environmental education is to foster or reinforce attitudes and behaviours compatible with this new ethic’ (IUCN UNEP & WWF 1980 sect. 13).

Agenda 21, the internationally agreed report of the Earth Summit, committed countries to promoting environmental sustainability through education. It states that:

Education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues...It is critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making’ (UNCED 1992, chap 36 p.2).

Chapter 36 on ‘Promoting education, public awareness and training’ was one of the few aspects of Agenda 21 which did not provoke contention at the Earth Summit. Both economically developed and developing countries agreed that education was critical for promoting sustainable development and increasing the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues (UNESCO-UNEP 1996).

As a result, many environmental education policies and programmes around the world, are taking on board the new vocabulary of sustainable development and acknowledge the need to mobilise all sectors of society, not just formal education in the task of achieving sustainability (Agyeman et al. 1996).

Towards Environmental Education for Sustainability

Recently, there have been a few attempts at defining the characteristics of this latest approach to education (Sterling/EDET Group 1992; Fien 1993a/b; Tilbury 1995, 1997; Huckle and Sterling 1996). The British Environment and Development Education and Training Group’s report, Good Earth-Keeping: Education, Training and Awareness for a Sustainable Future, defines the nature of education for sustainability as follows:

We believe that education for sustainability is a process which is relevant to all people and that, like sustainable development itself, it is a process rather than a fixed goal. It may precede - and it will always accompany - the building of relationships between individuals, groups and their environment. All people, we believe, are capable of being educators and learners in pursuit of sustainability’ (Sterling/EDET Group 1992 p.2).

In its report, the EDET Group affirmed the validity of the different approaches to environmental education in achieving sustainable development. However, Tilbury (1995) and Fien (1997) argue that environmental education for sustainability must differ significantly from the apolitical, naturalist and scientific work carried out under the environmental education banner of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Education with the objective of achieving sustainability varies from previous approaches to environmental education in that it focuses more sharply on developing closer links between environmental quality, ecology and socio-economics and the political threads that underlie these.

To this end, we now explore several emphases in education that result from this integrative view of education and sustainability. These relate to the special need (1) to consciously link studies of the natural and social worlds, (2) to emphasise environmental citizenship, (3) to develop ethics and values, and (4) to incorporate a futures perspective in our programmes. Each of these emphases of education for sustainability is accompanied by several questions for reflection on possible implications for education in botanic gardens.

Linking the Natural and Social Worlds

Until recently, environmental education, has tended to focus mainly on the quality of the physical environment, while development education has been traditionally concerned with questions of appropriate economic and social development. The recognition that real improvements in the quality of life are dependent on the reconciliation between economic development, environmental conservation and social equity has changed the agenda for environmental education, reorienting it towards the challenge of sustainable development.

Now issues such as food security, poverty, sustainable tourism, urban quality, women, environment and development, green consumerism, ecological public health and waste management as well as those of climatic change, deforestation, land degradation and desertification, depletion of natural resources and loss of biodiversity are primary concerns for both environmental and development education. Matters of environmental quality and human development are now central to environmental education for sustainability.

These concerns differ substantially from those of litter, nature study and the planting of trees in the school grounds and other apolitical and aesthetic work what has often been the focus of much environmental education in the past. Formal resolutions contained in Agenda 21 recognised the need for re-orientation calling for environmental education to abandon its preoccupation with natural systems in order to incorporate the concept of sustainable development. Studies of the geophysical and biophysical world are necessary - but not sufficient - prerequisite for learning to live sustainably.

The concrete links between social justice and ecological sustainability, identified at the Earth Summit undermine the primacy of what some have termed the ecological foundations of environmental education and suggest a broadening and deepening of the concepts of environment and environmental education. Education about bio-diversity and other nature-based themes - needs to be immersed in concepts of human rights, equity and democracy that are the core issues of sustainability (Fien 1997).

Huckle (1996) contends that contemporary environmental education not only has the task of committing individuals to sustainability but also to help them reflect upon and act on the different interpretations of sustainable development. This approach to critical education is a process of critical enquiry, in which we seek to explore the complexity and implications of the sustainability as well as the economic, political, social, cultural, technological and environmental forces which foster or impede sustainable development (Sterling/EDET 1992). This entails, involving people in questions about the ownership of common property resources (Hardin 1968), issues regarding international and intergenerational equity (Redclift 1987), regional and national ecological footprints (Rees 1990) and most importantly, debates about qualitative versus quantitative growth (Pezzey 1989).

  1. How familiar am I with relatively new concepts such as: sustainable development, biodiversity, human rights, democracy, common property rights, intra- and inter-generational equity, ecological footprints, qualitative versus quantitative growth, etc.?
  2. How confident do I feel about my knowledge of the very wide range of social sciences (e.g. economics, development studies, current affairs, history, etc) necessary in order to plan educational programmes which incorporate sustainable development concepts?
  3. How can I convince my garden managers that these concepts are relevant to my work as a garden educator?
  4. Where can I obtain information on all these concepts?

Environmental Citizenship

Educating for sustainability requires developing not only critical understanding of concepts such as these, but also the thinking skills necessary analysing vested interests, challenging bias, decision-making and solutions and prospects for change. Ultimately, its objective is to help educate politically literate individuals.

Political literacy is the key to developing competence in participating effectively in decision-making for sustainable development at local, national and international level (Sterling/EDET 1992: Fien 1993a). Huckle (1985) maintains that environmental education for sustainability can develop political literacy through helping individuals acquire (a) critical reflective knowledge about the environment; (b) democratic skills and values (c) critical thinking skills, and (d) experiences in the processes of environmental politics. These objectives can be developed through considering questions such as: how over-consumption, waste and mis-use of resources can be reduced; how poverty that sometimes causes environmental exploitation can be eliminated; how economic activity may be altered to minimise environmental deterioration; how resources can be redirected to aid the poor or be conserved for future generations; which forms of social organisation best contribute to sustainable development? (after Beddis and Johnson 1988).

Involvement with real problems and issues is the most effective way of developing the action skills needed to investigate, evaluate and implement solutions to problems. Environmental education for sustainability needs to not only involve people in real environment and development issues, but also challenge individuals on a personal level to change parts of their lives and engage in more sustainable lifestyles. The result is that individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for the care and management of the environment, directly through participation in practical conservation projects or, indirectly as informed and concerned individuals through the democratic process. Action that is designed to solve environmental and development problems falls into the six categories: negotiation, persuasion, consumerism, political action, legal action and eco-management.

  1. Which of the six categories of environmental action skills are most relevant to educational work in botanic gardens: negotiation, persuasion, consumerism, political action, legal action and eco-management?
  2. What opportunities can I provide for children and adults to practice these skills?
  3. How can botanic garden educators link with other community organisations to promote environmental citizenship?

Values and Environmental Ethics

Decisions to participate in environmental change are not stimulated by the knowledge alone but are dependent on personal motivations and the sense of responsibility that can result from the development of a personal environmental ethic. Environmental education needs to promote an environmental ethic that has sustainable living at its core (IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1980; 1991; UNESCO 1992). This ethic (Box 1) constitutes an important dimension of the new educational approach to sustainability.

  1. Which of the two categories of environmental ethics in Box 1 are most relevant to educational work in botanic gardens? Why?
  2. Pretend you are in a debate on the topic in Question 1, and you have been allocated to the team that has to argue the opposite to the answer you gave to Question 1. What would be your three main arguments?
  3. What opportunities can I provide for children and adults to develop both sets of ethics?
  4. How can botanic garden educators link with other community organisations to promote an environmental ethic?

Sustainable Futures

Futures thinking is another dimension which has received a low profile in environmental education approaches. Hicks and Holden (1995) argue that at the basis of the sustainability debate is a move away from almost exclusive concern with present problems to preferred futures. They contend that such a temporal shift gives equal attention to solutions and future goals. Environmental education for sustainability thus requires an examination of probable and of possible alternative environmental futures. Hicks and Holden (1995) consider this futures orientation to be a missing dimension in contemporary environmental education.

Futures thinking is crucially linked to the concepts of ‘hope’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘action’ (Milbrath 1989; Meadows 1992; Hicks and Holden 1995; Ali Khan 1996). Futures thinking is necessary for not only envisioning but also moving towards a sustainable society. It needs to form part of the new approach to environmental education.

  1. Why do educators concerned with the future, call themselves ‘futures educators’ not ‘future educators’? Is this difference significant?
  2. How do themes addressed in botanic garden education programmes illustrate a futures perspective?
  3. Identify one special event you could plan for your botanic garden that promotes the relationships between gardens, sustainability and the future. How easy would it be to plan this special event?


Many environmental educationalists have found direction and strength in Agenda 21. The challenge for us who work in botanic gardens is to contextualise the ideas and mission of environmental education for sustainability and to find ways of working towards it in our own work settings. Common to all our work, however, must be a vision for a more socially and environmentally sustainable future. We will all hold different perspectives on the philosophy, principles and approach to environmental education for sustainability and have different levels of opportunity and freedom to develop exciting new programmes and redevelop our old ones. We look forward to reading case studies of how botanic garden educators interpret the nature of environmental education for sustainability in a variety of different cultural settings; how the ideals of environmental education for sustainability are translated into practice; and how the tensions and issues which are encountered are overcome.


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About the Authors

Assoc. Professor John Fien is the Director, and Daniella Tilbury is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Innovation and Research in Environmental Education, Nathan Campus Griffith University, Queensland, Australia 4111. Fax: (61) 7 3875 7459 Email: