by Sue Gentile
Educating for Sustainability (EFS) simply means helping people learn how to meet their needs without compromising future generations’ abilities to meet their needs. This is about resource use, and of course, consumption.
Humanity’s consumption of natural resources expressed in land and sea surfaces necessary to renew them is an average of 2.2 global hectares (5.4 global acres) per person, while the area available to support the global population (6.3 billion) is an average of 1.8 global hectares (4.4 global acres) per person.
These 2.2 global hectares are 20 percent more than the global 1.8 hectares per person that exist – the latter area also needs to accommodate all non-human species. As a consequence, humanity’s ecological overshoot exceeds Earth’s regenerative capacity by at least 20 percent.
Continuing to consume the Earth’s resources at the current rate will compromise future generations’ abilities to meet their needs; this is unsustainable resource use. Sustainability involves systems thinking which results in sustainable use of resources through understanding of the interconnections between and interdependence of environmental, economic, and social systems. The only hope of achieving sustainability is through education. People need to learn to do systems thinking, to look for, identify, and understand interconnections and interdependence. This is what EFS is about.
EFS has evolved over the past twenty years and emerges from initiatives aimed at encouraging sustainable development, including the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992.
The need for education for sustainable development (ESD) was obvious at that conference, and EFS has developed as a result. International and national attention is now being focused on ESD and EFS initiatives. Recalling Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 adopted at UNCED, on promoting education, public awareness and training, the UN has declared 2005-2015 the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, and in 2007 the theme of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference was People, Planet, Purpose: Leading the Way to a Sustainable Future, and in 2005 it was Educating for Sustainability: How Far Will You Go?
Sustainability conferences, workshops, and symposia are happening across the country and around the world, attended by business people, educators, and policy makers among others. To be effective, EFS must include integrated focus on environment, economy, and equity. An image useful in representing this is that of a three-legged stool. The three legs of the stool represent the essential components of EFS: environment, economy, and equity. Just as removing a leg from a stool will make it impossible for it to serve its purpose, not including one of the three essential components of EFS will make it impossible for EFS to serve its purpose. What might we imagine this EFS stool supporting? What is sitting on the EFS stool? The future of the Earth? If one of the legs is missing, what then? The Earth is toppled?
No, the Earth, and its life, will go on—with or without Homo sapiens. What is supported by the EFS stool is the human future, a sustainable future. This is not so much about tree-hugging and protecting whales as it is about the sustainability of our own species on the planet. Of course, the process of achieving human sustainability will likely benefit some other species as well. So, how do we do EFS? We do it in formal and non-formal educational settings, we do it by modeling, and we do it through focus on the interconnections and interdependence of environmental, economic, and social systems with the goal of sustainability always in mind.