a program for change


Education for sustainability is a lifelong learning process that leads to an informed and involved citizenry having the creative problem-solving skills, scientific and social literacy, and commitment to engage in responsible individual and cooperative actions. These actions will help ensure an environmentally sound and economically prosperous future.

in 1987, is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." 2  In a sustainable society, environmental protection and economic objectives belong to a common framework. The President's Council on Sustainable Development's definition of sustainable development has been broadened to include social equity.3  In a sustainable world, environmental protection, economic objectives, and social justice should be linked in harmony.

Many educators are helping society achieve sustainability by teaching the three "e's"-- environment, economics, and equity-- along with the traditional three "r's"-- reading, writing, and arithmetic. In so doing, they are fostering awareness of sustainability among individuals, communities, institutions, and governments. In coming decades, education for sustainability has the potential to serve as a tool for building stronger bridges between the classroom and business, and between schools and communities.

In this document, the term education for sustainability is used as an umbrella term.4  As such, it may embrace components from traditional disciplines such as civics, science, political science, geography, and others.

Historically, various conferences and organizations have offered definitions of environmental education.5  Under some of these definitions, environmental education includes the economic, environmental, and social dimensions contained in the concept of education for sustainability. A working definition of education for sustainability is provided here (see above) as a contribution to the national dialogue.

As attention to the concept of sustainability escalates domestically and abroad, our efforts must continue to bring all stakeholders together in its pursuit. The roles of citizens, communities, industry, and government in achieving the goals outlined in recent national reports on sustainability suggest that efforts should be increased to ensure that thoughtful, comprehensive planning is promoted by the formal and nonformal education community.

These efforts should focus attention on the delivery systems used to achieve these goals. A key question is, "Have educational efforts produced an informed citizenry, an environmentally and scientifically literate citizenry, and a cadre of technical-policy-managerial professionals proficient in guiding our nation's industries, communities, and governments?"

Although previous environmental education efforts have resulted in successes, much remains to be done. Many people, for example, still confuse the issue of global warming with that of depletion of the ozone layer. A study by Carnegie-Mellon University in 1994 revealed that even well-educated citizens believe that climate change would cause increased cases of skin cancer and that a personal response should be to give up aerosol sprays.6  Similarly, a 1992 national opinion survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates indicated that only one percent of those surveyed listed endangered species as a serious environmental problem.7  Only one in five had heard of the loss of biological diversity. In 1991 and 1992, a pair of surveys by the Roper Organization tested Americans' "green point average."8  The average adult and teenager were able to answer fewer than four out of 10 questions correctly.

These surveys reveal an important need for a citizenry with increased knowledge of the environment and the integrative skills needed for understanding the interdependent relationships between the environment and the economy. Responsible action by all citizens, based on the best available data, requires a targeted effort to improve the ways that we use available information. Education is key in responding to this need.

If sustainability is to be achieved, educators should take a leadership role, breaking new ground to prepare society for an age of accelerating change in a world of increasingly diverse and growing populations, an expanding economy, and changing global environment.

Developing a Framework

In the fall of 1994, the National Science and Technology Council convened a forum for national leaders from education, the business sector, government, and nongovernmental organizations to explore strategies for building effective partnerships to support education for sustainability. The "National Forum on Partnerships Supporting Education about the Environment," held at the Presidio in San Francisco, was co-chaired by John H. Gibbons, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology; Madeleine Kunin, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education; Keith Wheeler, Executive Director, Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN); and Ralph Ponce de Leon, Corporate Vice President of Motorola, Inc. More than 100 individuals with a broad range of expertise came together to work on this issue, including corporate leaders, university administrators, professionals in the field of environmental education, state and federal officials, as well as teachers, scientists, and students.

Together, they explored collective and individual roles, common visions, and opportunities for collaboration. One major objective of the national forum focused on the development of a blueprint supporting education for sustainability. The outcome is the present document, Education for Sustainability: An Agenda for Action . Its purpose is to lay out a plan of action to integrate education for sustainability into broader educational curricula. Business, government, and nongovernmental organizations working in consort can help in this process, in particular, by establishing partnerships to facilitate cooperative interrelationships among formal and nonformal educational efforts.

In a parallel process, the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) brought together leaders from industry, government, and environmental, labor, and civil rights organizations to develop policy recommendations to enhance the sustainability of our nation's economic, environmental, and social future. The 25-member council, which was created by an executive order in June 1993, consists of five cabinet secretaries, chief executive officers of businesses, and executive directors of nongovernmental organizations.

The work of Phase I of the Council was accomplished through eight task forces: Principles, Goals, and Definitions; Public Linkage, Dialogue, and Education; Eco-Efficiency; Energy and Transportation; Natural Resources; Population and Consumption; Sustainable Agriculture; and Sustainable Communities. The Public Linkage Task Force's Education Working Group, also chaired by Madeleine Kunin, developed a policy framework to enable all learners to become educated for sustainability.

In March 1996, the report of the President's Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future , was delivered to President Clinton. As the Council enters Phase II, its focus will shift toward implementation of its policy recommendations. The Agenda for Action provides a framework for implementing the Council's education recommendations.

A Course for Action

From these two parallel processes (National Forum and PCSD) came a clear recognition that the job of integrating the principles of sustainability into our nation's educational system requires skills and actions different from those currently contributed by education, government, business, or nonprofit organizations. Our hope is that An Agenda for Action  will cast a broad enough net to encompass all stakeholders. We can succeed only if all groups are working together.

This Agenda for Action  charts a clear course for a new spirit of collaboration, with emphasis pointing most noticeably toward the environmental aspects of sustainability. Such a course will require the help of many disciplines focusing on the interconnections among the natural and built environment, and the economic and political forces that influence the world around us. These forces are fluid and subject to changing conditions. Sustainable development is therefore a process rather than a fixed goal.

Our national vision of sustainability will develop and mature in the future as environmental, economic, and social forces undergo change. The philosophical principle that sustainability is a process will need to be reaffirmed continually as our nation advances along the path to sustainability.

Similarly, the dialogues during the meetings of the National Forum and PCSD led to a recognition that successful efforts for implementing education for sustainability depend on six core themes. Collectively, these themes outline a course of action to educate for sustainability. They are (1) lifelong learning, (2) interdisciplinary approaches, (3) systems thinking, (4) partnerships, (5) multicultural perspectives, and (6) empowerment.

Lifelong Learning

Education is a process that is-- or should be-- ongoing throughout one's lifetime. As the Ontario Teachers Foundation has stated, learning is not "a prerequisite to living but is its accompaniment."9  Lifelong learning is the first major theme of An Agenda for Action. Traditionally defined, "lifelong learning" refers to nonformal education that occurs after one's formal schooling has been completed. In this document, we use "lifelong learning" to encompass formal education as well as nonformal learning throughout one's lifetime. One reason for broadening the term is that education begins in the home, and this early learning does not find a comfortable resting place in the traditional definition of lifelong learning. But the main reason is that learning is a seamless process that occurs in myriad nonformal and informal ways during an individual's lifetime.


The phrase "lifelong learning" is used in this document as an umbrella term that bridges formal and nonformal education. It is employed in this broad sense to emphasize the integrated nature of all education, throughout one's life. All forms of formal and nonformal education are part of the seamless process of lifelong learning.

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Education for sustainability requires an understanding of the interdependence and interconnections of humans and the environment. It's elements include knowledge of global socio-geopolitical disciplines, biological and physical sciences, and human socio-economic systems. For example, education for sustainability will prepare policymakers for merging economics and the natural sciences with other disciplines when developing environmental policy.

Environmental issues traverse studies of the natural sciences (biology, earth sciences), social studies (economics, anthropology, geography, and history), and the humanities (philosophy, the arts, ethics, and literature). Many schools have begun integrating environmental examples into some of their coursework, thereby fostering enthusiasm for science and other disciplines. Infusing the concept of sustainable development throughout K-12 and undergraduate curricula can help make classroom learning relevant.

Ideally, disciplinary courses with social, economic, or environmental content should be accompanied by interdisciplinary subject matter on sustainability, which draws from a number of content disciplines. To the extent possible, educational curricula and pedagogy should reflect the interconnections among disciplines that are central to sustainable development. The benefit of this approach is that sustainability is an ideal organizing theme ideal for encouraging integrative thinking. Learning about sustainability necessitates breaking down the walls between disciplines, perhaps by focusing on a single real-world issue addressed from various perspectives. To support this kind of experience, existing education standards may need to be revisited to embrace the major elements of sustainability.

Whatever the approach, the process used and resources employed to integrate education for sustainability across the curriculum will remain a local issue to be addressed and continually assessed by communities, local and regional programs, and their respective stakeholders. Course materials with regionally specific, hands-on examples will have to be developed, and teachers will benefit from training and practical assistance.

Equally important, interdisciplinary approaches should be encouraged as part of nonformal educational experiences. "Nonformal education" is used by educators to indicate those forms of learning acquired in informal contexts, such as the media, workplaces, and community activities. All learners-- both children and adults-- need to see the connections among discrete bits of knowledge gained on a daily basis if they are to respond to the challenges posed by a nation moving toward sustainability.

Systems Thinking

Educators generally accept that the first goal of learning is to impart knowledge and the second is to teach skills such as problem solving, conflict resolution, consensus building, information management, interpersonal expression, and critical and creative thinking. Education encompassing the concepts of sustainability offers an exemplary vehicle for developing and exercising many of these skills which are increasingly being sought by employers. Increasingly, these are the skills that employers are seeking in a world of complex problems requiring integrative solutions.

In Technology for a Sustainable Future, the National Science and Technology Council noted, "Given the interwoven nature of environmental problems, systems approaches are essential if we are to attain sustainable development."10  Thinking that synthesizes and evaluates linkages among disciplines is needed if we are to understand the global implications of environmental and economic decisions. As socio-economic problems and environmental issues become increasingly complex, advanced technologies can serve as a tool helping the human mind synthesize and integrate mountains of data.

The importance of systems thinking cannot be ignored. Any concept-- including sustainability-- should be open to informed debate and sustainable development should not be taught as an ideology or as a goal, but rather as an ongoing process: not as a set of irrevocable answers, but as a way of continually asking better questions.


In addition to bridging disciplines, education for sustainability will mean reaching beyond schools to involve businesses and individuals with specialized expertise throughout the community. In the 21st century, learning about economic and social development as well as the built environment and natural resources will be the collective responsibility of public and private institutions, communities, businesses, and individual citizens worldwide. Partnerships among governments, educational institutions (from K-12 schools to community colleges and universities), industries, nongovernmental organizations, and community groups are increasingly important.

Increasingly, businesses require a workforce that is both environmentally literate and skilled in interdisciplinary systems approaches to solving problems. Businesses can support formal education by participating in classwork as mentors, by offering internships, by providing employees with opportunities for advanced training, and by employing business sites as classrooms. Most importantly, the business community and the education profession can engage in ongoing dialogue about common goals and how best to achieve them. Federal, state, and local governments can support educational activities in the public and private sectors and build intergovernmental alliances to advance education and training by supporting educational activities. Educational institutions should seek ways to collaborate with nongovernmental organizations and industry to advance common objectives.

Multicultural Perspectives

To be effective in reaching people across the country and around the world with a message that is relevant and meaningful, education for sustainability must encompass an appreciation of diverse cultural perspectives. This requires that the content of educational materials reflect divergent cultural approaches to sustainability. Educational materials and programs should be made accessible to all interested communities.

Furthermore, educational programs should be rooted in the actual experiences of people in their own communities. These programs should not assume a common understanding of sustainability's political and social context.

Finally, young people from diverse cultural backgrounds must be provided with the training and access necessary to pursue environmental and scientific careers. Only then will the workforce charged with implementing sustainability begin to reflect the rich diversity of U.S. society and the world at large.


Education is generally agreed to be the most effective way to impart knowledge and skills that can be applied outside the classroom in everyday life. The desired outcome is informed citizens who are prepared to participate responsibly in a sustainable society. Students can be empowered by giving their voice to new ideas and through action, such as voluntary community service, which is, itself, an educational tool. Nonformal education programs also provide good opportunities for learners to act individually and collectively by providing the knowledge and skills necessary to evaluate and discuss complex issues. Education for sustainability can provide a vehicle for engendering responsible citizenship, utilizing a variety of instructional models and guidelines that have been long accepted in the field of education.11

Sharing experiences about successful actions that are engendered by education for sustainability in its formal and nonformal modes will accelerate the transition to sustainability. Information about existing models of sustainability can be disseminated through the media, multimedia technologies, information clearinghouses, and other means, both nationally and internationally.


In summary, Education for Sustainability: An Agenda for Action  focuses on six themes:

1. Lifelong learning

The potential for learning about sustainability throughout one's life exists both within formal and nonformal educational settings.

2. Interdisciplinary approaches

Education for sustainability provides a unique theme to integrate content and issues across disciplines and curricula.

3. Systems thinking

Learning about sustainability offers an opportunity to develop and exercise integrated systems approaches.

4. Partnerships

Partnerships forged between educational institutions and the broader community are key to advancing education for sustainability.

5. Multicultural perspectives

Achieving sustainability is dependent upon an understanding of diverse cultural perspectives and approaches to problem solving.

6. Empowerment

Lifelong learning, interdisciplinary approaches, systems thinking, partnerships, and multicultural perspectives empower individuals and institutions to contribute to sustainability.

These underlying themes lay the foundation for a set of strategic actions and initiatives outlined in the coming chapters. Collectively, these actions and initiatives form the heart of Education for Sustainability: An Agenda for Action.

Lessons Learned

One lesson learned from the first 25 years of educational efforts aimed at addressing education about the environment is that there is an opportunity for improved collaboration. Individual roles for each stakeholder are important, but collective action is essential to reduce duplication and leverage scarce resources. All sectors of society should work toward complimentary goals so that education for sustainability can achieve its full potential. Educators, the private sector, government, and nongovernmental organizations should evaluate their respective strengths and address how to better coordinate limited resources. Awareness of shared needs and common ground is the first step.

Educators have identified a number of obstacles that are impeding the integration of information about the environment and sustainability in formal learning settings. One obstacle is that the interdisciplinary content of education for sustainability does not easily fit into a discipline-oriented educational process. Other obstacles are the lack of general agreement among professional educators that education for sustainability is a priority and there is insufficient professional preparation for teaching the core content of sustainability issues. Until recently, there has been a lack of consensus on an effective system for evaluating programs and materials in order to ensure quality; however, the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has developed material standards for evaluating environmental education curricula.

New approaches to learning may offer significant benefits. New approaches will be more readily accepted if the benefits of teaching education for sustainability are understood. Professional training is needed to enable teachers to introduce new curricula and methods into the classroom. Still another challenge for educators is finding ways to incorporate diverse cultural perspectives. Administrators in universities and colleges should consider adopting sustainable procurement practices and persuade funders to support interdisciplinary research and teaching, which is increasingly needed for finding sustainable solutions.

Nongovernmental organizations frequently are faced with the challenge of trying to persuade foundations, businesses, and the public to sustain support for effective programs over an extended period of time, rather than changing focus annually. Many nonprofit entities, both small and large, have learned that collaborative, synergistic approaches strengthen programmatic initiatives and contribute to longevity and the much-needed financial resource base.

Business leaders can contribute by working with educators to set priorities to ensure that their support for educational programs is allocated to those that are effective, produce measurable results, and survive long enough to have a real impact. At the same time, companies can participate in mentoring programs and internships. In the past, the business sector has made a number of indirect contributions to education for sustainability, such as developing innovative systems-oriented approaches to problem solving. In addition to these kinds of contributions, business can finance training for their workers in the use of sustainable technologies and develop innovative approaches to protect the environment and ensure economic prosperity.

While there are many successful education efforts underway across the federal government, there is an opportunity for officials to address the lack of effective coordination among the educational activities of individual agencies. Duplication of efforts among agencies as well as a steady decline in fiscal support limit efforts to advance education for sustainability.

In addition, government, the scientific community, educators, and the media should ensure that information provided to the public is accurate, useful and clearly presented. The vehicles by which information is furnished-- internet, the media, publications-- are continually changing and require ongoing training, skill acquisition, and upgrades in equipment.

The initiatives recommended in An Agenda for Action  are intended to address these obstacles and encourage each sector to act individually as well as collectively.

A Leader in Education and the Environment: Bill Stapp

A number educators have played pivotal roles in the history of environmental education and sustainability. One name in particular appears at many of the milestones. In 1968, Dr. Bill Stapp worked with graduate students at the University of Michigan to develop the first formal definition of the term "environmental education." Stapp wrote, "Environmental education is aimed at producing a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and "its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward their solution."12

The next milestones were the international Belgrade (1975) and Tbilisi (1977) conferences. Stapp spearheaded these conferences in his role as the first director of environmental education for the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These international conferences focused on a goal of improving all ecological relationships, including the relationship of humanity with nature and people with each other.

Later in Stapp's career he began focusing on issues of environmental justice. While focusing on water quality monitoring at a watershed level, Stapp noted that most rivers start near rural communities that are demographically white, flow through mostly white suburbs, and end up passing through inner cities populated by many low-income, minority, and ethnic communities.

At yet another milestone, Stapp founded the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN). Today, GREEN links learners in 140 nations. Education for sustainability owes much of its present energy to far-sighted leaders such as Bill Stapp.

In This Report

Formal and nonformal modes of education are integral components of a lifelong learning process. In the coming chapters, formal and nonformal education are discussed as discrete approaches for the purposes of analysis. Educational processes and the infrastructure on which they depend are complex systems.; however, An Agenda for Action  uses a linear method of description where the ideal would be to mirror the web of interrelationships that characterizes the real world.

An Agenda for Action  proposes three broad policy recommendations and twelve strategic actions for implementing those recommendations. The proposed actions are developed further through a number of specific initiatives. The initiatives represent programs which are in need of support, being planned or underway. Success stories are offered as models for illustration purposes and for potential replication. Ideas for individual and collective participation by each sector are explored. These ideas offer a rich pool of opportunities for partnerships to advance education for sustainability.

Examples of Opportunities for Partnerships

Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN)
721 E. Huron Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Contact: Keith Wheeler
Phone: 313-761-8142
Fax: 313-761-4951

GREEN is an innovative, action-oriented approach to education, based on an interdisciplinary watershed education model. GREEN's mission is to improve education through a global network that promotes watershed sustainability. Its goals include incorporating all areas of the curriculum into an integrated watershed education program that links education, government, nongovernmental organizations and other members of the community working with schools and communities to provide information to develop watershed education programs.

President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD)
730 Jackson Place, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20503
Contact: Angela Park
Phone: 202-408-5296
Fax: 202-408-6839

The PCSD was established by President Clinton in 1993-- a unique mix of 25 individuals representing business, labor, environmental, civil rights, tribal, and local leaders along with members of the President's Cabinet. The PCSD's mission is to develop a "national sustainable development action strategy that will foster economic vitality while protecting our natural and cultural resources." The PCSD produced a report that outlines the first steps the nation needs to take in order to move toward a more sustainable future.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
77, Place de Fontenoy
75352 PARIS 07 SP
Paris, France
Phone: (33-1) 45 68 10 00
Fax: (33-1) 45 67 16 90

UNESCO promotes collaboration among nations through education, science, culture, and communication in order to advance universal respect for justice, law, and the human rights and fundamental freedoms that are affirmed for the peoples of the world by the Charter of the United Nations.

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