Earthducation Team

Education + Sustainability

Students at a school in Sabou, Burkina Faso, AfricaEducation comes in many guises, from the formal classroom with a designated teacher leading a group of students in learning activities, to the informal social networks that make up our lives and the passing along of traditional knowledge from elder to younger members of a community. The configuration and role of these varying sources of education looks different for different communities around the world. What we know, how we acquire knowledge, and how we define knowledge is tied to place, to landscape, to culture. It is influenced by accessibility and infrastructure, and it changes over time.

Education in all its forms has the power not only to influence the methods and tools we use to conduct our lives and the decisions we make, it also broadens accessibility to additional sources of knowledge, empowers individuals and communities, and can shift attitudes and behaviors in ways that benefit not only those directly involved but the world at large. At its heart, education is about forming individual as well as collective wisdom in order to develop understanding, better lives, and protect the diversity and spirit of human communities and natural environments worldwide.

What Is Sustainability?

Tree at Bagre Dam, Burkina Faso, AfricaAs sustainable development (SD) aims to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations, it obviously concerns the preservation of the environment and natural resources. But peace, gender parity, human rights, equity, cultural diversity, and tolerance are also all essential to its implementation.

At its core, sustainability is about living responsibly and within limits. Environmental, social, and economic demands all impact sustainability, which encourages harvesting from the earth using methods and tools that do not deplete or permanently damage a resource, species, or ecosystem; recognizes the need to ensure the continuation of a plurality of life and a healthy environment for people worldwide and for generations to come; and takes into consideration the importance of equitable distribution of resources and opportunities for all.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) emphasizes the importance of seeing the world as an interconnected system, recognizing that decisions we implement in, say, North America can have serious impacts in Africa or the Arctic. In addition, IISD encourages the recognition that the practices of one generation affect future generations. For example, the farming practices of our grandparents have contributed to the health and configuration of our land today, just as the economic policies that we currently endorse will affect the livelihoods of our children and the poverty rate and population distribution of our communities in years to come.

The Intersection of Education and Sustainability

UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development logoThe goal of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014, DESD) is to integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning. Understanding these connections between education and the natural environment on local scales will enable and empower change in education on a global scale, as it provides structure for modeling new approaches to education for sustainable development.

The leading agency, UNESCO defines sustainable development as a vision of development that encompasses populations, animal and plant species, ecosystems, natural resources, and an educational effort that "will encourage changes in behavior that will create a more sustainable future in terms of environmental integrity, economic viability, and a just society for present and future generations." UNESCO's vision "aims to help people to develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge to make informed decisions for the benefit of themselves and others, now and in the future, and to act upon these decisions" (

Most academics and environmentalists agree that we must learn to live sustainably, which is different than simply understanding the concept of "sustainable human development." Instead, UNESCO provides a call-to-action where education for sustainable development is not only understanding, but rather a promotion and inspiration of sustainable consumption and production patterns that spur changes in attitudes and behavior of people as individuals, as producers, as consumers, and as citizens. This reorientation of education toward sustainable human development (Chapter 36, Agenda 21) is mediated by new ways of thinking about society, technology, development, and the natural environment.

How we visualize and practice education must change for such a social paradigm shift to take place. Achieving sustainable living on a global scale involves this "new kind of education" to be cross-cultural and multidimensional. As global citizens of different natural environments and different cultures, we collectively and individually have different relationships with the natural environment. Importantly, these complex relationships are embedded, and can be nurtured, within education. Cultures on all continents have different educational traditions – distinctive education and educational practices – that affect the formation of environmental attitudes and behavior. Thus, education for sustainable development must encompass affordances that facilitate a shared cultural model of the natural environment and a global ideology of nature.

Case Study: The Canadian Arctic

The three-month summer vacation practice prevalent in North America dates back to a time when children helped harvest crops during the summer months, and where less ranch work in the winter allowed time for kids to attend school. Although a reimagining of this practice seems to be in order for much of the US and Canada because agrarian living is no longer a reality for the majority of students today, this traditional summer regimen was always an atypical practice for schools in the Canadian Arctic.

Students in Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, CanadaCome late March as the power of the Arctic sun returns with 18, 20, and 24-hour daylight, Inuit culture traditionally (and still today) moves to an entirely different rhythm. With 3 of 10 the late spring migration of birds and seals popping up on the ice to bask in the sun and give birth to their young, extended families travel out of the community to camp on the land for extended periods of time. And for those people who do not travel to outpost camps, the scorching sun during midday – the melting conditions and often resulting thick fog – makes travel and hunting nearly impossible. In April, hunting on the land is a night shift! Families live their daily lives accordingly and school attendance drops sharply to 30% during late spring, plummeting by May to the point where no more than a few students in a given class is considered above-average attendance!

This case study is a poignant example of what education is when the inherited human relationship to the natural environment is not paralleled within the educational setting. This issue has yet to be addressed in the Arctic school systems although steps have been taken to address another such suppression resulting from colonization - that of making content relevant for the learners.

Lanscape view from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, CanadaIn 1999, a new Canadian territory was created called Nunavut, which is comprised of 95% Inuit and less than 28,000 people. It should be no surprise that the educational standards, content, and schoolbooks that were used for teaching and learning in this new territory reflected the Canadian province of Saskatchewan - think cornfields, pig barns, and an industrial service economy! A lesson in the geography on 'Saskatchewan, Canada's Bread Basket,' or a math example of a farmer's son driving to McDonalds to make a purchase did not relate to the students in Arctic classrooms. Even the notorious "Train A and Train B..." story problem actually provided no 'real-world-context' to an Inuit student sitting in the community of Kugluktuk on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

Students at work in a classroom in QikiqtarjuaqWith the creation of Nunavut, today (at least on paper) the curricula content strives to be relevant to the unique natural environment of this region. For example, in a community such as Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, students are brought out on the land for a three-week spring camp to learn by working with their Elders and family hunters - the traditional Inuit way. Global documentation, discussion, and collaborative sharing of unique educational narratives such as this, a distinct crossroad of education and the environment, is the essence of Earthducation.


Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP)

International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)

Lopez, Barry (1989). The American geographies. Orion (Autumn): 52-61.

Orr, David (1991). What is education for? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them. The Learning Revolution.

Roland, Margaret, & Semali, Ladi (2010). Intersections of indigenous knowledge, language, and sustainable development. CIES Perspectives (153).

Sustainable development. University of Reading.

Sustainable Measures


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