Educating for Sustainability –

Educating for Sustainable Development.


In this April 2009 blog-spot,

I focus on two integral aspects of

Educating for Sustainability: 

1) Interconnexions and 2) Modelling behaviour.


Over my years of work as a professional practitioner in Sustainable Development, I have moved to a place of inner understanding that Educating for Sustainability is one of the most important pre-conditions to human societies making the transition to Sustainable societies.


Educating for Sustainability’s importance is reflected in the declaration that the years 2005-2014 are the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.  Additionally, its importance is seen in that there are many books and chapters devoted to the subject. 


Why is education important to Sustainability?  It is because without some depth of awareness about Sustainable Development, people are unable to know what it actually is and why it is so important to humanity. 


A recent edition of Scientific American devoted to the Earth (Earth 3.0, Volume 19, Number 1, 2009), contains a feature article entitled Top 10 Myths about Sustainability. This article attempts to dispel common, widely held, Sustainability myths such as: “Sustainability is all about the environment”, and “ ‘Sustainable’ is a synonym for “green” ‘, and “It’s all about recycling”.  “[M]isunderstandings about what ‘sustainability’ is all about” is the stated start-of-article reason why such a prestigious magazine as Scientific American becomes compelled to educate toward dispelling myths about Sustainable Development. 


To paraphrase an old expression:  “It’s all in the details, Mavis.”  Sustainable Development, as both a theory and practice, is much deeper and more encompassing than is commonly and generally understood by the wider population; including as it is often understood by environmentalists.


Thus, Educating for Sustainability is essential for raising awareness – and eliminating misunderstandings – about Sustainable Development.


Let me now narrow my focus to two integral aspects of Educating for Sustainability:  1) Interconnexions and 2) Modelling behaviour.




Sustainable Development can almost be reduced to the word “interconnexions”.  That is, Sustainable Development aligns to a practice where human beings learn to both make and then pro-actively respond to (over being forced to “react” to) any negative consequences arising from the inter-linkages between its social, economic and environmental axes.


That said, my professional experiences; including in Educating for Sustainability, have shown me that people do not have a natural predisposition toward making interconnexions.  On the contrary, human beings need to be taught – we have a need to be educated in – what interconnexions are, why they are important, and how to make them. 


It is no coincidence that hard scientists speak the language of the Laws of Physics (along with these Laws understood limits to growth), while economists still commonly hold a belief in a naturally-impossible unlimited growth.  This contradiction of scientific views arises from an economic deficit (excuse the pun…) in making interconnexions.  Old school economists have not generally been taught to move outside of their narrow economic silo, to also make the necessary interconnexions between their field and the broader natural (and social) environment.  If economists had to link their theorems to accepted Laws and understandings of the natural (and social) sciences, then human economies might finally more clearly reflect 21st century interconnected realities; over seeming to remain rooted in 18th century economic ideals. 


Sustainable Development requires human beings to be trained to naturally incorporate all of the environmental, social and economic breadth of humanity’s possibilities in to all of their perspectives related to Earth’s health and human life.


When I Educate for Sustainability – no matter whether it is through a course or workshop or seminar or speech – I have learned through the hard school of experience to expect that no matter the audience I am working alongside, I must anticipate that people either don’t know anything about interconnexions or don’t know how to make broad inter-linkages.  Thus, I nearly always devote some degree of time to the subject of Sustainable Development’s three constituent parts and to the necessity for making interconnexions between each and every one of these components.


Summary in brief – Interconnexions: 

As Educators in Sustainability, we need to walk people through the process of understanding the importance of interconnexions.  We then need to help people learn how to establish inter-linkages between each of the social, economic, and environmental parts of Sustainable Development.  And we, as Sustainability Educators, do this as a means to help humans habitually make interconnexions; all so that this making of inter-linkages becomes as natural and accepted to people as is their very act of breathing.



Modelling behaviour.

It is ancient wisdom and a generally-accepted understanding for modern (post-empiricist) psychologists that the actions of human beings can often be better transmitters of learning than mere human verbal words.


A parent may tell a child that the child is the most important part of their life.  However, if the same parent promises to attend, yet then regularly misses, important events in their child’s life due to the parent’s work-schedule; the child quickly comes to understand that work is actually more important to the parent.


For, again, our actions speak louder than our words.


As Berghofer & Schwartz so clearly articulate this matter:


“Begin with oneself.  To engender trust … be trustworthy. To promote justice, one must be just; to engage enthusiasm, be enthusiastic. In other words … model all the qualities and characteristics he or she expects of others.” 1


The same holds true in Sustainable Development, which is literally trying to have human beings (especially Westernised human beings) live very different lives from the unsustainable lives they have become comfortably accustomed to.


One of the challenges I have regularly encountered for Sustainable Development is that people who do want to live with some degree of Sustainable living often truly and simply don’t know how to do so.  A subtext to this confusion is that people do not have tangible Sustainability role models to look up to and emulate.  For it is quite challenging to find prominent, public, leaders who evidence that they “live” the message of Sustainable Development. 


And what is that message of Sustainable Development?  As discussed elsewhere in my website and in this blog, Sustainable Development entails attributes such as: the participative involvement of a breadth and depth of a community’s citizens; quiet leadership; making interconnexions; empowering marginalised communities; economic systems that fairly share Earth’s resources amongst the widest spectrum of humanity and other life forms; adaptability to changing information; and, of course, care for all of the Earth (whether Earth’s mineral, vegetable or animal elements), including meeting the needs of both current and future generations of humans. 


As Educators in Sustainability, we need to consciously model Sustainable behaviour.  This way, through our own actions, those people we train can begin to acquire glimpses of what life in a Sustainable society might possibly be like. 


Here are four of my own personal examples in trying to model Sustainability behaviours in training environments:


  1. In classrooms and workshops, I purposely use the “Democratic Classroom” model for learning, one in which I model a broadly participative democracy by actively engaging students and participants in decisions around their own direct learning process.  As a facilitator/instructor operating under this model, I still have set outcomes to meet and so loosely develop course outlines and training plans around those outcomes.  Yet the actual training environment activities I engage in are open to change and adaptation based on the specific needs and interests of any given group.  People might have pre-existing “knowledge” of theories around participative democracy and its applicability to Sustainable Development, but we as human beings can only really come to understand how this might work in “practice” by our seeing it modelled in the behaviour of others.  And with participative democracy inherently requiring an instructor/facilitator to “check their ego at the door” and to adapt the training environment to changing circumstances, by my modelling participative democracy I also, at a minimum, model quiet leadership and adaptive management.


  1. The participatory processes which underpins a Local Agenda 21 process (LA21s) requires that the processes’ facilitator-educators posses near endless bounds of goodwill, patience, understanding and even empathy.  These internal traits are needed to help bridge the diversity of competing interests participating in these LA21 processes, including those often many people who may have anger-management issues simply arising from a fear of change and change’s implications for them.  Those future practitioners of Sustainable Development who we train will only know the very real possibility of practicing these and other skills required in the LA21 tool-kit when we, as educators, model these same behaviours in our own training environments.


  1. To highlight the importance of equal relationships in LA21 processes, when I was teaching at a university in México – a country with a self-identified machismo culture – I would intentionally link female students to important societal roles and these positions’ ability to further Sustainable Development practices.  Linkages I would make included a female student’s ability to either be the first female President of México, or the first female Governor of the Mexican State of Quintana Roo, or the first female Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Additionally, to emphasise the importance to Sustainable Development of supporting marginalised communities, I encouraged a group of classes to lead a university clothing and food drive for the hundreds of thousands of residents in the Mexican State of Tabasco who, in 2007, had lost all their worldly belongings in a state-wide flood.  Separately, these types of efforts also help students make their own personal interconnexions about Sustainable Development and society.


  1. An educator who drinks water from store bought plastic water bottles or buys café-bought coffee in a disposable paper cup cannot speak with any deep integrity about matters such as waste and overflowing garbage dumps (even if they live in one of those few wealthy countries on Earth which engage in active recycling). Try to “live” – and thus, publicly demonstrate – the variety of options available to humans for replacing otherwise environmentally unsustainable practices.  Such as, bring your own refillable water-jug to class, or demonstrate that you use your own portable coffee-mug to be filled at your school’s coffee-counter, or take public transit to your workplace so you can directly speak about the benefits of public transit, or bicycle about your community in season.


Summary in brief – Modelling Behaviour: 

As Educators in Sustainability, we need to model in the classroom or in our training environments those behaviours we know that people need to consider practicing in a Sustainable society.  Our only speaking to required behaviours is not enough and is actually of limited effect if we otherwise (and often, unconsciously) model opposite behaviours.  Additionally, humans need role models who they can look up to as examples of Sustainable living.  With such examples seeming rarefied in the highest levels of social strata, then these behaviours need to be modelled by Educators in Sustainability.  This way, Sustainability role models will actively exist for and be publicly seen by those we train.




In Educating for Sustainability: teach, explain and make as many interconnexions as you can between each of Sustainable Development’s economic, social, and environmental components.  This way the people you educate and train can learn to naturally make these types of inter-linkages on their own and to then regularly practice making interconnexions in their own lives.


Model Sustainable behaviour, for people learn more directly through actions than from words.  Have your personal actions serve as public examples of Sustainability to all the people you both train and educate in Sustainable Development.


As always, your comments and observations on this blog-spot are both invited and welcomed.




1 Berghofer, Desmond and Schwartz, Geraldine. (2007).  “Leadership in the First Decade of the Millennium.” In Berghofer and Schwartz, eds., The Ethical Leadership Scales. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford Publishing (page 53). 

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