The Churches’ Contribution to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development & the UNECE Strategy

The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) was launched on March 1 in New York. On 18 March in Vilnius, it was launched across the region of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) at a High-Level Meeting of Environment and Education Ministries. A European strategy for ESD, developed with wide and diverse participation over nearly two years, was also adopted, "with acclamation". A background introduction, the strategy, and an addendum clarifying terms used, can be found at – in English, French and German. It will give us a good start if participants could read these before the Assembly, including the addendum which is a very useful summary of categories of education, approaches and methods. These papers should be read alongside the pre-Assembly discussion paper on the main theme.

Challenging perspectives on sustainable development

The Assembly is inviting us to think deeply about how human society – and Europe in particular – can pursue economic activity without at the same time destroying the social cohesion and ecological base on which quality of life, and indeed life itself, depends. We are being challenged to reflect on how our faith in the loving purposes of God and the role given to human beings in creation relate to the personal and political decisions that determine the manner of ‘development’. Furthermore, where development is clearly leading to grave ecological crises and social collapse, how are minds and hearts changed and converted to a different way of thinking, being and acting?

The crucial role of education

Education addresses this question. The vision set out in the DESD draft Implementation Scheme is of " a world where everyone has the opportunity to learn the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future and for positive societal transformation" []. The UNECE strategy envisages an education that can "promote a shift in people’s mindsets and … can provide critical reflection and greater awareness and empowerment so that new visions and concepts can be explored and new methods and tools developed." But if education is to lead to effective action that meets the challenges we now face as a human community, the learning has to touch deep chords within us, leading to what a consultation of the European Catholic Bishops' Conferences (CCEE) called "ecological conversion" (2003 Formation for responsibility towards creation and sustainable development). Education concentrating only on the knowledge and skills required to support economic growth will fail to nurture the fundamental changes needed in cultural and ethical consciousness.

The role of the Churches

The CCEE consultation stressed that the Churches have an important role and competence because "ecological conversion" implies an integration of factual knowledge with the deeper meaning of things, just as it implies the integration of economic goals with a profound appreciation of the interdependence of the whole Earth community, humans with each other and with the rest of creation. In previous Assemblies, the Education working group have highlighted the role of religious education in opening up discussion of the beliefs underpinning care for Creation and ecological responsibility. Emphasis has also been given to the potential for faith communities to provide inspirational experiences that raise questions about the expectations driving unsustainable consumer societies and that promote reflection on what attitudes and action would improve quality of life for all.

The role of the Education Working Group

The UNECE strategy points out that "the region encompasses countries with a rich cultural diversity and with different socio-economic and political conditions. The prospects of sustainable development depend to a great extent on changing lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production, respecting at the same time the needs of countries where poverty alleviation is still a major concern". Participants in the Education Group reflect this diversity as well as their different church traditions, and also a diversity of educational settings and responsibilities e.g. church, school, higher education, professional groupings, NGOs. Hopefully, we can draw on this variety of experience to provide pointers to initiatives that can be encouraged at different levels (local, national and regional) and for different educational responsibilities (e.g. religious education in school or in church, theological education, Christian-initiated environmental education, promotion of models of sustainable living). We will also examine the role Churches might play in developing national strategies for ESD and participation in the Decade.