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Outdoor Education & the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

Outdoor education has come to mean many things. It can mean anything from adventure-based learning to environmental education, service learning in the local community or visiting a local museum. Essentially, when I refer to outdoor education, I'm including any learning which takes place outside of a traditional classroom setting.

"The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a universal call to action with the aim of achieving 17 extraordinary global objectives by 2030."

This blog post is all about the role that outdoor education for young people can play in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What Are the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The United Nations (UN) has outlined the path to global sustainability by breaking down the complexity of the challenge into smaller pieces in a framework for sustainable development, known as the “Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs).” There are 17 clearly defined and well-constructed SDGs, which cover just about every jigsaw piece for achieving global sustainability, including poverty alleviation, responsible consumption, ensuring access to quality education, reducing inequalities, taking action on climate change and many more. Check out the infographic below for the complete list of goals from the UN.

While each individual goal might seem like a giant task in its own right, fortunately there is good reason to be optimistic. In the year 2000, for instance, the international community committed to cutting extreme poverty in half and, by the year 2015, that goal was met. 

This is a perfect demonstration of what can be achieved if individuals, communities and nations unite together in action for positive change on sustainability issues. We cannot do this alone. We can only do this with international cooperation and it must be on a scale never seen before in human history.

The Future's Bright with Sustainability Education

One thing's for certain. If today's youth don't get behind sustainability and take informed action, we have little possibility of ever achieving a sustainable future through the SDGs or any other global targets. Young people are the future and we must make every effort to get them involved in taking action on the SDGs, informing them through sustainability education, and exploring how they can be part of the solution.

I believe there's now big change on the horizon. I can see it and I can feel it. I talk to young people everyday as an outdoor educator. Generation Z (anyone born in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s) seem to want something different to previous generations. For many of today's youth, it's less about fame and fortune, and more about having impact and creating change.

The fresh shoots of young and energetic social enterprises and initiatives are rapidly sprouting, led by talented people who are united by passion to make our planet a better place. I'm inspired by today's youth and many of the positive steps forward that I'm seeing in schools too. But classroom teachers sometimes point out that I only see the positive empowerment of young people in outdoor and experiential education and sometimes remark that little has changed in their view.

But I'm pleased to say with confidence - it's not true - in my experience many young people these days want more, much more. I'm seeing a craving for meaning in their lives that transcends the ordinary. Rather than "What career do I want when I grow up?" some are beginning to ask "How can I use my talents to help solve global sustainability challenges, like climate change?" So let's inspire and encourage them to do just that, and tackle sustainability issues head-on through the power of education!

The Destruction of Our Planet

It's a sad fact that today's youth are forced to inherit a sick planet. Earth is becoming increasingly polluted - one recent study found that 90% of seabirds now have plastic in their guts. Many scientists have confirmed that we are in the midst of a global antropogenic mass extinction event bigger and faster than any in known geological history. In 50 years, we've lost approximately 60% of our planet's wildlife and it's taking place right under our noses. Climate change threatens the very fabric of human civilization and could either tear us apart, or bring us together like never before.

The challenges we face are undeniably enormous and, as a scientist by training, I can assure you, I'm not overstating the destruction of our planet. It's real and it's happening right now.

But there's no time for blame games. Sustainability is the key to our survival as a species and we all must take active responsibility. Young people embrace globalization and the spreading of ideas and world cultures like no other generation before them. Most know that climate change and sustainable development are the biggest issues humanity has ever faced. So as educators, we have a truly vital role to play.

We have the power to equip the next generation to become informed changemakers who take action, and are so inspired to create a sustainable future that they become the "Green Generation" that changes our world beyond all recognition for a far brighter future!

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