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The Sustainability Agenda is Failing. It's Time to Turn Education on its Head.

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

If we teach the next generation of youngsters what we've always taught the children in our schools, how can we expect anything other than the same age-old social, economic and environmental problems that we face in human society today? It was Albert Einstein that once remarked: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." And he's right!

Child hanging upside down outdoors.
Is it time to turn education on its head to meet 21st Century challenges, such as climate change and sustainable development?


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Maintaining the Status Quo

For the next generation to become changemakers in the 21st Century, and problem solvers to some of the biggest global challenges humanity has ever faced (most notably climate change and sustainable development), we would surely be crazy to teach the same old 20th Century curriculum, using the same old 20th Century approaches, right? After all, it was 20th Century thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. And yet, with the exception of a few minor adjustments, that's exactly what we're doing in our education system today!

"For humanity to tackle climate change and have any chance of achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, or any other global sustainability targets for that matter, maintaining the status quo simply won't do."

For humanity to tackle climate change and have a shot at achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, or any other global sustainability targets for that matter, maintaining the status quo simply won't do. We need sustainability to be interwoven into the very fabric of our education system, from teeny tots right through to the last day of compulsory schooling. The topic of sustainability is so complex and broad that every academic subject in the world relates to it in some way.

Sustainability in Every Classroom

If sustainability became a core requirement in today's schools, and every teacher was adequately trained in integrating sustainability education within the current curriculum frameworks, then this would change the 'let's just go on doing what we've always done' approach. Essentially, it would encourage the colossal shift in thinking that's required to take climate change and sustainable development by the horns, and dismantle these complex challenges into solvable pieces of a much bigger puzzle before it's too late.

Classroom in a school with an empty whiteboard for sustainability education to fill.
Is it time to fully integrate sustainability within the existing curriculum?

If incorporated in a balanced, carefully delivered and inspiring way, by the time the next generation reaches adulthood, a new workforce of well-informed young people would emerge, equipped to carefully and critically consider all aspects of sustainability in both their personal and professional lives. And, of course, many of those young people would go on to take posts in businesses, government institutions, schools and NGOs, eventually establishing a new approach to societal change from within the 'belly of the beast.'

Challenging Business-as-usual

Some economists and politicians would no doubt warn that children with a sustainable outlook would grow up to be bad for business and the economy. By being informed, responsible consumers and environmentally conscious human beings, the next generation might grow up to shrink the economy, or so the logic goes. But a) we all know business-as-usual can't continue on our small, increasingly crowded (and polluted) planet, and b) that's just plain nonsense!

Arctic sea ice is reducing due to warming temperatures linked to climate change
The Summer Arctic sea ice extent is reducing year-on-year due to temperature rises linked to climate change. Let's not destroy this beautiful, fragile ecosystem just for extracting oil.

In reality, sustainability extends deep inside our global economic system, and just for the record, there's nothing sustainable about world economic collapse due to a human-induced banking crisis. Just like there's nothing sustainable about raiding the world's rare metal reserves for the sake of manufacturing electronic devices, only to be thrown in landfill three years later. And the word "unsustainable" doesn't do justice to the fossil fuel companies lining up to drill for oil in the Arctic, one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world, and a region that's already showing alarming temperature spikes, and major reductions in sea ice coverage due to climate change! The truth is, what's good for sustainability is good for business. But let me explain why.

Sustainability is Good for Business

Yes, we could go all in on oil in the Arctic and a few wealthy individuals would get even wealthier at the expense of our environment. We could squander Earth's natural resources and destroy it's ecosystems, ensuring our children inherit a planet in worse condition than the generation before them, and the one before them. We could deregulate the banks and let investors run riot, and then spend the next two decades picking up the pieces of a broken society.

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." Albert Einstein

Or we could learn from our mistakes, avoid the short-sighted thinking that caused this mess, and the boom-and-bust economics that exacerbates it, and work together to create a prosperous and sustainable world, which we continually monitor and actively keep well within Earth's natural limits - boundaries set long before our arrival as a species on this big rock we call home.

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