Teaching Sustainability

Teaching Sustainability: The 21st Century Learning Curve.

“Sustainability is the ability of the current generation to meet its needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.” - United Nations, 1987 [1]


Sustainability is perhaps the most urgent and important topic to understand in today’s world. Students in school are joining the rest of society to take a close look at the health of our planet. Since 1972, the UN Environment Program has been reporting on the Earth’s vital signs. More than 1,360 experts worldwide participated in the most recent state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems, from 2001-2005. Seven years ago they concluded that, in every natural domain, the Earth is under very severe stress.

  • 60% of the ozone layer has been lost in 50 years
  • 70% of the world’s original forests have been eliminated
  • 30% of the world’s arable land has been lost in the last 40 years
  • 90% of all large fish are gone from the oceans [2]
  • We are now using 30% more of nature than it can regenerate.

We’re in what’s called “global overshoot”, eroding the natural capital that life depends on. This is accompanied by a catastrophic loss of much of Earth’s unique bio-diversity. We’re in the midst of a mass extinction crisis: half the species on Earth is in danger of becoming extinct in 50 years. [3]

The social justice implications of climate destabilization, resource depletion, pollution, and habitat destruction are having major impacts on huge populations of people. Globally 200,000 people a day are moved from environments that have sustained them for generations, many to live in slums where they have very few options for work. And in western societies the gap between rich and poor is widening rapidly everywhere, which exacerbates many social problems. If you have food in a refrigerator, clothes in your closet, a bed to sleep in, and a roof over your head, you are better off, materially, than 75% of people on this planet. [4]

Study after study shows that material gains do not lead to greater happiness or spiritual fulfillment. Our belongings are scant comfort when we lack a sense of belonging.

“There is a great loneliness of spirit today. We’re trying to…cope in the face of what seems to be overwhelming evidence that who we are does not matter; that there is no real hope for enough change; that the environment and human experience is deteriorating rapidly, increasingly, and massively. This is the context, psychically and spiritually, in which we are working today…Meanwhile, we’re yearning for connection with each other, with ourselves, with the powers of nature, the possibilities of being alive…When that tension arises we feel anguish at the very root of ourselves, and then we cover that over, that grief, that horror, with all kinds of distraction – with consumerism, with addictions, with anything that we can use to disconnect. …There’s a possibility of embracing that pain and that grief in a way that it becomes a strength, a power to respond.” - John Robbins, Author, Diet for a New America [5]

How did we get here? We have discovered that many of the assumptions of our industrial world view are in fact incorrect. We do not have limitless resources. Earth does not have a limitless capacity to absorb our toxic chemicals and non-biodegradable waste. We, humans, are not separate from nature. We are not only connected to the natural planetary life support systems, we have now become a force that can irrevocably affect this delicate balance.

“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world – we’ve actually been on the way for quite awhile. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.” - Joanna Macy,PhD, eco-philosopher

This is where we all step in. Everyone who cares about the future can see that clearly something fundamental has to change. Our current path is unsustainable on virtually all levels.

“We have to have a change in consciousness, a change in commitment, a new sense of urgency, a new appreciation for the privilege that we have of undertaking this challenge.” [6] -Al Gore, Author An Inconvenient Truth

When we look at great social change in history – like the British leaving India, the end of the Cold War and end of South African apartheid- there seems to be a pattern: after decades of what appears to be business as usual, at some point there is an unpredicted shift in society; and dramatic results show up in a very short period of time…the time before such sudden shifts was a kind of incubation period of background work, often marked by the blood, sweat, and tears of those involved. Many small actions by many people over time create the environment in which a rapid turnabout becomes possible. This means that any day can be a tipping point.

Clearly something is happening on Earth – virtually everywhere people are creating solutions that can lead to a sustainable, just and fulfilling world. Paul Hawken concludes that this is the largest social movement in history with over 1.2 million organizations – that doesn’t yet know itself as a “movement”.

“There is another superpower here on Earth that is an unnamed movement…far different and bigger and ore unique than anything we have ever seen…non-violent, grassroots, no central ideology. The very word ‘movement’ is too small to describe it. No one started this worldview, no one is in charge of it…it is global, classless, unquenchable and tireless…arising spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions and cohorts…growing and spreading worldwide…It has many roots, but primarily the origins are indigenous culture, the environmental and social justice organizations. This is humanity’s immune response to resist and heal political disease, economic corruption and ecological destruction... This is fundamentally a civil rights movement, a human rights movement; this is a democracy movement; it is the coming world.” [7] - Paul Hawken, Author Blessed Unrest

So, here we are in the midst of a shifting world view, in what Joanna Macy calls “the Great Turning – from an industrial age world view to a life sustaining society.” [8] How do we teach our students, encourage them to embrace the crisis in which we’re living, and help them see that the possibilities are greater than the magnitude of the crisis?

Our work together is to participate in a global movement of concerned citizens who are informed and compassionate; people who are able to create a new possibility for the future, and who are continually learning and growing, to ensure that their actions will be as effective as possible in bringing needed change during these challenging times.

We are sitting atop a unique moment n history, a major tipping point.  This time we are in provides singular opportunities that can be seized and made use of with every breath.  There is only one way to do that.  It is to embody, in our lives as they are unfolding here and now, our deepest values and our understanding of what is most important - and share it with each other, trusting that such embodied actions, on even the smallest of scales, will entrain the world over time into greater wisdom and health and sanity. - Jon Kabat-Zinn [9]… Traditional Wisdom of Lao Tzu

[1] ATD Symposium

[2] ATD Symposium (See SWS references)

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] ATD Symposium

[6] ATD Symspoisum, Ted Talks

[7] ATD – Bioneers Conference

[8] Joanna Macy.com

[9] Jon Kabat-Zin, Coming to our Senses