The silence around Education for Sustainable Development must be broken

Jose Roberto Guevara
Asia-South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE), Australia



– A review of two key reports prepared for the UN Secretary-General in the process of identifying the post 2015 sustainable development agenda has identified a silence. Neither report mentions Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). While this may be alarming, especially for those who have contributed to advancing ESD practice as part of the UN Decade of ESD (2005–2014), the article argues that at least the core principle of ESD – that any sustainable development agenda needs to acknowledge the interrelationship between the economic, social, environmental and governance dimensions of society – is identified in both reports. However, the article also argues that a truly global sustainable development agenda requires that we go beyond acknowledging that these dimensions are related. We must act to transform the very context that perpetuates unsustainable development. From the perspective of adult educators, any sustainable development agenda will need to be explicit about quality Lifelong Learning for all as a right. This can only be achieved through a truly global partnership approach. This is a learning and action agenda we cannot afford to be silent on.

In September 1962, Rachel Carson published her monumental book entitled Silent Spring. This book established how pesticides moved up the food chain, poisoning bird and fish populations and eventually also posing a threat to human life. This was one of the key books that helped to establish one of the key tenets of modern ecology: that all parts of our environment are inextricably interlinked. Her experience of having to face politicians and corporations to defend her findings was a further demonstration of how this ecological tenet extends to the social, economic, and political dimensions of society as well. Five decades on, we are unfortunately still relearning this very same lesson, but on a more global scale.

There are two recently released reports which have been presented to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the lead up to the UN General Assembly that appear to be “silent” when it comes to what I describe as a globally significant educational philosophy and practice. The silence is worrying, as this is the UN General Assembly that will confirm the post 2015 sustainable development agenda.

A quick word search across both reports for the phrase “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) brings about the same result – “No matches found”.

The two reports I am talking about are:

  1. The Report of the High Level Panel (HLP) of Eminent Persons on the post 2015 Development Agenda, entitled A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development (May 2013) and
  2. The Leadership Council of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) report, entitled An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development: Report for the UN Secretary-General (6 June 2013).

Both reports acknowledge the need for one unified post 2015 development agenda if we are to achieve sustainable development. Both reports are the product of extensive consultations across the globe with the aim of developing a unified vision and roadmap, rather than the often separate attempts to address global issues like poverty and climate change, to name just two key issues.

“The idea is to integrate the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability.”

Separation has blocked progress

The HLP Report acknowledges that while there has been a growing recognition of the interrelationships between the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainable development, seldom have these truly been addressed within an integrated and comprehensive approach. A good example is the separate goals and targets we see in the Millennium Development Goals. The HLP report states that “the result was that environment and development were never properly brought together.” As a reaction to this, the HLP report notes that one of the key transformative shifts aspires to “put sustainable development at the core” of the post 2015 “universal agenda”. The idea is to integrate the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

The SDSN Report adds a fourth dimension. It acknowledged “the Rio+20 vision of sustainable development as a holistic concept addressing the four dimensions of society:

  1. economic development (including the end of extreme poverty),
  2. social inclusion,
  3. environmental sustainability,
  4. good governance, including peace and security.”

The report argues for the need to move away from a “business-as-usual” approach and called for an “operational sustainable development framework that can mobilise all key actors (national and local governments, civil society, business, science, and academia) in every country.”

Silence is not good

This is a worrying “silence”, because as we attempt to develop a new set of sustainable development goals on the eve of the end of the MDGs, the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD, 2005–2014) is also coming to a close. The DESD, adopted by the UN General Assembly through Resolution 27/254, was one of the outcomes of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The UN Resolution specifically recognised that the DESD was linked to the need for education, public awareness, and training from Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 from the Rio Earth Summitin 1992 and the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 from MDG2. Clearly, the General Assembly acknowledged the links across these different key documents.

Despite the ongoing calls for a more integrated approach based on global partnerships, this “silence” is not new. The mid-decade review prepared by Arjen Wals for UNESCO, entitled Review of Contexts and Structures for Education for Sustainable Development 2009, the lead agency of the Decade, concluded that, “at the mid-point of the Decade, however, it is too early to speak of ‘one concerted UN response’ to ESD and there remains much work to be done.” (UNESCO 2009: 39)

Indeed, as adult educators committed to sustainable development, there is much work to be done. But I would argue that there is as much work that needs to be acknowledged as well.

The Web of Life

The committed work of adult and community educators have often addressed the issues of adult literacy, poverty, health, and environment through innovative, culturally sensitive, and holistic approaches to education. Locally-based educators have often recognised the interrelationships between these local social, economic, and environmental issues and often addressed them together with the need to establish and strengthen community-based civil society organisations. Early environmental education efforts to make these relationships more explicit through innovative activities, like the “Web of Life”, has been documented in many adult and community education manuals.

The “Web-of-Life” is a popular environmental education activity that physically visualises, with string, the interrelationships between different parts of the environment and how maintaining these web-like interrelationships is essential to sustaining the delicate balance of the environment. However, the activity has also been used to illustrate other interrelationships between social, economic and environmental elements of society.

More recently, the challenge to develop awareness and an understanding of the interrelationships of these local issues to more national and global issues has become more apparent. Climate change and its impacts in different parts of the world have helped to make this global connection tangible. But there is still too often a tendency to focus only on carbon dioxide as the culprit, instead of connecting climate change to the inherently inequitable use of limited resources and the corresponding production of waste, one result of which is carbon dioxide.

Back to the roots

Therefore, as adult and community educators, I would argue that we need to revisit the foundations of the work we have done. Yes, the problems seem to have escalated, but without the foundations of the locally relevant and culturally sensitive work we have done, it would have been more difficult to make the otherwise invisible relationships visible.

But as the HLP Report itself said, the weakness has been in bringing this holistic and integrated understanding to bear in our actions.

The global level

At the global level, agreements such as the MDGs and the soon to be Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide us with a shared goal, while acknowledging the need for locally contextualised responses. These global agreements help facilitate conversations about our own educational practice. But more importantly, they highlight for us how the most local issues are linked to global issues and therefore must be simultaneously understood from both local and global dimensions.

“But the danger again is the narrowing of the educational goal to merely addressing the needs of the economy.”

The approach to simultaneously understanding the local and the global, together with taking a holistic and integrated approach to the social, economic, environmental, and governance dimensions of society are the hallmarks of Education for Sustainable Development.

While both the HLP and SDSN reports acknowledge the need to provide equitable access to quality education as a right, there continues to be an emphasis on education for children and young people, often at the expense of valuable resources needed for even basic literacy within the context of Youth and Adult Education. The multiple global economic, social, and environmental crises have often been blamed for the need to retrain young people and adults for the new “green economy”, but the danger again is the narrowing of the educational goal to merely addressing the needs of the economy. Even the so called

“green economy” can all too often be a narrow interpretation of the environment, as we see in campaigns designed to save water, energy, or reducing pollution.

Some promise

However, the goal in the HLP report to “Provide Quality Education and Lifelong Learning” provides us with some promise. It allows us who work with adults and local communities an entry point for engaging with our governments on broadening the post 2015 educational agenda. It acknowledges the value of social inclusion, not just environmental sustainability and economic growth. It places quality education within the perspective of human rights. Similarly, while the SDSN report recommended what may seem a narrow goal – “Ensure Effective Learning for All Children and Youth for Life and Livelihood”, it does expand this goal to include the need for “all youth and adults (to) have access to continuous lifelong learning.”

As we approach the eve of the MDGs, the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, and also the Education for All (EFA) goals, I argue that we need a new way of transforming this globally connected and interrelated understanding into interconnected action. The call for a truly global partnership extends beyond learning how these issues are related to transforming the very essence of how we can work with each other. But until such time that global partnerships exist within a context of an equitable and just society, this idea of equitable partnerships may continue to be a difficult challenge to overcome.

In the meantime, ESD efforts in the context of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development have taken root in some parts of the Asia Pacific, where the in terconnections have often been acknowledged in the practice of relevant adult and community education. The  Asia-South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) as a Centre of Excellence in ESD, together with other partners in the region, like the Asia Pacific Centre for Culture of UNESCO (ACCU), will continue to advocate for the principles of ESD that acknowledge the interconnections of the different dimensions. Even more importantly, ASPBAE will point out how this understanding itself requires perhaps rediscovering different ways of thinking and learning.

“As adult and community educators and education advocates, we can no longer afford to be silent about the contribution that our education practice has had.”

The silence must be broken

The silence about ESD as an educational practice is initially alarming for those of us who have invested time and resources for achieving the goals of sustainable development through education. Like Silent Spring, shall we interpret this silence as lack of acknowledgement and recognition of such a valuable educational practice?

I would argue that it is unfortunate that ESD as an educational practice within the UN community is not better recognised. But I believe the principles that underpin ESD, in terms of the interrelationships between the economic, social, and environmental and governance dimensions of society are explicitly identified in both reports. Both reports also acknowledge that such an understanding needs to find its way into action.

As adult and community educators and education advocates, we can no longer afford to be silent about the contribution that our education practice has had. We must engage in the fight for resources and political recognition needed to achieve quality education and Lifelong Learning for sustainable development – as a right for all!



Carson, R. (1962): Silent Spring. New York: First Mariners Books. High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development

Agenda (May 2013): A New Global Partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development. The Report of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Available at

Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2013): An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development: Report for the UN Secretary General. Available at

UNESCO (2009): UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development: Review of Context and Structures for Education for Sustainable Development. Available at

United Nations (2002): Resolution adopted by the General Assembly [on the report of the Second Committee (A/57/532/Add.1)] 57/254. United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Available at


About the Author

Jose Roberto ‘Robbie’ Guevara, PhD, has extensive experience in adult, community and popular education, and participatory action research, particularly in education for sustainable development, environmental education, development education, and HIV-AIDS education, within the Asia and South Pacific regions. Robbie is a Senior Lecturer in International Development at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the President of the Asia-South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) and Vice-President (Asia-Pacific) of the International Council of Adult Education (ICAE). Robbie was inducted into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in October 2012.


RMIT University
GPO Box 2476V
Melbourne, Victoria
Australia 3001


Adult Education and Development


DVV International operates worldwide with more than 200 partners in over 30 countries.

To interactive world map

Read more

Read the complete edition
Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.