Educating For Sustainable Development


Education is a given in our country; it is a right the United States grants to all children and forms the basis for society. Education is the reason we are able to enjoy living in communities with social and economic development, but maintaining the high quality of life we enjoy depends on a society’s capacity to understand what sustainability itself is at its most basic level.  To do this, we need to understand how our academic systems prepare our young citizens for their future roles.

The understanding of education for sustainable development and its applicability to our lives has been fundamentally misinterpreted. Sustainability is not just the environment nor is it just the economy or just society.  Sustainability transcends the boundaries of each of these systems, influencing and infusing each within and among each other.  It reminds one of an old song by Burt Bacharach, “The world is a circle without a beginning and nobody knows where it really ends.  Everything depends on where you are in the circle…”  

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) allows every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future (UNESCO, 2015).  Education for Sustainable Development means including key sustainable development issues into teaching and learning.  It also requires participatory teaching and learning methods that motivate and empower learners to change their behavior and take action for sustainable development (UNESCO, 2015).  This systematic approach is concerned with identifying and advancing the students of education, teaching and learning policy and practice that appear to be required if we are concerned about ensuring social, economic and ecological viability and well-being, now and into the long term (Sterling, 2014).  The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe stated that:  “Transformation of education systems…is essential because our current systems have not supported sustainable models of development…change is needed to ensure that the system provides education that predisposes learners to consider sustainability across their life choices (Sterling, 2014).   

While the stated goal of education is to provide both general and specialized knowledge, it serves the greater purpose of preparing well-rounded citizens of the world–individuals with not just the knowledge and skills to develop theoretical solutions, but the desire and drive to enact tangible, positive change.  And while the word has been used erroneously as a synonym for “green,” there are many opportunities if we understand the interwoven network that truly enfolds our world—both the everyday and the world as a whole.  According to UNESCO, ESD is about learning to:

  • Respect, value and preserve the achievements of the past
  • Appreciate the wonders and the peoples of the Earth
  • Live in a world where all people have sufficient food for a healthy and productive life
  • Assess, care for and restore the state of our planet
  • Create and enjoy a better, safer, more just world
  • Be caring citizens who exercise their rights and responsibilities locally, nationally and globally  

ESD demonstrates that it is interdisciplinary and holistic, values-driven, involves critical thinking and problem solving, involves multiple methodology, involves participatory decision-making, is applicable, and locally relevant.  When education and learning is assessed by these parameters, ESD becomes the education for the future.  ESD is not about telling people what to do; it is about harnessing the power of ownership of ideas, of enlightened self-interest, of self-organization, world view change, and leadership as powerful keys to the students of deep systemic change and building of resilience that sustainable development requires (Sterling, 2014).  Only then are we making progress and affecting genuine change.  

With the Paris United Nations Conference on Climate Change convening soon (COP 21, Nov 30-Dec 11, 2015, Paris), now is an opportune time to educate for sustainability.  UTRGV recognizes the capacity and desire of its students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities to embrace a culture of sustainability and improve life in the Rio Grande Valley.  The staff and faculty will do this through infusing sustainability throughout our curriculum, research, programs, and facilities, and then making those research results available via designated open access repositories.   We will work to build strong partnerships with businesses and the community that will focus on the three pillars of sustainability— economic development, social development and environmental protection.  

In 2013, UTRGV was created by the Texas Legislature in a historic move that brings together the resources and assets of UT Brownsville and UT Pan American.  Work of these two campuses continue under the banner of UTRGV.  The UTRGV established the Office for Sustainability through its legacy institutions six years ago to bring sustainability to our governance, operations, academics, and engagement. Through this office, UTRGV connects all areas of academics to each other, to sustainability, and to the community. By encouraging multi-disciplinary exploration of real-world problems, offering sustainability-focused courses and programs, and service learning, UTRGV is institutionalizing sustainability to ensure the university is a capable vehicle for the transformational change students want to see in our region.

The concept of sustainability tackles systemic problems at their root instead of attempting to address symptoms in individual capacities (such as poverty or homelessness).  Solutions to these issues will be developed through the collaboration of experts in many areas, as human issues are not limited to single fields such as economics, sociology, cultural anthropology, or environmentalism.  Isolating research to any individual field will not yield beneficial ways of maximizing the ability of current and future generations to prosper.  Instead, educating through the lens of sustainability means students will learn that all subjects of study can contribute to global efforts to increase social justice, economic viability, and environmental stewardship, and tomorrow’s leaders will embrace sustainability as a framework upon which to build society. Institutions of higher learning have a critical role to play in the development of new, sustainable systems for living. This puts UTRGV in a position to inspire, engage and prepare countless students to discover and apply sustainable solutions for preserving humanity on this planet.

Since the fall of 2014, UTRGV has been providing professional development and training on how to implement sustainability-focused content directly into the curriculum through a faculty development program called Project Sin Fronteras (PSF). Fifty-five educators have already taken the two-day workshop which shows how sustainability is often already being taught in every field of study, without professors or students being aware that the course is already sustainability-infused.  Both may be unaware of the need for making connections between sustainability and the current educational standards. The inclusion of sustainability into all fields of education will steer conversations towards shared goal-setting:  identifying the scope of our impact on our planet, finding means for humans to live in productive harmony within nature, and planning for widespread implementation of said means. After PSF, educators are able to amend their class syllabus to include specific sustainability topics or develop new courses which focus on sustainability. Many choose to include service learning projects, which make a positive impact on the region, while providing invaluable experience for the students. Academic research, programs, and course offerings that offer sustainability concepts are a major driving force for the institutionalization of sustainable education.  Due in part to Project Sin Fronteras, UTRGV offers more than 300 courses that included sustainability. Multidisciplinary research provides new business models, data for new technologies and opportunities for entrepreneurship, all of which are in high demand for our growing region. A major and minor undergraduate program in sustainability is being developed, with the ultimate goal of a master’s program arming students to be taken seriously wherever they spread the message of sustainability.  

In the business world, the three pillars of sustainability are known as planet, people, and profits–a mnemonic device used to remember that there is more on the line than just turning a profit. Ensuring that the environment is not being harmed and that future generations will be able to enjoy safe working and living conditions must be a priority.  Recently 81 American business signed a pledge where they recognized that delaying action on climate change will be costly in economic and human terms, while accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy will produce multiple benefits with regard to sustainable economic growth, public health, resilience to natural disasters, and the health of the global environment (American Business Act on Climate Pledge).   While today’s business leaders have begun to seriously consider these three pillars, we can encourage tomorrow’s business leaders (our students) to embrace sustainability and propel the future of our region to one that contributes to global goals as recently established by the governing body of the free world, the United Nations (Sustainable Development Goals).

Governments are structured to protect their people, and naturally their own economic and political power. However many countries, including our own, are facing many social, environmental, and economic problems within their borders which can lead to conflict between countries.  In working to prevent conflict, the concepts of sustainability are now driving decision-making by the United Nations.  They recently presented new goals that provide a framework around which the lives of their citizens are improved. These 17 Sustainable Development Goals create conditions that allow peace to flourish–and hold–in all countries.  UN member states will be expected to frame their agendas and political policies around these goals for the next 15 years, starting January 2016.  The Sustainability Development Goals replace the 2001 millennium development goals, which were focused on environmental issues in the neediest countries but did not include human rights or economic development. Every country will be expected to work towards achieving the SDGs by 2030. Naturally, the United States will be participating, but collective action by our leaders does not remove the need for individual responsibility.  Ahead of the upcoming Conference on Climate Change (COP21), UTRGV and 218 other U.S. universities and colleges signed the White House’s American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge to demonstrate their support for strong climate action by world leaders in Paris next month.  U.S. businesses have signed onto a similar pledge (American Business Act on Climate).  Starting young, if every school in the world teaches children about these goals, we will help them become the generation that changed the world (UN World’s Largest Lesson).  Individually, each of us can also take personal actions to contribute to a more sustainable world.  

The world is changing and the Earth’s climate today is changing so dramatically that it is transforming land and sea, affecting all forms of life (National Geographic, 2015).  In the Rio Grande Valley, we are also experiencing a perfect storm: explosive economic growth in a historically underserved region, a loss of our natural habitats which have global effects on migratory patterns, and an area of low education attainment.  In 1962 Ms. Carson said, “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.”  But as her message still reminds us that in our over-organized and over mechanized age, individual initiative and courage still count: change can be brought about, not through incitement to war or violent revolution, but rather by altering the direction of our thinking about the world we live in (Silent Spring, 1962).  

This is what UTRGV faculty, students, and staff can and will do as we move forward in this new century.  We have an educational leadership guiding a highly-motivated student body, building working relationships with local governments and communities, and contributing the commitment of a knowledgeable faculty and staff.  With education for sustainability leading academic transformation, the framework is set for generations of leaders to graduate from UTRGV with the tools they need to find success in our corner of Texas. Institutionalizing sustainability across education, government, environment, and community will have a positive impact on our society, and by preserving our quality of life, yield a positive impact on the lives of our region’s citizens.