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Number: 67
Year: 1999
Author: Eloísa Trellez Solís and Gustavo Wilches Chaux
Title: Education for a Sustainable Future in the Americas

Commitments to Sustainable Development: 1970 - 1980

Although concern regarding the unsustainable management of the Earth predates 1972, in that year the Human Environment Declaration was signed at the Stockholm Meeting, and governments assumed specific commitments regarding sustainable development. This declaration and its subsequent impact mark a turning point in understanding the urgent need for change in development processes.

The declaration stated that “…Man has the fundamental right to liberty, equality and to an adequate standard of living, in an environment of a quality that allows him to live with dignity, and well-being. He also has the solemn obligation to protect the environment for present and future generations.”

As a result, the United Nations established the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and, in 1975, entrusted UNESCO with the task of formulating the Environmental Education Interdisciplinary Program (EEIP). Both initiatives would make a significant contribution to a process designed to change the vision of development and education. Throughout the 1970s, an awareness of the need to design compatible development and educational processes increased as a consequence of the Stockholm Declaration. More specifically, environmental education and training were to take on an integral and holistic perspective.

Thus, in 1975, at the Belgrade Meeting on Environmental Education, UNEP and UNESCO promoted an international effort to understand and practice this new type of education more effectively. They outlined the initiative in more detail at the Intergovernmental Meeting on Environmental Education, held in Tbilisi, in October 1977.

Between the Belgrade and Tbilisi meetings, regional preparatory meetings were held, at which far-reaching discussions widened the scope of education for the future. At these meetings, delegates made vital contributions such as the following:
Environmental education should encourage the establishment of a value system in harmony with the traditional cultural environment…Aggression, as well as conflict and war have a disastrous impact on mankind and the environment. Hence, education must promote peace and justice amongst nations. (Brazzaville, 1976)1

Environmental education should emphasize and strengthen axiological sensitivity, contribute to the collective well-being, and concern itself with the survival of mankind. (Helsinki, 1977)2
This global vision, in relation to moral values, peace, justice, and collective well being, inaugurated an extraordinary conceptual discussion that the final Declaration of the Tbilisi Meeting deepened and broadened:
Environmental education is, in fact, education as it should be understood and practiced in our time. In addition to being community oriented, environmental education should involve the individual in an active process intended to solve problems arising from specific realities, encouraging initiative, responsibility and the sense of a better tomorrow. (Tbilisi, 1977)3
This concept of environmental education activated national imaginations and creativity, as each country sought to understand it and apply it to the traditional educational process. Unquestionably, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean accepted this commitment with great enthusiasm and commendable effort. Ministries of Education introduced changes in school curricula, implemented and assessed pilot projects and proposed a variety of actions. In the end, however, many initiatives were uncompleted for predictable reasons: lack of continuity of governments, different levels of political interest; dispersion of efforts, low priority assigned to educational matters, tendency to separate disciplines, and lack of funding.

By the same token, in response to Tblisi, a number of professional initiatives dealing with specific aspects of sustainability were undertaken in the United States. National and state organizations dealing with environmental education., international education, and education for citizenship were developed and often implemented as discrete responses to particular recommendations. Multidimensional and integral approaches, however, providing environmental education for sustainable development remained uncommon.

Moreover, during these years, discussions took place regarding the very essence of environmental education, in which two opposing positions emerged: on the one hand, a conservationist approach developed, oriented toward the study of natural, “ecological” phenomena and, on the other, an approach took shape emphasizing integration and development, in keeping with conclusions reached at Tbilisi.

The governments of North America, with their strong commitment to quantitative economic growth and their desire to avoid redistributive questions, adopted the former orientation. Thus, their policies tended to isolate “environmental” from social issues, and as a result, environmental education in the North became increasingly focused on “nature,” excluding questions of social inequity from its field of study. Rather than effectively addressing spreading ecological disruption, however, this approach obscured the relationship between the social and natural worlds and delivered the issue of ecological disturbance to technical experts. In the North, then, ecological disorder became a strictly technical rather than a broad-based political problem.

A series of difficulties emerged from discussions concerning these different orientations, which hindered implementation of purposeful environmental education in the Americas. Nevertheless, the Tbilisi initiative continued to gain support and what is known today as “Latin American environmental thought” began to spread throughout the region. The growing importance of environmental thought was due partly to the Centro Internacional de Formación en Ciencias Ambientales (CIFCA – Environmental Sciences International Training Center), established by UNEP and the Government of Spain to encourage environmental training in Spanish-speaking countries.

The 1970s therefore developed the outlines for an integrated approach to environmental education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although these initiatives were not officially adopted in North America, they provided a basis for thought and action, and still serve as a guide, as demonstrated at the Ibero-American Education Congresses held in Mexico in 1992 and 1996.

  • To re-analyze, interpret and adapt the basic principles agreed upon at the Intergovernmental Meeting on Environmental Education, held in Tbilisi, in 1977, together with regional versions of these agreements, with a view to implementation.