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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


Sustainable Development and Education

None of the many recently-published academic or intergovernmental documents on sustainable development contain a thorough analysis (or even a definite one) of the meaning of sustainable development. Nor are there blueprints for drafting one, as many documents in the field have noted.7

To date, it has proven impossible to develop conclusive definitions for a concept which assumes different meanings in different regions and cultures of the world and which varies according to the characteristics of communities, specific historical processes and particular features of local environments. There are, after all, no magic prescriptions setting forth the stages needed to achieve a sustainable relationship between humankind and the biosphere. On the contrary, a consensus has emerged that accepts sustainable development as an “ideal vision of the future,” or an expectation for the survival of humankind. This idea stems from an ever-growing awareness that the future of the species is closely linked to environmental conditions which, if allowed to continue to deteriorate, will increasingly diminish the expectation that future generations might enjoy an acceptable standard of living.

This “ideal vision” includes concepts such as equality, which can be applied to relationships at many different political and social levels: relationships among different regions and countries, relationships between genders, among generations, between urban and rural areas, among ethnic groups and economic sectors and among all social actors within a national or local community.

Further, the pursuit of sustainable development depends on the direction of scientific focus and the application of technology. These choices matter, if we are to understand the world in terms of processes and if we are to strengthen human ability to interact with the underlying cycles of these processes harmoniously: in short, if we are to consolidate natural cycles and not attempt to manufacture substitutes for them, or to destroy them.

The ideal of sustainability also depends on the ideological and cultural meaning attached by each community to the concepts of development and success. It depends on the significance of “success,” as well as on the general role and responsibilities assumed by humans as a part of the material universe.

Where the political dimension of the concept of sustainability is concerned, the principles of democracy, tolerance, conciliation, good governance, respect for differentiation, and active appreciation of diversity, decentralization and participation are integral components, without which the concept is meaningless.

Finally, of course, sound environmental management represents a central axis of sustainable development for several reasons. It includes essential practical and conceptual tools, among them a) understanding of the environment as a flow and a process, b) the use of natural resources according to long-term ecological and economic rationality, as opposed to the short-term imperatives of private economic profit, c) recognition and appreciation of “environmental services” and d) efficient “risk management” of threats and vulnerability, with a view to preventing the human community from becoming a danger to ecosystems, while minimizing the threats that ecological dynamics may pose for human beings.

Challenge for the Future
  • To adopt, apply and strengthen policies designed to replace prevailing educational processes that tend to reproduce and perpetuate the unsustainable notion of development.
  • To promote an education that allows current and future generations to learn and to value the elements of sustainability.
  • To revive experiences that demonstrate how to achieve this.
  • To rescue this knowledge from obscurity and incorporate it into new educational paradigms.