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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

From the Global to the Local and Vice Versa

Whether for good or ill, the reality of the “global village” now has unmistakable day-to-day implications. The interconnection among social and natural processes on an increasingly “small” Planet is more evident all the time.

In ecological terms, phenomena like El Niño (or the Pacific Phenomenon), and the biosphere’s increasing inability to organize itself (or, alternatively, the lack of coherence between the development of human communities and the biosphere’s ability to organize itself) cause us to recognize the fact that our quality of life is inevitably linked to the Earth’s natural processes, a principle we have somehow forgotten. During the last two hundred years, we have been constructing development with our backs turned away from the Planet’s cycles.

In economic and social terms, globalization implies that the quality of life, as well as the more fundamental possibilities of survival for most human beings on Earth, is conditioned by the personal interests of a smaller number of people who, at best, account for no more than 20 percent of the world’s population. This one-fifth of the human population, accumulates 87 percent of all the Earth’s annual income, according to UNDP. In other words, if only one hundred people inhabited the Earth, 87 out of each 100 dollars would be unequally split among twenty people, while the other thirteen dollars would be unequally split among the remaining eighty people.

The impact of the decisions and opinions of these international elites can be felt worldwide in a manner that was never before so penetrating. Theilard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, an “atmosphere of thought” that surrounds the Planet and links all human beings, regardless of regional particularities, .has become an undeniable reality in cultural terms. While this global thought network holds out the fascinating and relatively democratic possibility of accessing a large volume of information through the infosphere, cultural globalization through mass media also increases the danger of impoverishing cultural diversity. Such impoverishment causes, in turn, increasing genetic erosion of biodiversity. For example, organizations such as the World Resources Institute (WRI), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) warn that almost half of the six thousand languages that exist in the world today are in danger of disappearing in the next one hundred years. It is enough to leaf through any of the illustrated books on human race and culture published during the first half of the twentieth century, to see that, today, most are extinguished cultures that survive only in museums or on printed pages.

This threatening erosion of diversity in the context of globalization, also extends to the issue of food security. At present, less than twenty species provide ninety percent of the world’s food requirements (on a Planet which, in the next seventy years – when our children have grandchildren - will have a population of ten billion inhabitants). Moreover, only three species account for more than half of this percentage: corn, rice and wheat. Consumption is thus extremely concentrated despite the fact that nearly 80,000 potentially edible species are known to exist, and that humans have used some 3,000 of them to feed themselves during their history on Earth. Of these, however, they have systematically cultivated only about 150 ,22 and the number of species currently cultivated on a large scale continues to decline.

Paradoxically, increasing globalization coincides with the growing conviction that an indispensable requirement for sustainability is the strengthening of managerial capacity at the local level. This subject has been accorded special attention in international declarations and documents on sustainable development. Initially, it seems difficult to reconcile these two apparently contradictory phenomena. How can education expand the practice of the well-known environmentalist axiom to think globally and act locally? To what extent is it possible to preserve diversity in and between settings, with their wealth of diverse ecological, ethnic and cultural characteristics? Can we avoid the erosion of human diversity and the impoverishment of cultural variety on which sustainability depends?

The English biologist, Richard Dawkins may have developed a conceptual response to these questions. He describes the idea of the meme, as an equivalent to the gen, in terms of thinking and culture. A given idea, contained in a meme, may diffuse through an entire human population, by means of contact. Education in all its forms and the communications media (from the global network to the neighborhood gossip) are privileged channels for the transmission of memes.

Challenge for the Future
  • To promote education, in its broadest sense, as the linchpin of sustainable development. This type of education will encourage sustainablity among all social actors.