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Education for sustainable development: changing behaviours and inspiring positive action

As academics, politicians and experts on education for sustainable development gather for a global assembly in the Netherlands, Kazuhiko Takemoto – Senior Fellow at United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) – sets out a positive vision of changing behaviours through education to benefit the rights, health and well-being of future generations.

Kazuhiko Takemoto quote

The United Kingdom has always played a key role in the international quest to build a more sustainable future. This is more important now than ever in the past, since we are hitting one of the most critical times in the field of sustainable development.

At the end of October, the global population hit 7 billion. That number may not mean much on its own, but the rapid pace of global growth is what makes it truly concerning. Since I was born, the world’s population has more than doubled and we now find ourselves with the largest youth population in history. More people are using more resources – but those resources are fast depleting. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations is predicting that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. We encounter the same problems when we look at available food, minerals and other natural resources.

A small group of academic institutions from the United Kingdom has been helping to find solutions to this incredible challenge. From Swansea to London and Newcastle to Bradford, experts at these institutions have joined a global network of environment leaders to help rebuild a sustainable future for generations to come.

But while resources are fast depleting, the population boom of recent generations is not necessarily as ominous as it sounds. The Earth could actually support billions more people, assuming those people were making sound choices around resource production and consumption.

Since the beginning of my career, I have always believed that it would not be so difficult to help individuals, organizations and government make the right choices for a sustainable future, assuming we approached it in the right way. It would be impossible to expect this of anyone of course, without first making sure that people understood a right choice from a wrong choice and then ensuring they had the information and skills needed to make that choice.

For me, education has always been the answer. It is transformative.  Providing the right information and education can change people’s values and behaviours, encouraging them to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.  It can also break the cycle of poverty, malnutrition and disease that affects so many worldwide.

The power of education within the context of sustainable development was given centre stage when the United Nations General Assembly declared the United Nations Decade on Education for Sustainable Development from 2005 to 2014. The Decade helped focus attention on the fact that education is an indispensable element for achieving sustainable development. As that Decade comes to a close, many of us in the field are looking to what is ahead.

This week, I and some of the members of that small group of UK-based academic institutions are attending a global assembly of experts on education for sustainable development in the Netherlands. The experts come from a worldwide network of Regional Centres of Expertise – the official title of a global network of leaders on education and sustainable development issues. Spread out across 89 countries, the RCE network works collaboratively to develop innovative approaches to sustainable development. Put into practice, these approaches can then be scaled up to provide viable alternatives to unsustainable development activities.

In addition to the UK experts on hand, we will also have representatives from UNDP, UNESCO as well as the mayors and governors from several cities in Europe, Asia and the United States and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende.

What makes this assembly so unique is that it is one of the few gatherings that includes participation from such a wide variety of stakeholders – from cities, communities, industries and academia – who are all focused on building a bottom-up approach to realizing sustainable development. That grass-roots approach is crucial to our success, since we will never be able to change people’s behaviours by simply telling them what to do. We need to know what’s important to them and what will resonate within their respective communities. The outcomes from this year’s conference will hopefully help formulate a common vision and strategy for the RCE network and all partners in sustainable development, which will ensure enhanced collaboration towards the end of the Decade and beyond.

In the meantime, I call on each of you to do your part in raising the visibility of education as a fundamental element of sustainable development initiatives – even if it just means finding out more about the UK institutions working in this field. Implementing education for sustainable development is an inter-sectoral endeavour, which will require high-level government support and political will to make it happen in all types, levels and settings of education and learning. Changing behaviours now will benefit the rights, health and well-being of future generations. It is our shared responsibility to make sure this happens.

About Kazuhiko Takemoto

Kazuhiko Takemoto is Senior Advisor to the Japanese Minister of the Environment and Programme Director and Senior Fellow at United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies, based in Yokohama, Japan. As part of his role with UN University, Mr. Takemoto runs a number of environment and sustainability programmes and he currently chairs the UN Interagency Committee for the Decade on Education for Sustainable Development, which includes UNESCO, UNDP and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), among others.

Prior to these appointments, he developed policies on international environmental cooperation and global environment as Vice-Minister for Global Environment Affairs. He also served as a Director-General of the Environmental Management Bureau, responsible for air and water quality management. Mr. Takemoto served as the Alternate President for the Convention on Biological Diversity’s tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10) and as Vice Chair of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Environment Policy Committee.

User comments

  1. Dr. Timothy Barker says:

    I was there at the inception of the RCEs and actually helpled to conceptualise the notion of a ‘bottom up’ approach to their genesis at a time when this was considered to be quite a ‘radical’ notion. Indeed, influential colleagues were still in the later stages of the development of the RCEs proposing designing materials which would be disseminated around the world. I knew though that this would not work as ownership of the materials was paramount in terms of their acceptance. Further, we know from studying Sustainable Development that there are so many variables to be explored in order to work towards sustainable futures. Hence it made sense (utilising Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, for instance) to ensure that Education for Sustainable Development took advantage of the variety inherent in our natural environment. I therefore borrowed many notions from Complexity Science to convince people that we should NOT be imposing learning materials and other edicts ‘top down’. Today I am glad to see that the RCEs are as strong as ever and it is certainly reassuring to see them being mentioned here. I do wish all a productive meeting in the Netherlands. One final note though, now we should be concentrating on aggregating our progress reports so that we may all learn from the failures and successes of the whole project. All best, Tim.

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