Course on Sustainable Development - Module 6 Education

e-learning centre on sustainable development



Education for Sustainable Development: Individual and Community Action

The United Nations declared 2005-2014 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, because only education will change peoples' lifestyles and consumption patterns, and create the public support and political will necessary to implement the major changes in society and our economy required to become more sustainable. For information on the decade, one good place to start is the web page maintained by the International Environment Forum on DESD. In the United States, many organizations have joined together in a US partnership for the decade: For teachers interested in bringing sustainable development concepts into the schools, there is an excellent paper by Prof. Victoria Thoresen on the IEF web site on Teaching Responsibility.

UNESCO, which is the lead organization in the United Nations for the decade, has identified eight Key Action Themes for the UN Decade:
1. Overcoming poverty
2. Gender equality
3. Health promotion
4. Environment
5. Rural development
6. Cultural diversity
7. Peace and human security
8. Sustainable urbanization

Consider how the principles and values of sustainable development described in the earlier modules are important for, and would contribute to, each of these action themes.


Individuals can do many things to live more sustainably. We can:

reexamine our values;
educate ourselves about the issues;
change our ways of thinking to be more integrated, systemic, and long-term;
look outward with more solidarity; and
live lightly on the earth, being content with little.

Many practical applications of principles of sustainability in daily life can change our ways of thinking. For example:

We can economize on our use of water in washing, bathing, laundry, and gardening,
and we can make efforts to reduce pollution.

We can economize or use more efficiently the energy we consume in heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, and appliances.

We can reduce our need for transport and replace motor vehicles with public transportation, bicycles, or walking.

Food offers many choices of lifestyle: fast food or organic, meat or vegetarian, local or fair trade, nutritional balance, risks of contamination with pesticides/hormones/antibiotics, and the possible presence of genetically-modified organisms.

We can choose clothing made of natural fibers, with possible agricultural impacts, or synthetic fibers that are persistent and non-renewable.

In our role as consumers, we can consider issues of socially responsible manufacture, changing styles or using things until they wear out, and the desirability of making choices based on brand names and fashions.

In choosing housing we can look at location, materials, health impacts, energy efficiency, and social effects.

We can consider the sustainable dimensions of recreation, tourism and entertainment, such as their impact on the natural environment, effects of transport, and ecotourism.

We cannot ignore the aesthetic aspects of the environment, such as beauty, natural versus human made, and cultural diversity.

In all of this, we should try to live according to our ethical and spiritual values.


One way to measure our impact on the environment and, therefore, what share of the Earth's resources we are consuming is the Ecological Footprint, which estimates how much productive land and water area a population (individual, city, country, all humanity) requires for the resources it consumes and for the absorption of its wastes, using prevailing technology. Today, on the average, each human being is consuming the resources of 2.3 hectares, when the biologically productive land and sea area available on this planet is only 1.9 hectares per person (not counting the space required to support other species). By this indicator, the world population overshot world capacity in 1975. Of course, the global average hides huge disparities. North Americans and Europeans consume much more than that, while impoverished third-world villages use much less. There are web sites where you can calculate your own ecological footprint and measure what responsibility you have for today's unsustainability.

Do the exercise on the internet: measure your ecological footprint:

APPLYING SUSTAINABILITY at the local community or project level

Now that you have learned about sustainable development, and its important relationship to your physical and spiritual well-being, what are you going to do to put these ideas and values into practice in your own life, your family, and your community? This has been a topic of discussion at recent International Environment Forum conferences. You can find some useful ideas in their reports:
IEF 7th Conference,
IEF 8th Conference,
IEF 9th Conference.

The Community Sustainability Assessment ( provides a good checklist of issues to consider.

Part of the process is to assess your own impacts by informing yourself about or thinking through your consumption patterns and lifestyle choices. Then think about how you can monitor the trends in your consumption, perhaps by the size of the bills you pay or the volume of trash you throw away. You need to consider the dynamics of your own personal situation and what you have the capacity to change.

Many local communities have developed their own local Agenda 21, identifying their problems and priorities and defining measures to address them to make their community more sustainable, along with indicators to report on their progress. See if there are ways you can join in this process, or perhaps start one if it has not already been done.

If you want to organize some action for sustainability in your local community, business or institution, the following are some of the important steps to follow:

- Develop the knowledge base about the environment and local issues
This could involve everything including research about the environment; obtaining scientific advice; monitoring of trends in environmental conditions; defining the local ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural circumstances; collecting local knowledge, including traditional knowledge; undertaking environmental impact assessments; and making pollution release inventories.

- Set priorities
This includes determining the severity of each problem, and whether there is the technological and human ability to solve them. The benefits and costs of each action, including doing nothing, need to be calculated. The process of setting priorities should involve all the stakeholders, including marginalized groups. It will be necessary to define where there are shared interests, to identify joint responsibility, and determine the willingness to solve the problem.

- Build consensus
Once everyone is involved, a process of consultation must begin in order to build consensus. It is often necessary to reconcile local perceptions and the data or facts about the problem. Transparency in information dissemination to all stakeholders, and in the consultative process, is important in order to build the trust necessary to get agreement. The efforts and benefits of the action need to be seen to be shared equitably.

- Promote coordination
Since most actions for sustainability require collaboration, it is necessary to promote coordination across different goverment departments or ministries, between local, regional and national levels of government, and among all the stakeholders and actors actors including businesses and non-governmental organizations.

- Carry out implementation
Implementing an action requires a clear definition of actions and responsibilities, which may be in the form of a project document, agreement or legislative framework. Some administrative structure needs to be created or assigned the responsibility for leadership in the action. The necessary technical skills need to be assembled, and financial resources made available. It often helps to assign some decentralized responsibility to be a close to the level of action as possible, as this facilitates adaptive management to adjust the action to changing conditions or new perceptions. Some of the tools that can be used for implementation include the polluter pays principle, internalization of costs, and economic incentives and disincentives.

- Participatory approaches can be very important, involving local people. Most actions for sustainability need to have an environmental education component, building local capacity and strengthening the ability of community groups and NGOs to participate. One aim should be to build a local capacity for science, teaching people process thinking, how to evaluate evidence, and local monitoring.

- Evaluate
Compare the results you accomplished with what you set out to do, identify the reasons for any shortfalls and the contributing factors for success, and use this information to improve the project or design the next one.


Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity (2001), , Science, Religion and Development: Some Initial Considerations
Institutions will only contribute to sustainability if they operate in a framework of values that combines scientific and religious knowledge systems, making it possible to implement alternative development paradigms. This paper presents some creative thinking on this topic.


The environment and sustainable development are areas where all the major religions share fundamental values and approaches. Therefore, they provide rich opportunities for interfaith dialogue and collaboration. Other resources and a bibliography concering interfaith approaches to the environment and sustainability are available elsewhere on this IEF web site.


How can we implement sustainable development at the individual level?

What are the most unsustainable things about life in your own community?

What do you plan to do to live more sustainably?


Victoria Thoresen (2004). Cultivating Sustainable Lifestyles. Paper presented at the 8th Conference of the International Environment Forum, Thessaloniki, Greece, October 2004. (of particular interest to teachers).

The Transformative Learning Centre,

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Last updated 10 April 2006