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Carl Lindberg has served as Special Advisor to the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) since November 2005. Furthermore, he has been a member of UNESCO’s High Level Panel on ESD since July 2004 and a Member of the Board of the Centre for Sustainable Development in Uppsala since 2007. In 2003-2004, he was Chairman of the Swedish National Committee on ESD. In 1994-2004, he served as Deputy State Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Science and in 1998-1994 as Political Advisor to the members in the Standing Committee on Education and Science in the Swedish Parliament. Prior to that, he officiated as Press Officer to the Swedish Minister of Education in 1985-1989 and was Vice President in the Swedish United Nations Association in 1984-1986.
In this interview, Carl Lindberg, Member of the UNESCO High-Level Panel on Education of Sustainable Development (ESD) and Special Advisor to the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO on ESD, reflects upon the role of higher education institutions in sustainable development and the importance to involve society in the promotion of this issue.
“Universities are key agents for promoting sustainable development”
In December 2002, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to put in place a United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), spanning from 2005 to 2014, and designated UNESCO to lead the Decade.
In a speech given during a lunch-time side event at the 179th UNESCO Executive Board, UNESCO Headquarters, on 14 April 2008 and included in the proceedings of the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development held in Bonn in April 2009, Carl Lindberg gives the background and current framework of the concept of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD):
“(…) The first step of the long journey for ESD was taken almost 36 years ago at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. In Recommendation No. 96, UN and UNESCO were requested to create an international programme on environmental education which should be interdisciplinary and for all educational levels. The long journey has since then passed pass through Tbilisi, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Thessaloniki, Johannesburg, Durban and Ahmedabad. During the journey the demands on education have been widened and deepened. UNESCO has consistently played a crucial part. But over the years there have also been many other conferences organised by university leaders, scientists, teachers, students and NGOs, at which various wise declarations and recommendations have encouraged governments and international organisations to do much more to promote ESD.
All these demands for greater support for ESD have been justified and they are even more justified today when all the challenges facing mankind are becoming increasingly apparent. The main reason for this is that the political will and responsible leadership aimed at tackling these major challenges in all our countries can only be created by well-informed and educated public opinion. The world needs public opinion which, in democratic elections, elects political leaders who are able to take responsible and long-term decisions. This is the whole point of education for sustainable development.
But education for sustainable development is a new kind of education. Education in general has not been able to create sufficient insight into the need to change production and consumption patterns. We see this clearly when we study the level of education in different countries and compare it to the respective countries’ consumption of energy and limited natural resources, emissions of greenhouse gases, and so on. The ecological footprint of mankind, in other words.
Statistics convincingly demonstrate that the population in the wealthy part of the world has the longest and most advanced education but, at the same time, the lifestyle of this population leads to the consumption of most of the world’s limited resources. Today, the higher the average level of education, the greater the destructive impact on our planet.
Can the need for a new kind of education – education for sustainable development – be expressed more clearly?
Sustainable development is crucial for our common future in all parts of the world, it is as important in the capital of Sweden as in a village in the Indian countryside, as important in the middle of Texas as in the suburbs of Nairobi, as important in the city of Berlin as in the city of Beijing or in the country of Benin. Therefore we need this new kind of education – ESD – relevant of course locally, but with the same fundamental ideas in all parts of our world.
This is why the UN resolution on a special Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is still so extremely important. It is a golden opportunity for all of us. (…)
But even if we can demonstrate great progress in ESD we need to cooperate even more to develop strategies for further promoting ESD and to change our education systems so that sustainable development becomes a guiding light in the education sector from pre-school to university. It is an imperative necessity. (…)“
What does it mean to re-orientate education to address sustainability?
Sustainable development ought to be the guiding star for all activities within the university and other higher education institutions. It means that all activities should be permeated by the sustainable development perspective. It does not only concern the content of the curricula, but also the way you are working with education, especially the participatory aspects for the students and so on. There are a lot of things that must be changed, in order to say that you have reoriented the education. The fact that the universities are these agents for promoting sustainable development is extremely important.
How can higher education fulfil its role as a key social agent in sustainable development?
There have been a lot of very interesting examples on how to do that and the one that I know best are the Regional Centres of Expertise (RCE) introduced by the United Nations’ University. I think it’s an excellent way to get the society around the university involved in activities to promote sustainable development and try to connect the universities with the surrounding society, especially schools and museums and so on. So I think the RCE, the model of RCE is excellent for that purpose.
What are the key roles for higher education’s contribution to sustainability?
I think that the universities are extremely important in this issue, because only less than 1% of the population in the world is university students so they must take this responsibility on board, really, and be very serious on education for sustainable development. We have to solve the problems and face the challenges and the higher education institutions have a major role in that. So they must inspire also the surrounding society and work together with NGOs and other civil society actors for the same purpose. The leaders of the university have a special role to show that their university will be responsible in this issue.
The universities that strive to improve the quality of their educational programmes must embrace the fundamental ideas of ESD and put them into practice. I wish that all universities, and in particular those that are sometimes referred to as prestige universities, should both compete and cooperate with each other to be among the forerunners as “Universities for a Sustainable Future”.
In this sense, the Bonn Declaration is extremely relevant for universities all over the world. It is now available in 8 languages and you can find it on www.esd-world-conference-2009.org.
Why does sustainability require to be transversally integrated into higher education?
Sustainable development is an interdisciplinary issue really, so every subject, every teacher in has to reflect on how to introduce the idea of sustainable development within their discipline. So it is a transdisciplinary issue, and I can’t think of any subjects that are not affected by the idea of sustainable development. This is the reason why we have to work over disciplines with this issue. And the world is not divided in disciplines. It is about the real world.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.