Central to the theory and practice of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is the effort to combine its three constituent components: education/learning, sustainability and development. The substance of ESD resides in the intimate connection between the content of sustainable development and the methods of education and learning. Sustainable development can be understood and acted upon through an appreciation of the dynamic, complex and systemic relationship between the planetary ecological substrate and human societies in their social, economic and cultural make-up.
Sustainable human societies are characterized by social justice, economic equity and enhanced human capabilities. They allow individuals and groups to make considered choices for advancing current and future common welfare while maintaining ecological integrity. The quality of human capability rests on agency. This is a central element in ESD.
Prevailing dominant social, economic and political development paradigms do not necessarily promote social and economic justice. Also, they compromise the integrity of the ecological substrate, while producing physical and biological effects exceeding critical planetary boundaries. At the same time, examples abound of how people, through education and learning, actively engage in shaping ecological, material, social, economic and political conditions for sustainable human livelihoods – in the present as well as in the future, for the many and not for a privileged few.
Development processes are learning processes. They are neither given nor pre-determined. Educational institutions (from pre-school to university, from skills training to adult education) have a critical role to play to enable and empower young and old to comprehend and act on them. But not only there. Wherever people can meet, interact and explore the conditions of their existence – in families, communities, cities, work places and associations – learning can take place.
Therefore the methods of education and learning should do justice to the essence of sustainability and development. They allow the learners to go beyond disciplinary, geographical, cultural and political borders. They create the conditions for agency and empowerment to address the issues at hand; for developing scientific knowledge; for problem solving; for analyzing complexity and synthesizing the acquired insights; for encouraging an ethic of care both for other people and Earth; and, for exploring and establishing sustainable forms of social organization, production and consumption.