Student in field with tablet.


If you’re like most people, you’re concerned about issues of sustainability (e.g., climate change). But you may also wonder what, if anything, sustainability has to do with your discipline. First of all, what do we even mean by sustainability? Admittedly, it is a broad and somewhat contentious term. In a nutshell, sustainability means fulfilling present needs without diminishing the prospects of present and future generations. In other words, sustainability is a commitment to sustain a livable planet. (For a more detailed definition see What is ESD?) When we think in these terms, it’s hard to think of a discipline that isn’t connected to sustainability.

The transition to a sustainable and just world touches on many aspects of our personal and professional lives. To be alive at this point in history is both daunting and exciting. As we move towards a more livable future, many aspects of how we live and work will necessarily be transformed. Higher education has a pivotal role to play in leading and responding to this transformation. However, critics have argued that universities tend to do more responding than leading. They are slow to react to change – even over critical issues such as climate change. Charles Hopkins once observed it is the most educated nations that leave the deepest ecological footprints upon the planet – the main focus of education seems to be economic development. Taking it even further, David Orr has argued – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that the purpose of universities appears to be the extinction of the human species. Orr contends that our universities have been the training grounds for those professionals responsible for the unintended consequences of climate change and the potentially catastrophic outcomes that may follow. Such outcomes, perpetuated by well-educated people, are hard to miss. For example, one likely future scenario that scientists predict is mass extinction in the world’s oceans (Borenstein, 2011, para. 4). A frightening prospect for humankind when you consider that more than 3.5 billion people rely on food from the oceans as their primary source of sustenance. Other sobering scientific predictions include rising sea levels, the extensive wave of extinctions of plants and animals, the rise in carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere – all of which point to an uncertain future and all largely originate from the actions of highly educated people (Hofmann, Butler, & Tans, 2009; IPCC, 2014; Jackson et al., 2001; Oreskes, 2004; Rahmstorf et al., 2007; Wilson, 1992).

Mary Catherine Bateson frames the necessary transition of our education systems, from one that is part of the problem to essentially becoming part of the solution, in this way:

Our machines, our value systems, our educational systems will all have to be informed by (the) switch, from the machine age when we tried to design schools to be like factories, to an ecological age, when we want to design schools, families and social institutions in terms of maintaining the quality of life, not just for our species, but for the whole planet (cited in Sterling, 2008, para. 5).

What is education for sustainable development?

Sustainable development strives to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Education for sustainable development is an approach to learning that fosters students’ knowledge, skills, and values as they prepare for the transition to a sustainable and just society. The United Nations launched and recently concluded the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) in order to refocus educational programs and systems, including higher education, on the development of knowledge, skills, and values linked to sustainability. Further, education for sustainable development (ESD) seeks to encourage an active and informed citizenry that understands the mutually dependent nature of social, economic, and environmental systems. The scope of ESD is broad. ESD objectives include the development of knowledge, skills, and values that empower people to act as responsible, ecologically literate, citizens. Specific skills include: critical thinking, creative problem-solving, the cultivation of empathy, and the ability to collaborate with others on complex problems. Since the problems tackled in such a context are authentic problems, ESD is interdisciplinary in nature. This necessitates a transition from the discipline-focused culture of teaching in higher education towards a teaching that encompasses a broader set of skills and knowledge, in conjunction with community-minded organizations. 

According to UNESCO (2005), education for sustainable development contains the following elements:

  • Interdisciplinary and holistic: sustainable development should be embedded in the whole curriculum, not a separate subject.
  • Values driven: the assumed norms—that is, the shared values and principles underpinning sustainability—are made explicit.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving: development of these skills leads to confidence in addressing the dilemmas and challenges of sustainability.
  • Multi-methods: a variety of pedagogies should be used. Teaching that is geared simply to passing on knowledge should be recast into an approach in which teachers and learners work together to acquire knowledge and play a role in shaping the environment in their educational institutions.
  • Participatory decision making: learners should participate in decisions on how they are to learn.
  • Locally relevant: education for sustainable development should address local as well as global issues, and use the language(s) that learners most commonly use.

ESD encourages people to address issues, locally and globally, take action, and reflect on their own values, as well as the values of their society (e.g., critiquing social inequities, overconsumption, individualism, etc.). The overarching goal of ESD is to equip people with the knowledge, skills, and values to live well – both individually and collectively, now and in the future.

“Higher Education is no longer preparation for an assumed stable future but a nurturing of individual and collective potential to live well and skillfully in an already complex and volatile world, towards human and planetary betterment.”
Steven Sterling

The origins of sustainable development

The term sustainable development can be traced back to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. It was here that the international community officially acknowledged the interconnected nature of human actions and environmental degradation. Member nations generally agreed that a balance between society, the economy, and the physical environment was required. A consensus formed that the world needed to shift towards sustainable development. At the Rio Earth Summit 20 years later, a more ambitious definition was proposed:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Endeavoring for balance between society, the economy, and the environment is the foundation for the practice of education for sustainable development. The need for this transition is now widely accepted among political parties from all stripes, industry, labour, public institutions, and the general population. The challenge for post-secondary institutions will be to respond to the societal need for educated professionals with the understanding and capacity to respond to the complex problems ahead.

Strategies toward education for sustainable development

While there are many ways to approach such a broad objective as sustainability, a good place to begin is to think of sustainability education as working with students to:

  • Consider what the concept of global citizenship means in the context of their own discipline and in their future professional and personal lives
  • Consider what the concept of environmental stewardship means in the context of their own discipline and in their future professional and personal lives
  • Think about issues of social justice, ethics and wellbeing, and how these relate to ecological and economic factors
  • Develop a future-facing outlook; learning to think about the consequences of actions, and how systems and societies can be adapted to ensure sustainable futures.

(Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education & the Higher Education Academy, 2014)

If you are new to the idea of integrating sustainability into your teaching and curriculum, a helpful resource to get you started is Stephen Sterling’s The Future Fit Framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE. The following is a passage from that guide that offer up ideas to help ‘get the ball rolling’.

  • Find allies – who you might work with or learn from, colleagues who are already engaged in ESD, perhaps in another school or faculty: begin to develop an ESD ‘community of practice’.
  • Check any institutional, school or faculty teaching and learning strategies for current or potential relevance to sustainability as regards content and pedagogy.
  • Evaluate any university policies in relation to their current or potential relevance to sustainability.
  • Assess the current state of ESD in the area of your work by doing a SWOT analysis with colleagues (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats).
  • Begin an audit of modules and programmes you are involved in as regards sustainability content (see Appendix 6 ‘A basic ESD audit tool’).
  • Start by ‘tweaking’ and later further revising your programmes and courses to take account of sustainability (see Section 10.1 ‘4 Rs model’).
  • Consider and weigh the relative difficulty and advantages of revising existing modules to embed sustainability, or developing new sustainability-oriented modules.
  • Design imaginative assessments that can encourage your students to consider sustainability topics in their coursework – minor adjustments at first, but consider building in sustainability-oriented assignments when programmes are revised.
  • Start developing an action plan or strategy for yourself, or your group, or your school – depending on your position – which aims to embed ESD in curriculum effectively, within a stated time frame.
  • Talk to your students’ union: they may well be involved in sustainability initiatives that can relate to curriculum.
  • Suggest sustainability themes and opportunities relevant to student projects and work placements.
  • Talk to estates: they may well be involved in sustainability initiatives that can relate to curriculum.
  • Build sustainability into your course monitoring and course approval procedures.
  • Be opportunist and proactive.
  • Do it yourself. That is, make a start, however small, rather than wait for policy to change.

When more established – the wider institution

  • Organise events that have a sustainability theme to develop interest and networks, e.g. seminars, lectures, workshops, green weeks, community events, outside speakers, etc.
  • With a network of interested people involved, and with the support of senior management if at all possible, work towards embedding sustainability in faculty and institutional teaching and learning policies.
  • Make the business case for sustainability to colleagues and decision-makers. This can include increased staff/student motivation, research opportunities, knowledge transfer, profile and student recruitment.
  • With a network of interested people involved, and with the support of senior management if at all possible, work towards the development of a sustainability policy for the institution.
  • Establish a network of involved and interested colleagues – perhaps involving teaching, research and support staff. Some HEIs have a network of ESD champions or contact points across schools.
  • Ask for or help initiate development staff development programmes with an ESD theme.
  • Ensure you do ‘what it says on the tin’: if your programme is marketed as having a sustainability dimension, it needs to reflect it: students are quick to pick up on gaps.
  • Publicise and share successes both internally and externally.

Discussion Question: Which of these tactics might work for you – or perhaps is already working? What other ideas for taking this work forward might you or your colleagues have? (Sterling, 2012, p. 24)

Examples of learning outcomes

You may also want to consider the following examples of sustainability-related student learning outcomes and how they may relate to your own discipline:

  • Each student will be able to define sustainability
  • Each student will be able to explain how sustainability relates to their lives and their values, and how their actions impact issues of sustainability
  • Each student will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality
  • Each student will be able explain how systems are interrelated
  • Each student will learn change-agent skills
  • Each student will learn how to apply concepts of sustainability to their campus and community by engaging in the challenges and solutions of sustainability on their campus
  • Each student will learn how to apply concepts of sustainability globally by engaging in the challenges and the solutions of sustainability in a world context

(Barth, 2014, p. 57 – Implementing Sustainability in Higher Education)


The future fit framework – An introductory guide to teaching and learning in sustainability in HE. (Higher Education Academy – Plymouth University)

7 Steps to: Embedding Sustainability into Student Learning (Plymouth University)

ESD Tools and Publications (Plymouth University)

Education for Sustainability: A Guide for Educators on Teaching and Learning Approaches (University of Gloucestershire)

Sustainability Learning Community (University of New Hampshire)

Teaching and Learning for a sustainable future: A multimedia teacher education program (UNESCO).


Barth, M. (2015). Implementing sustainability in higher education: Learning in an age of transformation (Routledge studies in sustainable development).

Davim, J. (2016). Challenges in Higher Education for Sustainability. Springer International Publishing.

Evans, T. (2012). Occupy education: Living and learning sustainability. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Global University Network for Innovation. (2012). Higher education in the world 4: Higher education’s commitment to sustainability: From understanding to action. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Johnston, L. (2013). Higher education for sustainability: Cases, challenges, and opportunities from across the curriculum. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jones, P., Selby, David, & Sterling, Stephen R. (2010). Sustainability education: Perspectives and practice across higher education. Washington, DC: Earthscan.

Shephard, K. (2015). Higher education for sustainable development. London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, & MCB University Press. (2000). International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (Online).


Hofmann, D., Butler, J., & Tans, P. (2009). A new look at atmospheric carbon dioxide.Atmospheric Environment. 43(12), 2084-2086.

IPCC, 2014: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1-32.

Jackson, J., Kirby, M., Wolfgang, H., Bjorndal, K., Botsford, L., Bourque, B. …Warner, R. (2001). Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems. Science, 293(5530), 629-637.

Oreskes, N. (2004). The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science, 306(5702), 1686.

Orr, D. (1994). Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Rahmstorf, S., Cazenave, A., Church, J., Hansen, J., Keeling, R., Parker, D., & Somerville, R. (2007). Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections. Science, 316(5825), 709.

Sterling, S. (2008). Sustainable education – towards a deep learning response to Unsustainability. Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review, 6 (Spring), 63-68.

Sterling, S. (2012) Future Fit Framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in higher education institutions. York, UK: Higher Education Academy

UNESCO (2011). Education for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from:

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (2005). UNECE Strategy for Education for Sustainable Development, Vilnius, UNECE. 

Wilson, E.O. (1992). The Diversity of Life (Questions of Science). New York, NY: Norton & Company, Inc.