Skip directly to content

What is Sustainability Education?

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is not a new word for environmentalism. Sustainability is not a goal or a state of being. It is a recognition and a process.

"Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." — Our Common Future, 1987

"A dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways that simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth's life supports systems." — Forum for the Future, 2008

Whatever definition we choose, it is important to remember that sustainability is not a goal or a state of being. It is a recognition and a process. It is the recognition that humans have made a fundamental error in trying to compartmentalize areas of concern. There are no environmental crises, or energy crises, or poverty crises, or economic crises. There are just interconnected problems that drive each other. And sustainability is a process. We will never be able to say "we were sustainable today". Sustainability is a compass that shows us the direction for continued improvement in creating a relationship between people and the planet that works for everybody.

So how do we move from a "Sustainability Mission Statement" to a series of practical "to do" items? We need to agree on a common set of goals, some useful approaches, and some ways to measure progress. In a broad sense, the world community has already delineated the goals. The United Nations Millennium Declaration, adopted in 2000, lays out the big problems facing humanity. We need to:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education

  • Promote gender equality and empower women

  • Reduce child mortality

  • Improve maternal health

  • Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases

  • Ensure a healthy environment

  • Develop a global partnership for development

Secondly, we need some approaches. Again, there is some agreement here. The U.N. designated the decade of 2005 - 2015 as the 'UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development'. The idea is that with the complex and interconnected problems facing humanity today, we need to make the point of education to be education for sustainability. This means focusing on:

  • Public understanding of the principles behind sustainability

  • Mainstreaming Education For Sustainability (EFS)

  • Lifelong-learning for all

  • Recognizing that EFS is relevant to all nations

  • Developing specialized training programs

Finally, we need some metrics, or ways to measure progress. How do we know if we are doing better this quarter than last? How do we choose between this course of action and that? People seem to be very good at finding areas of disagreement, but what can we agree on? What can unite the political left and right? The rich and poor? The religious and a-religious? We can all agree that "healthy people" is a good goal. Not just physically healthy, but emotionally healthy, spiritually healthy, psychologically healthy, etc. To achieve this, people need a healthy environment, healthy economies, and healthy social interactions. Of course there will continue to be many challenges in deciding whether a particular course of action leads to, for example, greater emotional health. Or whether some decisions necessarily lead to a tradeoff in one area versus another. But, if we recognize that we all are on the same side and want the same thing, we will be able to use sustainability to keep us moving in the right direction.

Sustainability Education

Our current social and environmental challenges have resulted from technologies, lifestyle choices, and ways of thinking that human beings have developed and passed down over centuries.

Facing these challenges will require an education that directly addresses them, helping tomorrow's citizens to develop new technologies, new lifestyle choices, and new ways of thinking.

In response to current global suffering and the consensus of the scientific community, the United Nations has declared 2005-2014 to be the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development, and has called for a complete rethinking of education to create the social change needed to bring our communities into balance with natural systems. As New York Governor David Paterson has stated, "Global warming presents each of us with a question-do we continue with the status quo or are we ready to make significant cultural and lifestyle alterations to avoid a catastrophic tipping point? Future actions will require a fundamental change of philosophy in how we live our lives."

Sustainability education supports young people in developing the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind and heart they will need to create sustainable communities that are in balance with the ecological systems that support us. Not simply environmental education, sustainability education integrates the social, economic, and ecological dimensions of the human endeavor, emphasizing the relationship between all three of these critical realms. Sustainability education emphasizes building young people's competence as systems thinkers, who are able to understand the complex dynamics of the contemporary human-earth situation, and respond wisely to our collective challenges. New Roots Charter School is among the leaders in developing the emerging field of sustainability education. All our courses and projects feature this systems-thinking orientation, and student engagement in proactive measures to support our community's transition to more sustainable systems that enhance our quality of life.

From the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development website: 

"Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)" is a concept that goes far beyond environmental education. ESD is the educational process of achieving human development ("the three pillars of human development" proposed by UNDP: economic growth, social development, and environmental protection) in an inclusive, equitable and secure manner. It thus includes education for poverty alleviation, human rights, gender equality, cultural diversity, international understanding, peace and many more. UNESCO proposed that the vision of education for sustainable development is a world where everyone has the opportunity to benefit from quality education and learn the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future and for positive societal transformation.”

Community-Based Curriculum

A vital dimension of New Roots Charter School is our connection with our community. Students engage in frequent field studies and community service projects, internships and apprenticeships, and community-based capstone projects. Our Tuesday and Thursday schedules have been designed with the block scheduling and flexibility that allows teachers ample opportunity to schedule labs and mentoring community activities in the field. A diverse group of community partners provide New Roots students with extensive internship and community service opportunities.

New Roots students can be seen around town serving their community in partnership with the many local organizations, including:

  • Reading/homework buddy groups at GIAC and Fall Creek After-School Program

  • Teaching technology skills to older adults at Lifelong

  • Playing games and doing crafts with residents at Beechtree Care Center

  • Sewing fuel- and money-saving "door snakes" for low-income residents using salvaged fabric at Sew Green

  • Building cold-frames with Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County for a Town of Ithaca community garden with locally-harvested locust wood

  • Refurbishing and recycling used computers through the Ithaca Youth Bureau's Computer All-Stars program

  • Forming a peer education mental health role-playing theater troupe in collaboration with Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service

Students learn first-hand about community needs through ongoing service-learning, a method of teaching, learning and reflecting that combines academic classroom curriculum with meaningful service. Research consistently shows that service-learning is a powerful way to engage students with diverse learning styles and levels of academic achievement, and that students who engage in service learning projects in high school are more likely to be community leaders later in life.