Over the last quarter of a century, the world economy has quadrupled, benefiting hundreds of millions of people and lifting millions out of poverty in an accelerated process of globalization, including production, consumption, trade, and investment, as well as an expansion in the number of countries reaching middle-income status.1 In contrast, 60% of the world’s major ecosystem goods and services that underpin livelihoods have been degraded or used unsustainably.
In addition, not all have benefited equally and many have benefited little or not at all from this process. The growing economic shift into middle-income countries (MICS) hides the reality that MICS are home to three-quarters of the world’s poor people. Indeed, the economic growth of recent decades has been accomplished through increasing consumption and production patterns, drawing down on natural resources and allowing for widespread ecosystem degradation and widening inequity gaps.
Compounding this situation is climate change, which threatens to undo and even reverse the progress made toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Climate change poses one of the most serious challenges to achieving sustainable development. As a key causative factor, climate change has already changed the magnitude and frequency of some extreme weather, increasing the length, frequency, and intensity of heat waves, flooding, droughts, intense tropical cyclones, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity. These hazards increase vulnerability to disasters and result in widespread human, material, economic, and environmental losses. These impacts will increase in the future and are exacerbated for poor people and countries with limited resources for adaptation. The effects of climate-related changes are severely undermining food security, efforts to eradicate poverty, and other existing pressures on these societies. Over the long term, these effects, combined with factors such as population pressure, are likely to lead to environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, and to exacerbate existing socioeconomic tensions and create new ones. This will have implications for migration, stability, and security at local, national, regional, and global levels.
Therefore, the challenge facing humanity is to sustain the process of poverty eradication and development while shifting gears so as to avoid greater damage to our environment, including from climate change. Developed countries must preserve development achievements while focusing more on sustainable development and shrinking environmental impacts. Developing countries must continue to raise their people’s living standards and eradicate poverty while containing increases in their ecological footprints. Both must adapt to the impacts of the damage already done. This is a shared challenge with a goal of shared prosperity and sustainable development.
There is a clear education agenda in this process in terms of providing a foundation for the shift in the global demand away from resource- and energy-intensive commodities and toward green products, the production of such commodities, and in sustainable lifestyles. While this change will not happen overnight, the education sector has a critical role to play in imparting the knowledge and skills that lead to behavior change for sustainable development. Specifically, education can enable individuals and communities to make informed decisions and take action for climate compatible sustainable development. For this shift to take place, the international community must champion a learning for sustainable development agenda that is focused on learning not only basic literacy and numeracy but also the relevant knowledge and skills to equip individuals for green growth and sustainable consumption and lifestyles.
This article makes a case for and defines an agenda for learning for sustainable development. It highlights promising practices in formal and nonformal education contexts that have the potential to change consumption patterns and lifestyles. The article concludes by making recommendations for policymakers working on sustainable development and poverty alleviation beyond the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 (Rio + 20) to the post-2015 agenda.