Knowledge, Values and Education for Sustainable Development




(Hluboka, Czech Republic, 19-21 October 2001)


Thirty years have passed since the launching of international environmental action at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment. The momentum of that launch reached an apogee at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. Recognition that environmental protection and management must be integrated with socio-economic issues was accepted at the Earth Summit and given concrete expression in Agenda 21. Yet the planet's environment continues to degrade, millions of people are mired in poverty, and too many environment and development decisions are still taken in isolation. The paradigm of growth and development generally pursued by government and industry has failed to reverse poverty, pollution, and the depletion of ecosystems. In preparing for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), it is worth asking why these 30 years of detailed planning and action have not been more successful in achieving the goals of sustainable development.

Principle 1 of the Rio Declaration states that "Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature." Implementing this principle requires recognition that sustainable development includes an ethical dimension of justice now and for future generations. The dominant patterns of production and consumption have failed to eliminate poverty and are the root cause of much environmental damage. The present system therefore requires profound modification.

The UN Secretary-General has proposed a comprehensive agenda for Johannesburg.1  The focus is clearly on cross-cutting issues and means to apply the principles and action plans already adopted. This contribution from the International Environment Forum2  focusses on how to motivate people and institutions to change their behaviour to achieve greater success in implementing Agenda 21 and other programs of action to achieve the goals of sustainable development.


The foundation of any civilization is knowledge. Much unsustainable behaviour and environmental destruction today is due to a lack of knowledge. Decisions made at all geographical levels—from the individual up to the global scale—have consequences and impacts often beyond the knowledge and foresight of the decision-makers. Decisions made at the national or global level where comprehensive knowledge is available may be viewed with suspicion at a local and individual level. A sustainable society cannot be realized without detailed and thorough knowledge of all the different disciplines involved in sustainable development, and a wise and judicious implementation of this knowledge. Thus, scientists and other purveyors of knowledge have an important role in communicating these issues at all levels in language that everyone can understand. They also need to ensure that all peoples have equitable access to such knowledge .

Scientific knowledge by itself is not sufficient. Motivation is important in the use of knowledge, whether that motivation is spiritual or altruistic in origin, or basically selfish. Religion and science are complementary sources of knowledge. Science has brought progress in health, communication, agriculture and material comfort, but with a widening gap between rich and poor. It has supported war as well as peace. Knowledge of our purpose and place in the world, of good and evil, cannot easily come through science. It is religion that has provided a moral and ethical framework. Successful societies in the past have generally developed using both science and religion as their sources of knowledge. Combining these two sources of knowledge is necessary for a prosperous and sustainable world. Science cannot reconcile issues of values; both relevant knowledge and appropriate values are needed for effective decision-making.


Intimately linked with the role of knowledge in human civilization is that of values. The goals and pursuits of any society are driven by the values that society chooses to prioritize. Values that define humans only as well-endowed animals, that emphasize immediate material well-being and gratification, that favour one group at the expense of others, that encourage individualistic hedonistic self-satisfaction over the family, community or society as a whole, and that focus on the short term over the long term, have pushed civilization in very unsustainable directions. Such values are at the root of the the planet's dilemma.

In the current era of rampant individualism in Western culture, promotion of a global, collective system of values may seem unrealistic. Fortunately, common values run through all the great religious, spiritual and cultural traditions and form the foundation of human and other rights. For example, global solidarity based on the recognition of the oneness of humanity can place individual decisions within their broader context and create a feeling of responsibility for the rest of humankind. Work can be seen not only as a way of earning income, but in a more spiritual context as a form of service to humanity. This motivation leads to the pursuit of opportunities that result in economic, social and spiritual progress. The practice of moderation and contentment can help to solve the social and environmental problems originating from excessive consumption.

We need to find ways to restructure the economic and social institutions of our society to reflect similar values. Just as an individual could view work as service, business and government could be reoriented to be of service to the whole society and not just a favoured part. In the context of business, profit should be just one measure of the efficiency of a company's operations, rather than an end in itself. Justice also has institutional dimensions. For example, workers will be motivated to contribute to their business if they receive a just share of the profits. Collective decisions will be most just if they are based on widespread consultation and participation by all those affected. There may even be a just rate of return on capital, with a moderate rate of interest that reflects true value added, rather than hidden exploitation or externalizing of costs.

There is also an institutional responsibility, divided between government and business or private owners, for the equitable and sustainable management of natural resources for the benefit of all humanity. Sustainability requires respect for the limits of the life support systems of this planet. This is an institutional responsibility at a global scale for which institutions need to be developed or strengthened.

Values, or the application of spiritual principles, have been the missing ingredient in most past approaches to sustainable development. Grand declarations and detailed action plans, even when approved by all the governments, do not go far if people are not motivated to implement them in their own lives, and if institutions are not made responsible to carry them out. The exciting thing about addressing sustainability at the level of values is the potential to create self-generating human systems building a more sustainable and thus ever-advancing civilization.


It is apparent that the message of sustainable development is not being received widely at the grassroots. This may be due in part to educational approaches that act as a constraint rather than a catalyst. There are indications that the current educational system and the economic system that it perpetuates contribute to humanity's problems. Young adults tend to emerge from the educational system without a deep sense of ecological matters and without knowing what to do with the knowledge they do have. They are unequipped to make decisions which are environmentally enlightened when they take their place in the work force.

Parents, and particularly mothers, are the first educators, and the pre-school years are the most critical in value formation. The core values instilled in the small child have traditionally come from family, culture and religion (or spirituality), but more recently the media (particularly television) and advertising have become important transmitters and manipulators of values. When children arrive at school, they usually receive information, sometimes knowledge, but rarely ever wisdom.

A new education paradigm is needed. The focus should be on the requirements of sustainable development and fostering cooperation instead of competition. The aim should be to help the child discover its unique potential, rather than solely concentrating on the acquisition of skills to be competitive in the job market. Such an educational approach would be participatory, interactive, integrative, value-driven, and knowledge-based.

The first step is to draw on the wisdom of the local community in creating a school and curriculum appropriate for that specific situation, while placing it in the global context. The community needs to plan where it wants to be tomorrow, how it will get there and the role to be played by educating the children. If community members, including the children, participate in deciding what should be learned, education will be meaningful. In this way people will become concerned, then committed and then take action.

The second step is to change the emphasis from curriculum development to human development. Education must include training in communication, decision making, problem solving, creativity, conflict resolution, envisioning the future and change management.

The third step is to acknowledge that in education, the roles of family, business, commercial interests, non-governmental organizations and the media are just as important as formal schooling and that the goals of advertising, for instance, should be aligned to the goals of creating a sustainable community.

The fourth step in education for sustainable development is to acknowledge that there is a spiritual aspect to human life that has been pushed aside in the pursuit of material well being. Education needs to recognize the complementarity of science and religion and the essential roles of each in creating a prosperous and sustainable society.


Action starts with individuals. Institutions can plan, legislate and create incentives, but it is individuals who take action. This requires the interplay of all three areas: knowledge, values, and education, influencing individual and then collective decision-making, behaviour, and action.

Integration among the three elements is essential for sustainable development. Scientific knowledge without values can produce materialism, exploitation and destruction. Religious values without reason can lead to superstition and fanaticism. Education must bring both knowledge and values together to be effective. . Since sustainability is many things to many people, we need to extract from our understanding a sense of common purpose which can be shared by all peoples.

Action on sustainable development also requires a balance among its three pillars of economic development or material welfare, social development, and environmental protection, and the ethical dimension of justice now and for generations to come. Each society, each nation and community, must find its own balance among these dimensions, applying the principles of a global vision of sustainability in ways and means appropriate to its own circumstances.

The path towards a sustainable global civilization involves many participants. The balance of leadership is now shared more widely among governments, civil society, the private sector and NGOs. All are becoming involved in, and should consult together about, sustainable development.


Develop a widespread culture of science for sustainable development

The way knowledge is generated by science and used in society needs to be restructured to improve decision making for sustainable development. Knowledge should be accessible to everyone, not just scientists, and should reach down to the local level where many resource use decisions are taken. It should include information on environmental status and trends, and the effects of local activities on the environment. Simple indicators, graphics and maps can help to make the information easily understandable. As far as possible, local people should be involved in monitoring their own environments and activities, reporting the results and receiving immediate feedback. This will require the establishment of local scientific institutions everywhere, so that everyone can have access to science and its benefits. With new information technologies, this is now becoming possible. The aim should be a system in which each decision is taken with the best available information, placing the local situation in its larger geographic, national and global context, and integrating all relevant factors.

Extend the range of indicators

Indicators of sustainable development need to be extended to measures of the cultural, ethical and spiritual dimensions of society which are vital to its sustainability. Environmental audits and balance sheets need to be supplemented with ethical audits and balance sheets.

Strengthen continuing consultative processes

Mechanisms to exchange knowledge and to agree on values among governments, NGOs, the private sector and major groups should be strengthened. Effective consultation will help in the discovery of creative solutions to the challenges of globalization and sustainability.

Promote universal values for sustainable development

Values or spiritual principles are the basis for human behaviour. The achievement of sustainable development will only be possible through the broad acceptance of a range of appropriate supporting values. Much progress has been made in the last decade to identify such values (most notably through the Rio Declaration and the Earth Charter). Agreement by the world's peoples upon a set of universal values for sustainable development will be a major first step. Once such values have been accepted they should be promoted in all arenas.

Foster education for sustainable development

Educational systems should incorporate sustainable development into their curriculum and practices. Both the scientific knowledge and the values necessary for local action and global sustainability should be included. Educational efforts should ensure that there is continuity from generation to generation in society's progress towards sustainability.

1 United Nations. 2001. "Implementing Agenda 21." Report of the Secretary-General to the Second preparatory session for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

2 The International Environment Forum (IEF) is a virtual organization of environment and development professionals from some 38 countries, inspired by the spiritual principles of the Baha'i Faith. Its 5th International Conference, held in Hluboka, Czech Republic, 19-21 October 2001, addressed the theme "Knowledge, Values and Education for Sustainable Development." Some of the conference participants are involved in preparatory processes for the WSSD. This report summarizes and synthesizes the contributions from each conference speaker, exploring the role of knowledge, values, and education in sustainable development. The goal is to provide ideas and recommendations to assist the WSSD to fulfill its potential in moving the process of sustainable development forward.

International Environment Forum - Updated 25 January 2002