Education For Sustainability

Education For Sustainability Citizenship In Europe

Academic Article

Abstract: This article argues that education for sustainability citizenship is urgently needed to provide Europe’s young citizens with sources of hope in troubled times. It relates unsustainable development to a lack of democracy in a neoliberal Europe; examines alternative models of European development that claim to offer better prospects of sustainability; and suggests that education for sustainability citizenship provides ways for students and teachers to critically examine these in empowering ways. It outlines the four dimensions of such education before examining the contradictions surrounding eco-schooling which is currently a major vehicle for education for sustainable development in Europe.


The continuing debt and stagnation crisis in the Eurozone has led an increasing number of commentators to suggest that Europe’s model of neoliberal capitalist development is destructive and unsustainable. A report from the International Federation of Red Crescent Societies (IFRCS 2013) states that Europe is facing its worst humanitarian crisis in six decades. Millions throughout Europe now depend on food aid, including large numbers of the “working poor”. The costs of recession, austerity, public spending cuts, and unemployment have fallen particularly heavily on the young who are fast becoming a “jilted generation”, denied the access to jobs, housing and a relatively secure future that their parents took for granted (Howker & Malik 2013). In October 2013, 5.7 million young people (under 25) were unemployed in the EU-28, of whom 3.6 million were in the euro area (Eurostat 2013). Between 10 and 20% of Europe’s children and adolescents suffer from mental health problems, with higher rates of depression and emotional disorder amongst the disadvantaged (Jane-Llopis & Braddick 2008).

Given the continuing crisis and its impact on the young, it is vital that education offers them sources of hope and empowers them to envision and enact more sustainable futures by developing appropriate values, knowledge and skills. The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that ends this year (Wals 2012) had the potential to develop such education, but has disappointed some commentators due to its lack of political realism and failure to embrace the concept of sustainability citizenship (Huckle 2012). This article relates unsustainable development to a lack of democracy in a neoliberal Europe, examines alternative models of European development that claim to offer better prospects of sustainability, and suggests that education for sustainability citizenship provides ways for students and teachers to critically examine these in empowering ways. Eco-schooling is currently a major vehicle for education for sustainable development in Europe, and the article concludes by examining its current contradictions.

Sustainability and sustainable development

At its simplest, the concept of sustainability refers to a system’s ability to function indefinitely. The dominant understanding of this concept, as applied to society, is about balancing ecological, economic and social objectives so that society can obtain the goods and services it needs while conserving natural resources and services and delivering social justice. Such a society can be said to be ecologically, economically and socially sustainable, and some would add the dimensions of cultural and personal sustainability to ensure that cultural diversity is conserved alongside biodiversity and that all citizens are healthy and have a positive outlook on life. A society which is seeking to realise sustainability can be said to be undergoing sustainable development.

Sustainable development is inevitably political since it can only be achieved through decisions that determine who gets what, where, when and how. Given that there are limits to what the bio-physical world can supply on a sustainable basis, the social world should be organised in ways that respect these limits but still allow the progressive co-evolution of the two worlds. This means that in return for rights to a sustainable life in a sustainable society, citizens should exercise responsibilities towards the rest of human and non-human nature existing both in the present and the future. There is wide-ranging debate on what form of political economy (technology and social organisation) can best accommodate and develop such sustainability citizenship (Hopwood et al. 2005).

The Earth Charter (Earth Charter Initiative 2014), launched in 2000 after widespread discussion and debate throughout global civil society, is a set of principles for building a global society based on respect for nature; universal human rights, economic justice; and a culture of peace. Principles 3 and 13 recognise the link between sustainability and democracy, urging global society to “build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable and peaceful”, and to “strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision-making and access to justice”. Democracy is the means by which citizens can hold those exercising economic, political and cultural power to account and realise their common interest in sustainable development. It is to the democratic deficit in Europe that we now turn.

Democracy is the means by which citizens can hold those exercising economic, political and cultural power to account and realise their common interest in sustainable development. It is to the democratic deficit in Europe that we now turn.

Unsustainable development and the lack of democracy in a neoliberal Europe

Neoliberalism is the economic ideology that has shaped development in the European Union in recent decades. It maintains that economic governance is best left to the market and its ability to self-regulate; that a single currency and the logic of financial markets will reduce rather than increase economic and social differences; and that deregulation, privatisation and the privileging of corporate power will enable European corporations to grow large enough to compete on a global scale. Milne (2011) reminds us that the flaws at the heart of the euro were clear from the start: “To tie together 17 countries with widely different levels of development and productivity around a single currency without large-scale tax and spend transfers, and underpin it with a rigidly deflationary central bank without full monetary powers, or any kind of credible democratic control, was always a disaster waiting to happen”.

What did happen was that countries on the periphery of the Eurozone tended to have higher costs and be less productive than those at the core. But a common, low interest rate allowed them to disguise their weakness with asset-price booms. The absence of any controls on capital, removed as part of the process of setting up monetary union, meant that trade surpluses generated by the stronger economies were recycled into Mediterranean property speculation. The inevitable bust in 2008 led to enormous financial difficulties not just for the banks that had lent the money but for the governments that stood behind them. The cost of economic failure has been high, as noted earlier, because there are inadequate mechanisms for shifting resources from rich to poor parts of the Eurozone and labour is unable to move as freely as capital (Elliott 2011).

The harsh austerity policies imposed in the wake of the financial crisis are highlighting the deeply undemocratic construction of the EU as the Commission assumes ever greater powers to control national budgets without any serious oversight by the European Parliament.

The harsh austerity policies imposed in the wake of the financial crisis are highlighting the deeply undemocratic construction of the EU as the Commission assumes ever greater powers to control national budgets without any serious oversight by the European Parliament. Fiscal rules introduced in 2012 mean that GDP could decline by as much as 3.5% in the euro area as a whole between 2013 and 2016, with far higher rates of decline in some peripheral states. The common theme of governance changes introduced in response to the crisis of government debt is to subject the economically weaker countries to constant pressure for expenditure cuts, erosion of labour standards and privatisation of public assets. This intensifies the longstanding legitimacy crisis of the EU and widens the democratic deficit

“as key decisions are shielded from democratic pressures; as the big corporations dictate EU policies and the content of EU legislation; as the powerful European Central Bank takes critical decisions for which it is not democratically accountable and as national social models are disorganised and dismantled in the name of the single market or of fiscal consolidation” (EuroMemorandum 2013: 3).

The erosion of public provision of social services, more flexible labour markets and cuts to welfare benefits that accompany austerity all represent an erosion of Europe’s social model from which citizens are assumed to benefit in return for allowing capital a single market. Education is being restructured as part of this erosion, with a stronger role for the private sector in providing and managing schools and colleges, a tighter correspondence between schooling the needs of the labour market and stricter controls over curriculum content and pedagogy to exclude a genuinely critical and democratic education (Jones 2014; Fielding & Moss 2011).

Sustainable development in a democratic Europe

Neoliberals either reject calls for sustainability as ill-founded and a barrier to economic growth (e.g. climate change deniers) or accommodate its ecological and economic dimensions only to the extent that they enhance profits through resource and energy savings and the elimination of waste, made possible by new technology (ecological modernisation). Such greening of capitalism is often promoted as part of corporate social responsibility and while it should not be rejected, it fails to address the structural causes of unsustainable development in Europe (Dryzek 1997).

Green social democrats and green socialists are amongst those offering alternatives to neoliberalism. The former advocate variants of a European green New Deal, whereby Keynesian fiscal policy is used to prompt the transition to green technologies, create new jobs, and transfer resources between richer and poorer regions, at the same time re-building democracy. Building the Good Society: The Project of the Democratic Left (Cruddas & Nahles 2009; Lawson 2014) seeks democratic control of capitalism, democratic states, and the devolution of power by, for example, strengthening the advocacy role of civil society organisations and trade unions. To enable a “good society” to grow from below by the coordinated actions of citizens, Europe’s leaders should introduce a coordinated fiscal stimulus and fair taxation policies, reform the European Monetary Union, broaden the mandate of the European Central Bank to include social objectives and create a new industrial policy. They should introduce a European minimum wage, restore trade union rights, subject transnational corporations to democratic oversight and aid the development of the Global South by, for example, closing tax havens, taxing global financial transactions and creating fair-trade policies. Framing all these policies is ecological sustainability and the belief that only governments, operating on a European level, can achieve the necessary reconstruction demanded by climate change, peak oil and the need for energy and food security.

Green socialists go further than green social democrats, believing that social ownership and participative planning of key elements of the economy are the keys to sustainable development (Albert 2014; Campagna & Campiglio 2012) They seek radical forms of democracy that encompass the economic, political and cultural sectors and are more likely to ensure socially useful forms of production using clean or waste-free technologies. The new technological revolution that is widening inequalities and leading to high levels of youth unemployment under capitalism (Brynjolfsson & McAfee 2014; Shutt 2010) has the potential to enable a post-industrial form of socialism (Little 1998). It could free people from much of the work they currently find routine and alienating, provide everyone with a combination of work in the formal sector and voluntary (caring) sectors of the economy, and in return provide everyone with a basic wage or citizen’s income. New economies of time would create social spaces for cooperation, caring and freedom beyond paid work and consumerism, allowing the revival of democracy, reconnection with the rest of nature, and the development of self-managing communities (Roberts 1979). Green socialists are to be found in green political parties (along with green social democrats), in radical parties such as Syriza in Greece, and in the Occupy (Graeber 2013; Plyers 2012) and Transition (Hopkins 2013) movements.

Sustainability citizenship

Against this background of a Europe in crisis with politicians and others offering diverse routes to sustainability, political theorists and activists have been developing new models of environmental and sustainability citizenship that reflect Earth Charter principles (Dobson 2003; Smith & Pangsapa 2008). They have widened the spatial and temporal parameters of conventional citizenship and extended it to embrace the private sphere. Sustainable citizenship requires citizens to exercise responsibilities to distant people and places and past and future generations, and exercise care or stewardship for non-human nature. Drawing on cosmopolitanism, civic republicanism and feminism, it enlarges the public sphere in which citizenship is conceived and practiced to include the environment, embraces the private sphere of citizens’ lifestyles and consumption patterns, and is relational in the sense that it requires a keen awareness of the connections which exist between social actions, economic practices and environmental processes. This leads Dobson to note that sustainability citizens must be aware that private environment-related actions can have public environment-related impacts. Such citizens will display “pro-sustainability behaviour in public and private, driven by a belief in fairness of the distribution of environmental goods, in participation, and in the co-creation of sustainability policy”, and will believe that “market-based solutions alone will not bring about sustainability” (Dobson 2011: 11).

Drawing on cosmopolitanism, civic republicanism and feminism, [sustainability citizenship] enlarges the public sphere in which citizenship is conceived and practiced to include the environment, embraces the private sphere of citizens’ lifestyles and consumption patterns…

Van Poeck, Vandenabeele and Bruyninckx (2013) use the label “sustainable citizenship” to denote a form of citizenship that employs the concept of ecological footprints to suggest a post-cosmopolitan form of ecological citizenship (Dobson 2003); it extends notions of liberal environmental citizenship by regarding citizenship as a site of struggle where “the limits of established rights are (re)defined and (re)affirmed” (Gilbert & Phillips  2003) and draws on civic republican approaches to citizenship to suggest that sustainability citizenship is a form of resistance citizenship existing within and as a corrective to unsustainable development (Barry 2005). They suggest this emerging multidimensional view of sustainable citizenship has potential to enrich education for sustainable development (ESD) by providing insights into its overlapping dimensions: scale, ethical, relational and political. In this article I use the term sustainability citizenship, after Dobson, rather than the alternative that Van Poeck and her co-authors introduce.

Education for European sustainability citizenship

So what might education for European sustainability citizenship involve? To answer this question, we will consider each of its four dimensions and their implications for the education of older school students.

The scale dimension can be considered foundational as it introduces students to global society, the position of European states and citizens within the global division of labour, and the ways in which personal and collective decisions have impacts on distant human and non-human others. Ecological footprints (WWF European Policy Office 2014) provide an appropriate starting point by alerting students to the fact that if everyone in the world consumed as many natural resources as the average European, we would need three planets to support them. Related lessons in history should reveal Europe’s history of ecological imperialism (Huckle & Martin 2002), and those in economics and geography should address the current environmental and social impacts of neoliberal globalisation (Foster et al. 2010; George 2010). Issues of social justice will inevitably be raised along with the desirability of new forms of global and European governance and citizenship that offer better prospects of sustainable development. YouthXchange is one project that enables young people throughout Europe, and the rest of the world, to discuss topics of mutual concern related to sustainability, and to recognise that personal behaviour change and sustainable consumption are not sufficient responses to the sustainability challenge. Sustainable development requires public/collective as well as private/individual actions, and students should recognise that a focus purely on individuals’ values and lifestyles serves to depoliticise and privatise a very political and public issue and thereby contributes to the reproduction of the status-quo.

The ethical dimension requires students to recognise sustainability as a normative notion and to consider how such principles as those set out in the Earth Charter might enable the development of European and global societies based on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace. Students should consider their own behaviour, and that of others, in relation to issues of justice/injustice, right/wrong, rights/obligations and sustainability/unsustainability as they engage with issues through values education strategies that pace their moral development (Earth Charter International 2009). The impact of neoliberalism and associated individualisation and financialisation (Lapavitsas 2013) should be acknowledged, as formerly idealistic young people are now more inclined to think only of themselves and to evaluate everything in purely monetary terms. Case studies of individuals and communities who live in ways that reflect Earth Charter principles are clearly desirable.

The relational dimension focuses on the connections that exist between the ecological, economic, social and cultural spheres of students’ lives and developing their awareness that whilst there is widespread acceptance of Earth Charter principles amongst civil society organisations around the world, sustainability and citizenship can be based in widely varying values and interests. They should be introduced to the notion of discourse as “a shared way of apprehending the world. Embedded in language, it enables those who subscribe to it to interpret bits of information and put them together into coherent stories or accounts. Each discourse rests on assumptions, judgements, and contentions that provide the basic terms for analysis, debates, agreements and disagreements, in the environmental area no less than elsewhere” (Dryzek 1997: 8).

Media education should enable students to appreciate that discourse pervades the home, classroom and community and shapes their understanding (along with our misunderstanding and ignorance) of European and global society, globalisation, regional and global governance and sustainable development. Students should be introduced to neoliberal, social democratic and socialist views on European integration and sustainable development, as outlined above.  Links to social movements and school students in other parts of the world, via social media, should enable them to understand how concepts of sustainability and citizenship are changing under the influence of such movements, and how dialogue across space can engender European and global solidarity. 

Finally, the political dimension focuses on issues of social and environmental justice first raised when considering ecological footprints. Students should explore issues of the environment and development in ways that reveal structural causes and consider reformist and radical solutions. The ideas and policies of governments, corporations, political parties, NGOs and social movements should be related to the discourses mentioned above, and real or simulated participation in real sustainability issues should be used to further develop the knowledge, skills and values that contribute to sustainability citizenship. Key to such citizenship are issues of European governance and the fact that democratic deficits prevent European citizens from co-determining more sustainable futures for their communities. Students should consider such scenarios for Europe’s future as those offered by Della Salla (2011): an enlarged Europe with greater integration; a differentiated and uneven Europe; and a lesser Europe that becomes more intergovernmental and less supranational.

Clearly teachers need to explore these dimensions of sustainable citizenship in ways appropriate to the age, ability and interests of their students and in ways that integrate knowledge from the natural and social sciences and humanities as they carry out issue-based projects in the classroom and local community. Learning should be experiential and democratic, opening spaces for dialogue with critical pedagogy (Giroux 2011; Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry Methodology 2014). Students should cooperatively reflect on their understandings of the world, recognise false understandings and act to validate discourse that appears to offer a more truthful interpretation of reality and the ways in which it might be transformed (Walsh 2009).

The current weaknesses of ESD and the potential of eco-schooling

While there is significant variation in the content and pedagogy of ESD across Europe, neoliberalism has served to rob it of its critical dimensions. Too much that passes for ESD focuses purely on the individual student’s values and behaviour, attempting to instil habits that conserve nature, save energy and resources and support green consumerism. It also serves to reproduce rather than challenge the status quo by promoting the greening of capitalism without considering the limits to such greening or the nature of truly radical alternatives.

Hayward (2012) uses the acronym SMART to refer to such environmental citizenship education since it emphasises self-help, market participation, a priori universal justice, representative decision-making, and technological transformation. She distinguishes it from education that sows the SEEDS of ecological or sustainability citizenship that is characterised by social agency, environmental education, embedded justice, decentred deliberation, and self-transcendence. This article has provided some insights into the latter, but the reader will find more in Hayward’s text. The tension between SMART and SEEDS forms of citizenship education is well illustrated by considering eco-schooling.

Eco-Schools programmes are run in many European countries and are linked to the international programme run by the Foundation for Environmental Education (Eco-Schools 2013). Schools joining the programme form a committee of pupils, teachers and others; agree on an eco-code for the school; carry out an environmental review; draw up an action plan to address such topics as energy and water use, waste and transport; carry out planned changes on the campus, in the curriculum, and in their links with the community; and, after evaluating the results and being visited by an assessor, may be awarded a green flag. There is considerable scope within eco-schooling to cultivate sustainability citizenship, but an examination of national eco-schools projects in Europe (and of projects such as Schools at University: Climate and Energy (SAUCE 2014)) may reveal that they neglect SEEDS and sustainability citizenship. A review of the lesson plans for teachers on the website of Eco-Schools England – some produced by its corporate sponsor EDF Energy – suggested that this was the case in England (Huckle 2013).

Towards a more realistic ESD in a more sustainable Europe

As austerity and conservative school reform continue to dominate Europe, it is for progressive and radical teachers, together with their trade unions, environmental and development NGOS, and parties of the green left, to make the case for a more realistic ESD focussed on sustainability citizenship. Such education is central to the renewal of the European project and to providing Europe’s youth with sources of hope in unsustainable times.


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