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Educating for Sustainability: An Introduction


David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch's new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education. This is a version of an article that was originally written as the introduction to A National Action Plan for Educating for Sustainability published by the United States Green Building Council and Houghton Mifflin. This Action Plan includes recommendations for enhancing formal education in the U.S. so that all students graduate educated for a sustainable future by 2040.

Education for Sustainability. It’s a tall order. But without some reorientation of our current societal behaviors, the climate will get warmer, the oceans higher, the food supply less dependable, and the gap between rich and poor wider. You know that old saying about how hard it is to change the path of an aircraft carrier? Well, imagine that the aircraft carrier is as big as the earth. It will take a long time and lots of concerted effort on everyone’s part to change the path we’re on. Do we really have any choice? Shall we be like Nero and fiddle as Rome and Moscow burn, as New York and Karachi disappear under the rising tides? Of course not. The schools and educators whose work I share in this article are committed to helping schools become leaders in making the world a more sustainable place.

What do we mean by Education for Sustainability (EfS)? To be clear, internationally this concept is used interchangeably with Education for Sustainable Development.  In North America EfS is considered by many to be an overarching concept that broadens and incorporates the best intentions of environmental education, place-based learning, community-based education and other progressive education reform initiatives. In the UN Document “Our Common Future” released in 1987, one popular definition is, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  (Stone 2009) What holds all these monikers together is the idea of intergenerational thinking, a commitment to thinking about the needs of seven generations down the line, not just the here and now. And it’s been widely agreed that by needs, we mean the 3 E’s—environment, economy and equity. Therefore Education for Sustainability aspires to educate students to make decisions that balance the preservation of healthy ecosystems, vibrant economies and equitable social systems in this generation and in all generations to come.  In simpler terms, a student who is Educated for Sustainability has the ability, ambition and know-how to create a world that works for everyone and every creature, now and in the future. Mind you, EfS isn’t just a new course at a few schools. Rather EfS principles should serve as the underpinnings of the curriculum and facilities management systems of all our schools. 

Let’s try to make this a bit less abstract. Consider the Denver Green School, a demographically average (55% students of color), neighborhood Denver public school with above average aspirations. In their mission statement, they say,

In our classrooms, in our curriculum and in our school building, we strive to be GREEN. We believe that green must mean a focus on the whole student and the whole community living sustainably. And of course, at the heart of that belief, we focus on carbon footprint reduction and a focus on environmental and social sustainability as we prepare out students for the careers of the 21st Century.

The school partners with Denver Urban Gardens to create thriving vegetable and flower gardens on its school grounds. In the Denver Green School gardens, the teachers implement literacy, math and science curricula starting in the garden; these garden curricula lessons are tied to Colorado state standards. Students collaborate with community members to grow corn, beans, squash and dozens of other food products. Converting abandoned lots into plant production means that some of the carbon dioxide from car exhaust is captured in green leaves lowering the amount of greenhouse gases. That’s the first E, helping create a healthier environment.   

The food grown in the garden gets used in school lunch programs reducing school expenses and therefore reducing taxpayer expense. In a Los Angeles school gardening program, middles schoolers started a business to bottle and sell salsa learning entrepreneurial skills based on local foods. That’s the second E, helping to sustain a vibrant economy. Finally, some of the garden production goes into the Denver Youth Farmers’ Markets making healthy, inexpensive food available to low-income families, not just those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. That’s the third E, making access to healthy living available to all across the socio-economic spectrum.  

 Why now? At Antioch University New England in Keene, NH, we say, “Because the world needs you now.” Not in a few years, or when you grow up, but right now.  If we want to change the course of the Earth by 2042, we need to start implementing the changes in schools that will create students able to do the retrofits that the Earth will need to stay operable. Perhaps this current moment in 2014 is similar to 1957 when the Soviet Union won the first heat in the space race by sending Sputnik into orbit. The United States political community responded with a significant initiative to improve education. If we’re going to compete effectively with the Soviets, we declared, then we’ve got to increase the quality and relevance of science and mathematics education. Now, in the 21st century, the issue is less about competing with other countries, and more about figuring out how to collaborate in the war against ourselves. “We have met the enemy,” Pogo reflected, “and he is us.” The enemy is the human compulsion to live beyond our means, to behave as if the Earth’s resources are infinite, to incur debts now that our children will have to pay later.  Education for Sustainability is about learning to live within our means.



Consider some significant recent events that are analogous to the launch of Sputnik.

• In 2013, for the first time ever, scientists recorded atmospheric carbon dioxide at 400 ppm at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Most in the scientific community believe that we need to manage human production of carbon dioxide so as to maintain a level of 350 ppm in the atmosphere. Therefore, 400ppm is way too high. The gradual increase in the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to increased global retention of heat, which in turn leads to rising oceans, more severe meteorological events and more death and destruction. To control the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, we need more efficient cars, less polluting energy facilities and schools that model environmental responsibility. This is why the Denver Green School, and thousands of other schools, businesses and cities aspire to reduce their carbon footprints. That’s the Environment E. (E1)

• As oil resources dwindle and the nuclear industry falters under the weight of the intractable problem of waste storage, the need for renewable energy increases in the United States. Two of the leading countries in wind turbine manufacturing? Denmark and Spain. Which country leads the world in photovoltaics production and capture of energy from the sun?  China. Which country is about to surpass the United States in biofuel technology and production? Brazil. We need an educational system that will prepare American students for jobs that don’t exist yet. These students will solve the problems of energy conservation, food production, and resource management.We need student innovators who will keep us competitive with emergent industries in China and Brazil. That’s the Economy E.  (E2)

• In 2013, for the first time, more than 50% of infants born in the United States were children of color. And by 2042, the population of the country becomes more than 50% people of color.  There are not just white people living in Kansas anymore, or even in Vermont. We are quickly becoming a multi-colored majority country whose wealth and achievement gap are both increasing. We can no longer tolerate the educational inequities of wealthy independent schools that serve mostly white students, and under-resourced public schools that serve large populations of children of color. Rather, we need public schools committed to creating a learning environment in which all diverse learner can achieve their highest potential. That’s the Equity E. (E3)

We’re at a similar watershed moment in relation to educational policy. The suffocating No Child Left Behind mindset that reifies test scores and ignores education with meaning is gradually losing its grip. As Jenny Seydel says in her essay on assessment below,

Assessments that determine whether one passes or fails, or whether one will be admitted to college or future job opportunities…have shaped a damaging view of schools as places that prepare some for winning and others for losing. An assessment model for sustainability education requires us to think beyond the current models of high stakes tests and consider how to assess problem solving, systems thinking, deep conceptual understanding and how attitudes and values related to diversity in the human and earth community, conservation, and preservation help us to make decisions and set priorities that will impact our future.


Compare how closely this resonates with the mission statement for the Common Core State Standards.

The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

The Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards align with this emphasis on “problem solving, systems thinking and deep understanding,”  that EfS approaches offer to students and teachers. How can we reduce the ecological footprint of the school? Can community internships prepare students more effectively for work than sitting behind the desk and copying sentences off the board? How can the school serve as a place to celebrate the Hispanic, Islamic and Christian traditions within the ethnic communities in the school’s neighborhood? Can the school curriculum be harnessed to help local government officials solve the real world problem of improving the local river’s water quality? EfS approaches are a critical means for addressing these new clearer, higher standards. 

John Dewey, American education reformer in the early 20th century articulated just as clearly then, the problem that faces schools today.

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school—its isolation from life.

This isolation of life from school, and school from life wastes the learning opportunities rife in the community and wastes children’s energy in not addressing community challenges and needs. We need a vision of the school as fluidly connected to the local environment and community. 

Following in Dewey’s footsteps, in the midst of the Great Depression, another American educator, George Counts, asked the provocative question, “Dare the School Change the Social Order?” In other words, should schools play a role in making people’s lives better, addressing social inequities, building a new future? The question is relevant today.  The authors of this paper answer with a resounding, “Yes!”  and articulate the steps we need to take in order for schools to play a leadership role. In the early 20th century, Dewey and Counts were united in their conviction that the school should be a laboratory for democracy. Classroom postal systems, student governments, operating school stores helped children understand the systems and responsibilities of participating in a democratic society.  Similarly, but with the added sophistication of biological sciences and systems thinking, in the 21st century, the school should operate like a healthy ecosystem. Moreover, the school’s role isn’t just to serve as a model for American culture, but should serve as a node in a global network. Therefore, the school becomes an exemplar, a model  students carry beyond the classroom, and serves as a lighthouse, pointing the way towards community and global sustainability. 

In this role, the school building should model energy conservation, toxins reduction and healthy food production. The school lives of students and teachers should represent a balance of physical exercise and creative thinking. The quality of relationships between administration, teachers and parents should illustrate respect and collaborative decision-making. The school’s curricular and extracurricular programs, especially at the middle and high school levels, should be an incubator for business innovation. The school grounds should be managed for energy production, play and recreation, wildlife habitat, and community interaction. In sum, the school should aspire to be the utopian model of a healthy community and a thriving ecology.

Consider this illustrative example from the Energy for Maine program conducted by the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine (The Green Schools Alliance runs similar programs in urban New York schools.) Energy for Maine helps students and schools to light the way towards energy conservation. The school building, a community building and some local homes in each coastal or island community are retrofitted with subpanel level monitoring. This makes it possible to track the energy consumption of components of the school facility such as the gymnasium, separate classrooms, the administrative offices, rather than just having one meter reading for the whole school. This immediate feedback on the behavior of the students and staff in one part of the school facilitates behavior change. It’s similar to how the real time direct feedback in hybrid vehicles allows you to hone your driving skills to maximize energy consumption. 

At the Islesboro Central School in mid-coast Maine, the 11th and 12th grade physics curriculum focuses on building science. The students and teachers work with professionals from Green Sneakers, a campaign to motivate local, personal actions that address the global challenge of climate change. They also collaborate with Evergreen Home Performance, professional energy auditors, to conduct an inventory of their school, learn about and conduct informal home energy audits in the community, and make recommendations on where energy savings opportunities can be found. It’s good curriculum and it saves energy in the school and community. The three E’s of EfS are nicely illustrated here. Reduction of the carbon footprint of the school and community buildings contributes to moving the planet from 400 to 350 ppm (E1). Reducing energy costs in the school either reduces local taxes, or frees up money to make facilities modifications that further improve the building’s performance (E2). The accessibility of the program to all members of the community, and the student services to community members, provides potential savings to everyone along the socio-economic spectrum (E3).

The Energy for Maine program is a good example of thinking systemically about school and community change. One of the early realizations was that the school facilities managers, a group of folks usually overlooked in professional development efforts, were key to the success of the program. They had the keys to the guts of the school building, they often lived in the community, and they had the ears of the folks in the community who were often critical of the school.  By looking at the school as part of the larger community, and by identifying the high leverage change agents throughout the network, the program is making real change happen in schools and communities.  And it is change that weds academic success with community improvement.  Alison Suffat Diaz, principal of the Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles describes similar successes in her school and community.

Today, Environmental Charter High School is a thriving green oasis in the concrete jungle of south Los Angeles County. When someone steps onto the campus, they know that this school is different. Students compost, make bio diesel, repair bicycles, harvest rain water, do field research, and teach local community members how to do all of this. While they start out as ninth graders more than two years below their grade level, by 11th grade, they have caught up to or surpassed their grade level. Last year, 92 percent of graduates were accepted to four-year colleges. Nearly all of our students come from households below the poverty line and from families who have never attended college.      (Suffet Diaz and Ruffalo, 2010, Huffington Post Blog)

Isn’t it interesting that schools with a social purpose also become schools where students are more academically successful? Learning and democracy go hand in hand. These are schools that dare to change the social order!

We know that implementing Education for Sustainability (EfS)is a long row to hoe. But especially in this time of labor disputes, bullying and safety, and a widening achievement gap, the Education for Sustainability agenda can serve, as President Carter once suggested, as “the moral equivalent of war,” the organizing principle to renew our commitment to improving school and society simultaneously.  

This EfS agenda requires new approaches to pre-service and in-service teacher professional development, a targeted research agenda, revised conceptions of student assessment, updated school policies and inspired leadership. As one student for the Los Angeles Environmental Charter High Schools summarizes,

We will not only be prepared for college, but also lifelong learners and activists that know how to make a difference in this world.


Department for Children, Schools and Families Publications, (2010) Evidence of Impact of Sustainable Schools, Nottingham, United Kingdom.

Dewey, J. (1959). School and Society. In M. Dworkin (ed.), Dewey on education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Suffet Diaz and Ruffalo,  4 November, 2010,    “And the Silver Bullet is….Hard Work,” Huffington Post Blog.

Stone, M., (2009),  Smart by Nature, Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley, CA.


David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch's new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education. This is a version of an article that was originally written as the introduction to A National Action Plan for Educating for Sustainability published by the United States Green Building Council and Houghton Mifflin. This Action Plan includes recommendations for enhancing formal education in the U.S. so that all students graduate educated for a sustainable future by 2040.


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