Values and education are seen as key to action on sustainable development

Looking ahead to the upcoming World Summit for Sustainable Development, the International Environment Forum sees "soft" topics of "knowledge, values and education" as the means to create the commitment necessary to implement the sustainable development agenda.

HLUBOKA NAD VLTAVOU, Czech Republic - Much of the preparatory work for next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) has focused on the political, technical, and financial details of bringing the world into better compliance with the vision of environmentally sound economic prosperity outlined at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

With widespread agreement that the goals set in 1992 have not been met, the discussion now at the United Nations and among its various partners is mainly about things like "time-bound actions," "tangible results," and "concrete measures" as they zero in on specific issues like debt relief, trade, technology transfer, freshwater resources, nuclear energy, climate change, desertification, consumption patterns and poverty eradication.

In October, however, a small group of environmental specialists took a decidedly different tack in analyzing how to help humanity change its unsustainable ways. Their emphasis was on how the rather more "soft" topics of "knowledge, values and education" relate to creating the commitment and action necessary to implement the sustainable development agenda at local, national and global levels.

The group, the International Environment Forum, is a non-governmental organization composed mainly of Bahá'ís from around the world who have a special expertise or interest in sustainable development. Founded five years ago, the IEF explores not only the technical and scientific solutions to environmental problems but also the potential benefits of new social, cultural and spiritual insights.

The event was the IEF's fifth international conference, held 19-21 October 2001 at the Townshend International School here in South Bohemia. Some 20 IEF members gathered here and dozens of others participated via the Internet. The theme of the conference was "Knowledge, Values and Education for Sustainable Development."

"While much progress has been made to implement the Rio agreements and Agenda 21, at least in some regions, it is clear that the governments and peoples of the world have not shown sufficient commitment to make firm steps on the path to sustainability," said Arthur Dahl, president of the IEF. "This situation calls for serious reflection on the reasons for this lack of commitment, going beneath the standard answers of lack of resources, of faulty incentive structures, etc., to explore the fundamentals of human society."

The three-day program included a speech by Professor Bedrich Moldan of Charles University, who is the former Czech Minister of Environment, along with various talks by IEF members and much interaction among participants on the points presented.

In the end, participants concluded that the softer issues of values and education are in fact wholly complementary with the kind of technical and scientific issues most often related to sustainable development - and more: they are essential.

"Global moral minimum"

In a keynote address entitled "Knowledge and Indicators for Sustainable Development," Prof. Moldan raised the idea of promoting or establishing a kind of "global moral minimum" system of values for the environment.

"Sustainable development is many things to many people and that is the problem," said Prof. Moldan, who chaired the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development last spring. "One way to overcome this difficulty is to extract some ideas which could be shared by all peoples, whether they are bankers from Switzerland or islanders from Tonga, etc."

Dr. Dahl, in a talk entitled "Values as the Foundation for Sustainable Behavior," developed this idea further, saying that the weakness in efforts to achieve sustainable development is in the implementation, something that can best be addressed by understanding the role of values as determinates of behavior.

"There has been a lack of political will at a governmental level, lack of incentives in the private sector, and lack of sufficient willingness to change individual behavior," said Dr. Dahl, who is director of the coral reef unit of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "Since motivation is intimately linked to values, it is worth examining what role values can play in achieving more sustainability."

To achieve sustainability, Dr. Dahl said, several types of values need to be considered: values with respect to fellow human beings; the value attached to material things and consumption; the importance given to the environment; and the purpose of life.

He said for example that if the purpose of life is defined as the fulfillment of individual material needs, the resulting value set will be very different from one that sets higher humanistic goals or that defines the real purpose of life as the acquisition of spiritual qualities.

Values the missing ingredient

"Values, or the application of spiritual principles, have been the missing ingredient in most past approaches to sustainable development," Dr. Dahl said. "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," Dr. Dahl said. "The World Summit on Sustainable Development should include this dimension in its agenda."

Victoria Thoresen, who has worked to develop curricula on sustainable development in Norway, gave a talk on "Education: A Constraint or a Catalyst to Sustainable Development." Her main point was that education has always been key in the transmission of societal values - and that any effort to promote a change towards more sustainable values will need to consider systems of education.

"Education occurs in modern society in several arenas," said Dr. Thoresen, an assistant professor at the University College of Hedmark in Norway and an IEF member. "No longer do families, churches, schools and politics have a monopoly on the socialization process. Commercial interests, mass media and private organizations have entered the fray with full force. They select values and nurture norms, present knowledge and stimulate behavior patterns and lifestyles in ways which are as effective, if not more so, than the socialization processes occurring in homes and schools."

Currently, Dr. Thoresen said, educational systems tend to be much more occupied with transmission of cultural heritage than preparing learners for functioning in the present and future. They also tend to present national and regional perspectives to the detriment of global perspectives; deal with abstractions and theory without sufficiently relating these to the learners' own everyday life experience; be highly subject-specific, thereby, to a great extent, ignoring the interrelatedness of processes, systems and information; and, lastly, encourage competition rather than cooperation.

As an alternative, Dr. Thoresen said, educators who have attempted to teach values-based education for sustainable development work with the following goals and guidelines: the recognition of new patterns of cognitive understanding and moral development amongst today's children; the awareness of children and youth's pressing need to clarify their own identity and purpose in life and to be motivated to achieve lofty, selfless goals; the importance of helping children and youth to gain insight into the processes and systems behind sustainable development; and the value of learning how to find, sort and apply information.

"Schools have the responsibility, together with parents and religious groups, to provide ways of stimulating reflection by the students on their identity and purpose in life," said Dr. Thoresen. "Schools face the challenge of teaching the concepts of world citizenship and encouraging attitudes that foster world unity. Are, for example, the lifestyles which are marketed viable, meaningful and morally consistent? Do they contribute to sustainable development? Empowering children and youth to become conscientious, environmentally aware consumers is to contribute to the 'humanizing' of development...[and] individual attainment must be subservient to mankind's collective needs." She suggested that the values and principles of the Bahá'í Faith, as well, could create such empowerment.

Virtual network

Much time during the conference was devoted to a general discussion of the themes as they were presented, with the idea that the real strength of the IEF is its capacity for networking and the interchange of ideas.

"It was a comparatively small meeting, having only about 20 participants, but the presentations and contributions to discussions seemed to me on a pretty high level," said Friedo Zoelzer, Academic Director of Townshend International School, where the conference was held.

Participants included researchers, teachers, students and professionals from a wide range of disciplines, and practitioners in the field of environment and sustainable development. Students and staff from the Townshend School sat in on some sessions. Evening programs, including music, a dance workshop and a drama on an environmental theme were provided by the School. The Townshend School was founded 1992 as a private initiative of individual Bahá'ís. Fully accredited, it offers classes from grade 8 through 13 and currently has an enrollment of about 125 students.

An electronic version of the conference was offered for those who could not come to the Czech Republic. Participants received by e-mail advance versions of the papers presented and summaries of the discussions, and were able to send in comments to be read at the conference.

Peter Adriance, an IEF board member who participated from afar, said the organization has been intentionally structured as a virtual international network. "This type of organization would have been impossible just a few years ago, but the advent of the Internet is really what makes it possible," said Mr. Adriance, who serves as NGO Liaison for the Bahá'ís of the United States, with an emphasis on issues of sustainable development. "At last year's IEF annual conference, for example, there were 85 registered participants - but better than 60 of them were participating from some 30 countries via the Internet.

"The whole purpose of the IEF is to promote a discourse on how the Bahá'í teachings can be applied in addressing issues of environmental conservation and sustainable development," said Mr. Adriance. "Many of us are involved professionally in the field, but others are not, yet we can all learn from each other and share our projects and programs. It is also a way to raise awareness of environmental issues in the Bahá'í community - and to stimulate environmental education in the community at large."

Dr. Thoresen, an IEF member since 1999, believes that the group can have an impact on decision-making at the international level, as well. "Change has always been initiated in small groups and spread to encompass others," said Dr. Thoresen. "In modern society, transparency and knowledge of decision-making processes and systems are as important as numbers when interest groups or lobbyists are trying to get their points across. IEF, though few in numbers, knows how to network and establish both cordial relations with central figures as well as how to maintain a certain grassroots contact."