2005 will mark the start of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. The Decade offers a vital opportunity to make real progress toward putting human society on the path to sustainability. More than one-fourth of humankind lives in conditions of chronic poverty. Famine, military conflict, human-rights abuses, environmental degradation and climate change all threaten human dignity — indeed, survival. The challenges facing us are clear and inescapable.
Sustainable development has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It includes such diverse aspects as peace, ecological integrity and human rights, and requires us to reassess our concept of “progress.” Education for sustainable development must find a central place across the full spectrum of educational endeavors if it is to provide the opportunity for all people to learn the values, behavior and lifestyles required for positive societal transformation.
Because sustainable development is such a comprehensive concept, it can provide the links across otherwise nonconversant bodies of knowledge, opening up exciting new possibilities for multidisciplinary collaboration and cross-fertilization. But it is especially vital that we focus on children and young people. At the same time, education for sustainable development must actively engage traditional bodies of knowledge and informal sites of learning — in the family, the factory and the local community.
To achieve sustainability, we will have to draw from the richest veins of wisdom from humanity’s diverse past and present, enlisting these for the sake of the future we all must share. The Earth Charter, a statement of shared values and principles refined and formulated through a process of sustained dialogue involving representatives of the world’s cultural and spiritual traditions, gives succinct expression to the challenge: “We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Toward this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”
Most fundamentally, our survival hinges on realizing a profound change within human beings themselves; only a reorientation in the inner life of humanity will enable us to meet the daunting challenges that face us. On a previous occasion I proposed the following three attributes for global citizenship:
The wisdom to perceive the inter-connectedness of all life and living.
The courage not to fear or deny difference; but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures, and to grow from encounters with them.
The compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.
I believe that the process of developing and strengthening these qualities is at the heart of education for sustainable development.
From the Buddhist perspective, our most pressing task is to understand the inner forces within the human heart that drive people to engage in the ultimately self-destructive act of disrupting and undermining harmony with the natural environment and other people. Buddhism regards the inability to recognize the reality of interconnection as “fundamental darkness” or ignorance. This means ignorance of the web of interdependence that supports our existence in the world. It is the inability or refusal to perceive the chains of cause and effect by which our actions influence our surroundings — in ways that ultimately impact our own lives. It is the cold brutality and folly that imagines that the misery of others can be the basis for our own happiness. This attitude is sadly reflected in patterns of resource consumption that are undermining the very life-systems of the planet on which we live.
A reawakening to the reality of our interconnection and interdependence must take concrete form in efforts to extend solidarity and concern toward all those with whom we share this brief moment in the history of our planet. We must learn to act today with responsibility toward the generations who will follow us. And we must never surrender to the forces of hatred and division raging in the world — and the poisoned sense of futility and powerlessness they implant.
Within the great, interconnected web of being, each person has a unique purpose to fulfill, a contribution only he or she can make. Even if people are engaged in problematic behavior, we should not give in to the temptation to regard people as a problem. We should instead learn to regard each individual as a resource of truly limitless potential, remembering that the wisdom and insight to resolve humanity’s most pressing challenges already exists as a hidden, untapped possibility in the hearts of people alive today — and most especially in the hearts and minds of the young. To be effective, education for sustainability must be rooted in a deep faith in humanity — the determination to awaken human agency through the interlocking processes of learning, reflection and empowerment.
The founder of the Soka Gakkai, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, was an educator whose first work, “The Geography of Human Life,” written in 1903, offers a detailed exploration of the interrelationship between humanity and our natural environment. At the start of this book, Makiguchi describes the objects in his study, the various accouterments of daily life, noting that these are in fact results of the labors of people in other lands. In his work, we can feel the common pulse and hear the shared breathing of self and other, of the unseen people near and far whose lives are linked to ours in relationships of mutual support. His efforts as an educator were focused on enabling children to develop a concrete appreciation for the relationships that connect us to each other, to the natural environment and to the world.
Makiguchi noted the fact that while humans cannot create matter, they can create value. He saw the development of wisdom as the key to enhancing children’s ability to make the world a healthier, more beautiful, better place. I think this insight — that our capacity to create value is not intrinsically constrained by the physical resources we have available to us — points to a core aspect of sustainability: Where do we find the wisdom to do more with less? How do we create limitless value from a finite natural resource base so that all people — now and in the future — may enjoy lives of dignity, comfort and fulfillment?
Key to this challenge is confronting the nature of human desire: whether we control our desires or are controlled by them, whether, in the words of one Sutra, we are the masters of our minds or our minds are our masters.
Buddhism teaches that desires can be transformed. The thirst for justice is a desire. So is the desire to free the world from needless suffering. The qualities of courage, wisdom and compassion I mentioned earlier can act to unleash these most elevated forms of desire, encouraging reflection, action and transformation. The success of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development will depend on whether it can touch people’s lives at this deepest level. Efforts for the future that come straight from the heart have the power to change the world.