Education for sustainable development (ESD)

 Trees in Representation and Reality

Trees in Representation and Reality

“My view of trees has changed as a result of this exercise as I now see the connection we have with them and how vital they are to our existence instead of just being a resource.”


Photo of John Clare's cottage, Helpston, courtesy of Ajay Jayne at

Photo of John Clare’s cottage, Helpston, courtesy of Ajay Jayne at

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is working its way towards the top of the higher education agenda. In June 2008 HEFCE published ‘Sustainable Development in Higher Education’ (HEFCE 2008/18). This document is both a progress report and a consultation on an updated strategic statement and action plan on sustainable development in the higher education sector. The Funding Councils have indicated that they wish the Higher Education Academy (HEA) promote and enhance ESD across the disciplines and the HEA maintains an excellent website for those interested in the pedagogical implications of Sustainable Development. Amongst other initiatives, the Higher Education Academy sponsors projects in universities across the UK. The six projects being supported in 2010 all focus on interdisciplinary approaches to ESD, highlighting the fact that ESD isn’t just an issue for those teaching in disciplines such as geography, environmental studies, biology and engineering.

In an April 2010 survey of Subject Leaders in English, 13 of 20 respondents said that their departments offered modules related to ESD. Modules mentioned included: Literature and the Environment, Green Writing, Ecocriticism, Animals in Literature, Place and Text and Travel Writing. The ‘Ecology and Romanticism’ module at Oxford Brookes University is an example of how contemporary environmental issues can be explored through literature. A student on the module, Rebecca Stone, who participated in a field trip to John Clare’s cottage, writes:

Clare’s poetry is deeply ecological and displays knowledge of rural life and the natural world beyond most of his contemporaries, particularly in acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value, regardless of mankind – something which we ourselves, living in a contemporary world of environmental uncertainty and potential crisis, can learn much from. Visiting his cottage in Helpston enabled us to better understand Clare’s life and the context in which his poetry was written.

The Subject Centre also tried to encourage the use of field trips via its ‘Bringing the Outside In’ initiative – see the panel on the right.

What is meant by ‘Sustainable Development’?

Although there are many and various definitions of sustainable development, the most widely used is the one developed in the Brundtland report Our Common Future:

Sustainable Development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Our Common Future, 1987, 43).

This definition stresses the concept of intergenerational justice. We have no right to degrade our planet to prevent future generations living as we do. Most definitions also recognise the social dimension of SD as well as the economic and environmental ones.

So what is meant by ‘Education for Sustainable Development’?

nzbushBoth the term itself and the notion behind it has been criticised as ideological but it is generally accepted to mean one of the following:

ESD enables people to develop the knowledge, values and skills to participate in decisions about the way we do things individually and collectively, both locally and globally, that will improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future (Sustainable Development Education Panel, First Annual Report 1998, 30)

ESD is a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the earth’s natural resources. ESD applies transdisciplinary educational methods and approaches to develop an ethic for lifelong learning; fosters respect for human needs that are compatible with sustainable use of natural resources and the needs of the planet; and nurtures a sense of global solidarity. (UNESCO)

How does it relate to English studies?

It will be apparent that English can relate easily and fruitfully to ESD as defined in these ways. Students of English are intellectually habituated into sensitivity towards encounters with ‘the other’, be this in terms of culture, spaces or materiality. There is a vibrant strand within English literary studies of concern with the relation between cultural texts and environment, and since the early 1980s this has given rise to ‘eco-criticism’. There is a thriving association for the study of literature and the environment (ASLE-UK) chaired by Dr Greg Garrard, Bath Spa University and several UK programmes contain units in this field, and more broadly on writing and landscape. More generally, ‘green’ approaches have influenced the curriculum in many areas, often leading to the reframing of classic texts. Students can be encouraged to ask questions about how far humanity is represented as part of or apart from the rest of nature in a particular work, or how the idealisation of the pastoral in the Romantic period or the construction of science fiction informs our understanding of how we relate to our physical environment. Such approaches, with their emphasis on respect for the environment, on mutuality, and on the habitats in which cultural reproduction takes place, have major implications not just for the content of the curriculum but for forms of pedagogic interaction.

The English Subject Centre, in collaboration with Dr Greg Garrard and Dr Richard Kerridge at Bath Spa University, has conducted an initial study of the scope and nature of teaching related to the environment, ecology and sustainability on English literature, language and creative writing degree programmes.

Firstly, they have mapped the extent of teaching within English that relates to the environment, ecology and sustainability in their broadest sense. We are aware that although there are directly relevant modules such as those on eco-criticism, there are also modules focussed on themes, periods or theory that consider the relationship between man and the environment in other ways. These may be modules on travel writing, landscape, nature writing, science fiction or pastoral for example.

With the help of colleagues from ASLE, Greg and Richard have also undertaken a wider audit of the relations between English and ESD: reviewing current practice in ESD in the discipline, considering how the discipline relates to the SD agenda and the related skills and attitudes acquired by our graduates. Their report is now available: it identifies how the Subject Centre can best develop work in this area. You may also be interested to read the equivalent report covering Languages, Linguistics and Area studies.