Lessons learned from Covid-19

Why sustainability education needs to become political


  • Kai Niebert




Background: Research from various disciplines indicates that the human endeavour has shifted the earth into a new geologic epoch: the Anthropocene, in which we are stressing several planetary boundaries. Many political papers see education as key to making the Anthropocene a sustainable epoch. This paper evaluates evidence on the effects of education for sustainability. It asks which role education must play in our endeavour to shape a sustainable future.

Purpose of this study is to evaluate existing approaches within education for sustainable development and position them relative to political and scientific demands.

Setting: The paper sets a three-step approach by (1) evaluating the global challenges of the 2020s based on evidence on the great acceleration of resource use, the approaching of the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch and the planetary boundaries. Central concepts of education to cope with these challenges like sustainability competences are analysed (2) and (3) programs aiming to implement these competences are evaluated.

Results: The paper shows that sustainability competences often are too abstract and that programs on education for sustainability often have a very limited impact on learners’ consciousness and behaviour. Based on data on sustainability policies and recent data on the Covid-19-lockdown the paper shows the limited effect of current strategies on education for sustainability.

Conclusions: Based on the empirical findings the paper concludes that when education for sustainability focuses on leaners’ competences to participate politically, it has a higher chance of success and a higher chance of having a positive effect on the sustainability challenges of the 21st century than a focus on learners consciousness or environmental behaviour.

Keywords: education for sustainable development, science education, Anthropocene, political education

Author Biography

Kai Niebert

Professor of Science and Sustainability Education