ESD ≠ SD, unless ...

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It ought to be obvious, even to those not privy to its arcane mysteries, that the concept of sustainable development and the process that is education for sustainable development cannot be the same thing.   But it isn't, it seems, even to those who are experts in these matters.  This is something of a puzzle.

The following are examples of this ability to confuse, conflate or exchange these terms:

1. In 1999, the UK government panel on sustainable development education set out a range of key concepts of sustainable development, but by 2003, these were being confidently discussed (and accepted) as key concepts of sustainable development education.  The (happily now long gone) QCA seemed to be the culprit.  It took a while for anyone to notice, including me.

2. In the 2003 book that Stephen Gough and I wrote (Sustainable Development and Learning: framing the issues), there were only five references to “sustainable development education”, four of which were quotes from the literature.  We were surprised, therefore to come across a paper which quoted from the book writing “sustainable development education” when all we had written was “sustainable development”.  Although these bastard quotes still made sense, our original meaning was traduced.   Knowing the perp, a scoundrel who has form in these matters, I have assumed up to this point that this was done on purpose.

3. In a 2012 UK Quality Assurance Agency [QAA] discussion paper, “education for sustainability” was identified as one of 6 "themes that cross subject boundaries"  and which "have a broad relevance to the purposes of higher education and its wider context in society."  This is nonsense, of course, as it is sustainability / sustainable development which has this "broad  relevance".  EfS is just one of many responses.  To me, this is a confusion of ends and means.  I would not expect QAA to be too alert to this, given that EfS / ESD / etc is not its main focus, but its academic advisers might have been.

4. In a similar fashion the Higher Education Academy [HEA] Strategic Plan (2012 – 2016) has identified education for sustainable development [ESD] as one of eight contemporary challenges that it sees as a priority focus. Flexible delivery, and equality and diversity are others.  But (as in #3) it is living sustainably (sustainable development, if you like) that is the challenge, not ESD, which is just one means to this end.  More confusion, as I have noted elsewhere.

5. The HEA has a JISC email network for its ESD Advisory Group.  The title of this is the Sustainability Development Advisory Group.  Careless drafting?  Confusion?  Or ...

What to make of this?  Such confusion ought to be difficult to do this, if you’re intellectually honest, or are thinking about what you’re writing / reading – or so I thought.

Well, it is easy to be judgmental about all this (as I may already have shown), but there may be something subtle (and quite common) happening here, where the familiar is so familiar that it is not read (or written) carefully.  The next example lends some credence to this, more generous, view and comes from something I have had personal involvement in.

6. In a draft text for a Brief written for UK National Commission for UNESCO about ESD in the UK, the phrase 'Decade for Sustainable Development' was used instead of the full version. This was drafted by an expert and read by three others (and me) before it went off to UNESCO at the end of 2012.  We all missed it.  I saw it at my Nth reading, when it shouted at me from the page and I could hardly believe my eyes.

So, ... .

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  • As incalculable numbers of words are added to the memosphere via books, blogs and other means, categorical errors are inevitable and it is well worth trying to add some clarity as your latest piece does. Another issue: SD = SF? Or ESD = ESF? I prefer to replace ‘D’ for development with ‘F’ for future given the association of ‘development’ with ‘growth’, most often economic growth. Development towards sustainability may, in fact, require ‘de-growth’, as exponential trends overshoot the carrying capacity of the planet. So, development and growth also need to be clarified and decoupled. Dare one suggest a continuum of nouns to clarify and accompany the adjective ‘sustainable’ – ‘de-growth’; ‘steady state’; ‘growth’- all three could be the ends of what people understand by ‘development’. Which noun is more likely to ensure a sustainable future?