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Power and inequality need to be emphasized


Education for sustainable development tends to focus on the local community and the individual’s responsibility. This leads to widely differing learning content depending on where the education takes place, and to questions of power, inequality and justice being overlooked. These arguments are put forward by Beniamin Knutsson, who is studying education for sustainable development in different countries.

Education is seen as a key for improving understanding of the environment and the climate. Earlier this year, UNESCO launched a global framework for education for sustainable development, and a number of educational initiatives are being held in association with the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow between 31 October and 12 November. For example, the British government has produced school materials for use in connection with the summit.

Porträtt på Beniamin Knutsson.
Beniamin Knutsson.

“Education is important, because it is a tool for generating knowledge, awareness and action competence,” explains Beniamin Knutsson, an associate professor in subject didactics with a focus on sustainable development. “But I dispute the idea that education is a universal solution to the climate crisis.”

“The fact that we do not live sustainably is not primarily a knowledge problem. Even though there are a few sceptics and climate change deniers, the vast majority of people are painfully aware of the situation. But despite this, we find dealing with the issue incredibly difficult.”

Different content of education for sustainable development

Beniamin is leading a research project on how education for sustainable development is carried out in different countries and in different contexts. This education is usually adapted in line with local conditions in order to create engagement and to show how students themselves can contribute towards positive change. However, this also leads to education dealing with very different aspects of sustainability.

“We see children and young people in rich nations being addressed within the context of a lifestyle of mass consumption and a whole array of privileges. It is usually as a consumer that the citizen is expected to make a difference. By contrast, in poor countries and regions, it is a matter of survival, basic living conditions, and society and individuals having to find strategies for coping with serious crises.”

Beniamin has conducted a study examining how education for sustainable development takes place at different schools in South Africa. In shanty town schools, this may involve organising soup kitchens, discussing opportunities for small-scale income or improving the school’s sanitation conditions. At private schools in affluent areas, pupils learn about the climate instead, and discuss issues such as sustainable holidays.

In another study, Beniamin has looked at the types of education that have received UNESCO’s global prize for outstanding education for sustainable development. Here, too, the same patterns emerge. The prize has been awarded to such wide-ranging initiatives as teaching street children to collect waste, build new things from this waste and sell them to support themselves, and a ‘green office’ at European universities where teachers and students can discuss sustainability over a cup of organic coffee.

The wealthy world’s lifestyles need to change

“Our research confirms that education for sustainable development is often based on the local context and on it being down to the individuals in this context to solve the issues. The problem is that this risks normalising and reproducing inequalities, preventing us from achieving a real transformation towards sustainability. Such a transformation requires radical lifestyle changes here in the wealthy world. We can’t continue flying, consuming and eating meat to the same extent that we do now.”

In a debate article, Beniamin and his research colleagues Linus Bylund, Sofie Hellberg and Jonas Lindberg have criticised UNESCO’s framework for cementing inequalities.

“Instead, the relationships between society and inequality need to take centre stage. The responsibility for creating a sustainable world can’t simply be pushed downwards. It also needs to move up within the hierarchy. We need education for sustainable development that focuses on power and resources, rather than putting the responsibility on the individual.”

Text: Carl-Magnus Höglund

Education for sustainable development in an unequal world

A research project that investigates how ESD is being implemented in relation to different populations across the globe, and what conceptions of ‘green’ skills and sustainable lifestyle(s) that these interventions produce.


Read more abut the research project here.