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Promoting sustainability is building the future

By Ioan Voicu - posted Thursday, 30 November 2006

The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is a vision of education that seeks to empower people to assume the responsibility of creating a sustainable future.

Sustainability is a hot and controversial topic. We are not living in times of real sustainable development. More than one-fourth of humankind suffers from chronic poverty. Hunger, military conflicts, terrorism, human-rights abuses, environmental degradation and climate change, natural disasters and pandemics all threaten human dignity and the very survival of mankind.

The Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) concluded by consensus that development is sustainable only if future generations inherit a quality of environment at least equal to that inherited by their predecessors. It presupposes the simultaneous application of three fundamental principles: the precautionary principle, adopting a preventive rather than remedial approach; the principle of solidarity between all peoples of the world and between the present generations and those to come; and the principle of people participation in decision-making.


While still an ambiguous concept, sustainability is recognised as a way of life that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This generous objective cannot be implemented without adequate education.

Therefore, the period from 2005-2014 was proclaimed by the United Nations as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), for which Unesco is the lead agency.

ESD is a vision of education that seeks to empower people to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future. There are four major thrusts: improving basic education; reorienting existing education to address sustainable development; developing public understanding and awareness; and providing training for all sectors of society, including business, industry, and governments.

There are different stakeholders in this complex process: governments and intergovernmental bodies, mass media, civil society and non-governmental organisations, the private sector and formal education institutions. A primary objective of the UN Decade of ESD is to facilitate the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.

Three pillars

Sustainable development is an omnibus concept that attempts to bridge the divide between economic growth and environmental protection, while taking into account other issues traditionally associated with development. Unfortunately, it is often misinterpreted as focusing exclusively on environmental aspects. In reality, it encompasses three areas: economic, environmental and social. The UN 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to these areas as "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of sustainable development. However, more clarifications are needed.

A scientific conference will be convened in Germany in May 2007 to deal with all areas which are important for sustainable development. The catalogue of issues includes energy, water, soil, air, biodiversity, natural and man-made resources, agriculture, forests, health, climate and global change, production and consumption, environmental technologies, transport, buildings, regional and urban development, cultural heritage, employment, economic, social and cultural changes and change agents, as well as indicators.


Promoting sustainability is building the future. The originality of the process is that the foundations and the walls have to be constructed at the same time. All states have to accept this specificity and assimilate the truth that real change is the only productive response to the global crisis of sustainability.

Using the tools of multilateral diplomacy, the Group of 77 (in fact, 131 countries , including Thailand) and China called again on developed countries at the current 61st session of the UN General Assembly to co-operate with countries of the south in research and development, in order to facilitate the transfer of appropriate and advanced technology, in particular environmentally sound technology.

From this perspective, the work program must exhibit not only predictability, but flexibility, to reflect the true nature of the relationships between issues and relevant means of implementation. It should highlight the various responsibilities of the different actors and their levels of involvement in the implementation process.

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First published in the Bangkok Post on November 19 , 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Ioan Voicu is a Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok

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