A student with a book at Carter Primary School, in Alexandra, Johannesburg, Tuesday, August 13, 2013. PHOTO: EVA-LOTTA JANSSON

More education on sustainable development? If it is good…


This blog looks at the way that textbooks can help or hinder the provision of education for sustainable development. It is part of a series of blogs on this site published to encourage debates around a new GEM Report Policy Paper: Between the Lines, which looks at the content of textbooks and how it reflects some of the key concepts in Target 4.7 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

By Tobias Ide

Many calls have been launched to enhance access to education. The Millennium Development Goals, for instance, explicitly aimed to ‘achieve universal primary education’. Access to education is also a key requirement for sustainable development. Thanks to an increasing number of studies on the issue, we now know that people only act on environmental problems if they know (i) how these problems affect them, and (ii) what can be done to address these problems. This knowledge can hardly be established without sufficient access to education in general, and to education for sustainable development in particular. Consequentially, the Sustainable Development Goals demand: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.”

But while expanding access to education is of utmost importance, the quality of education is extremely relevant as well. Badly designed or implemented education might even be counter-productive.

For instance, the (absolute and relative) number of pupils who receive history and civics education in school has vastly increased since World War II. In principle, this should equip more students – and, with a time lag, more adults – with the skills of gaining relevant information, putting them in a wider political and historical context, and thinking about them critically. But in practice, the curricula and school textbooks in many regions affected by conflict, such as India-Pakistan or Israel-Palestine, still promote a one-sided narrative that portrays the respective other as a security threat and as responsible for the conflict.

tobias-ideTo quote an illustrative example from an Indian textbook, which puts all blame on Pakistan: “Pakistan’s continued support to terrorism in Kashmir and other parts of India is a very big hindrance in keeping good relations […] It is hoped Pakistan will avoid any future war, and cooperate with India in the solution of more pressing economic problems.” [1]

With textbook content like this, we must ask ourselves a question: Does increased access to education, in which students are exposed to politically slanted content, promote critical thinking or peaceful relations? I doubt it.

Similar examples are not scarce in the domain of education for sustainable development. In a recent study, I investigated how school textbooks in Germany discuss the links between the environment and conflict. In general, highlighting the security implications of environmental change is not a bad thing. Doing so can illustrate the extreme consequences environmental degradation might have, provide students with some conflict-resolution skills, and raise awareness of environmental problems.

But German school textbooks by and large convey a misleading, if not dangerous message.

Firstly, they strongly highlight the possibility of environmental conflicts, but ignore the cases in which people overcome their differences and cooperate when resolving environmental problems.

Secondly, they locate environmental conflicts primarily in the global south, with little attention being paid to conflicts that occur over environmental issues in the global north (just think of resistance to wind energy projects).

Thirdly, the environmental conflicts being mentioned in the global south are portrayed as security threats to the global north. For instance, one textbook claims that environmental migrants “can cross continents, and the conflicts and the associated security problems therefore reach our affluent societies.”[2]

And fourthly, people from the global south, especially from Africa and the Middle East, are portrayed as unable to solve, yet also as largely responsible for their environmental problems. Global consumption patterns, neoliberal interventions by international institutions, or land and water grabbing are hardly mentioned, but population growth and backward technologies feature prominently in many books. The implicit (and very likely unintentional) message is clear: Environmental conflicts mainly take place in the global south, but they also threaten the global north, and the countries in the global south are unlikely to solve their environmental challenges by their own – hence (further) interventions of the global north are necessary and justified. This is hardly the kind of education for sustainable development that most of us envision.


Examples from other world regions are abundant. Yemeni textbooks tell pupils that state agencies take good care of the rich water and land resources of the country. But many states institutions actively encourage overpumping of already stressed groundwater reservoirs. Similarly, Morocco suffers from air pollution, desertification and regional water scarcity. But the textbooks of the country, if they mention these problems at all, provide hardly any ideas about how to improve the environmental situation, either through everyday actions or through infrastructure investments (such as solar or wind energy).

To conclude: More access to education is good! More education for sustainable development is good! But we must ensure that the increased focus on education for sustainable development in quantitative terms is matched by increasing quality standards. Otherwise, its effects might be counter-productive. One possibility to ensure such high quality standards could be the establishment of multilateral education commissions for sustainable development, which mimic the successful work of bilateral textbooks commissions in Europe after World War II.

[1] Kher/Sharma (2004): A concise course in Indian history and civics, volume III for class VIII. New Dehli: Pitambar Publishing, p. 211.

[2] Betz/Riedel/Ringe/Weber (2013): Wirtschaftliche Globalisierung und internationale Beziehungen. Bamberg: Buchner, p. 83 (own translation).


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