Environmental Education for Sustainable Development: A Perspective

Environmental Education for Sustainable Development needs to be embedded in all educational activities, so that awareness leads to understanding and understanding to action.

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THE protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue that affects the wellbeing of people and economic development throughout the world. It is the pressing desire of all human beings of the whole world and the duty of all governments. The world community's resolve to protect and enhance the environmental quality found expression in the decisions taken at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972. The traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable. "Sustainable Development” is the answer. The State's responsibility concerning environmental protection has been laid down under Article 48-A of the Constitution of India, which reads as follows: "The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country". Environmental protection is a fundamental duty of every citizen of this country under Article 51-A (g) of the Constitution which reads as follows: "It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures." Environmental Education is one of the most effective tools for increasing the general level of public environmental awareness, developing skills for solving environmental problems, and maintaining and improving the quality of life and the environment. This article examines the significance of environmental education in the promotion of sustainable development in India.


The concept of sustainable development is an important landmark in environmental theory because it postulates how society itself should be organized, and not simply why certain environmental protections should be adopted or how they can be best implemented. Among the plethora of definitions on sustainable development, the most widely accepted definition is by World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) - a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition is in wider agreement with several other international initiatives. In the International sphere "Sustainable Development" as a concept came to be known for the first time in the Stockholm Declaration of 1972. Thereafter, in 1987 the concept was given a definite shape by the WCED in its report called Our Common Future, popularly known as the "Brundtland Report". In 1991, the World Conservation Union, United Nations Environment Programme, and World Wide Fund for Nature, jointly came out with a document called "Caring for the Earth" which is a strategy for sustainable living. Then came the Earth Summit held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro which saw the largest gathering of world leaders ever in history - deliberating and chalking out a blueprint for the survival of the planet. The Summit sets the planet on a new course to global sustainable development. States became concerned with climate changes, their impact, and the need to protect biological diversity. Among the tangible achievements of the Rio Conference were the signing of two conventions, one on biological diversity and another on climate change.These conventions were signed by 153 nations. During the two decades from Stockholm to Rio "Sustainable Development" came to be accepted as a viable concept to eradicate poverty and improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the supporting eco-systems. Ten years later at Johannesburg, the World Summit on Sustainable Development from 2 to 4 September 2002 committed itself to build a humane, equitable, and caring society. For this, the Summit assumed a collective responsibility to advance and strengthen the independent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development, economic development, social development and environment, at the local, national, regional, and global levels. Thus, sustainable development as a balancing concept between ecology and development has been accepted as a part of Customary International Law.


Some of the main principles of "Sustainable Development", as culled out from Brundtland Report and other international documents, are Inter-Generational Equity, Use and Conservation of Nature Resources, Environmental Protection, the Precautionary Principle, Polluter Pays principle, Obligation to assist and cooperate, Eradication of Poverty and Financial Assistance to the developing countries. In the landmark case of Indian Council for Enviro- Legal Action v. Union of India (AIR 1996 SC 1446),The Indian Supreme Court was, however, of the view that the "Precautionary Principle" and the "Polluter Pays" principle are essential features of "Sustainable Development". The "Precautionary Principle" - in the context of the municipal law means - (i) Environment measures - by the State Government and the statutory authorities - must anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation; (ii) Where there are threats of serious and irreversible damage lack of scientific certainty should not be used as the reason for postponing, measures to prevent environmental depredation, and (iii)The "Onus of proof" is on the actor or the developer/industrialist to show that his action is environmentally benign.

In respect of the "Polluter Pays" principle, the SupremeCourt ruled that "Once the activity carried on is hazardous or inherently dangerous, the person carrying on such activity is liable to make good the loss caused to any other person by his activity irrespective of the fact whether he took reasonable care while carrying on his activity. The rule is premised upon the very nature of the activity carried on". Consequently the polluting industries are "absolutely liable to compensate for the harm caused by them to villagers in the affected area, to the soil and the underground water and hence, they are bound to take all necessary measures to remove sludge and other pollutants lying in the affected areas". The "Polluter Pays" principle, as interpreted by the Court, means that the absolute liability for harm to the environment extends not only to compensate the victims of pollution but also the cost of restoring the environmental degradation. Remediation of the damaged environment is part of the process of "Sustainable Development" and as such polluter is liable to pay the cost to the individual sufferers as well as the cost of reversing the damaged ecology. The precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle have been accepted as part of the law of the land.


The concept of environmental education was first formalized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in 1970 at ameeting held in Nevada, USA, as a process of recognizing values and classifying concepts to develop skills and attitudes necessary to understand and appreciate the inter-relatedness among man, his culture and his biophysical surroundings. Environmental education alsoentails practice in decision-making and self-formulating a code of behavior about the issues concerning environmental quality (IUCN, 1970). Subsequently, Environmental Education was recognized and its development was recommended by the World Community as a measure for the understanding, protection, and improvement of the environment and its quality.

Belgrade Charter, 1975

The Belgrade Charter was developed in 1975 at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Conference in Yugoslavia, and it provides a widelyaccepted goal statement for environmental education: “The goal of environmentaleducation is to develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations, and commitment to work individually and collectively towards obtaining solutions for current problems and the prevention from forthcoming ones”.

Tbilisi Declaration, 1977

Following Belgrade, the world's first Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education was held in Tbilisi, Georgia. The representatives at the Tbilisi Conference adopted the Tbilisi Declaration, which challenged environmental education to create awareness and values amongst humankind to improve the qualities of life and the environment. A major outcome of Tbilisi gave a detailed description of theobjectives of environmental education viz: awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills, and participation.(i)Awareness-to help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems;(ii)Knowledge– to help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and to acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems;(iii) Attitudes-to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection;(iv) Skills-to help social groups and individuals acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems, and(v) Participation-to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to actively involve at all levels in working toward the resolution of environmental problems.Most environmental educators have since then universally adopted these objectives.

Ahmedabad Conference, 2007

The 4th International Conference on Environmental Education was held at Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad from 24 to 28 November 2007. The five-day conference was attended by over 1500 participants from 97 countries. Theconference was hosted by the Centre for Environment Education on behalf of the Government of India. Two ministries of the Government of India, namely the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the Ministry of Environment and Forests were co-organizers of the event. The event was co-sponsored by UNESCO and UNEP. This Conference aimed to understand what has emerged out of the discipline of environmental education since the Tbilisi declaration and its rolewithin Education for Sustainable Development. The conference provided an opportunity to consider how environmental education and Education for Sustainable Development can partner and strengthen each other towards building a sustainable future.

The outcomes of Tbilisi, Belgrade, and Ahmedabad conferences have, in many ways, provided the basis for many environmental education programs. Certainly, having both a commonly accepted goal statement and an associated set of objectives has allowed many educators to better address the desired outcomes through the programs.Education for Sustainable Development or Environmental education for sustainable development, thus, is a concept encompassing a vision of education that seeks to empower people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future. For many years environmental education has sought to develop knowledge about the environment and to establish an ethic of caring towards the natural world. It has also grown over time to recognize the need to engage with many different interests in society to address environmental issues. Environmental education for sustainability acknowledges what has always been true that how people perceive and interact with their environment (their worldviews) cannot be separated from the society and the culture they live in. Importantly, recognition of the many values natural and cultural which the environment may encompass including the protection of places of National Heritage Significance, based on their natural, cultural and indigenous values.


The Supreme Court of India had played a significant role in spreading environmental awareness and literacy, as well as launching environmental education in the country. In MC Mehta v. Union of India, AIR 1992 SC 382, the Court observed: “For the human conduct to be under the prescription of law there must be appropriate awareness about what the law requires. This should be possible only when steps are taken in the adequate measure to make people aware of the indispensable necessity of their conduct being oriented following the requirements of law.” The Bar Council of India, the authority for legal education up to graduate level, had decided to introduce environmental law as a compulsory paper for legal education at the graduate level, and the same was circulated by the Council vide its letter LE (Cir No4/1997) dated 21 October 1997 to the registrars of all universities imparting legal education, deans of faculties of law of all the universities, and principals of all the law colleges. Later in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India (AIR 2004 SC 1193), the Apex Court directed the NCERT to prepare and submit a module syllabus for different grades, so that the Court could consider the feasibility of introducing the syllabus uniformly throughout the country. The Court also asked the state governments and other authorities to implement the steps at least in the year 2004-2005 in every educational institution, and categorically warned that non-compliance would be treated as disobedience, which calls for disciplinary action.In compliance with the directive of the Supreme Court, a curriculum framework was prepared by the NCERT, whichhad been accepted by the Court as the guideline for State Education Departments to develop textbooks for schools from 2004-2005 onward. Thus, the judicial interest in the issue has given it the impetus for integrating environmental concepts in the curricula at the state level.

The National Curriculum Framework, 2005 envisages that Environmental Education to be imparted in an infusion model in the Upper Primary and Secondary stages of school education to bring about sensitivity towards the environment. The policy documents had been emphasizing the subject since 1986. The result is a highly aware generation. But the action towards it was still lacking. Therefore, National Curriculum Framework, 2005 focuses on bringing about a generation that is sensitive and ready to work for it. Further, it states that the very nature of environmental education will help in building capacity for critical thinking and problem solving instead of rote memorisation. Thus, India has been striving hard to address problems of poverty, unemployment,illiteracy, population growth, and ecological disorganization, which are directly impinging on the country‘s sustainable development. As sustainable development calls for a dynamic equilibrium among the social, cultural, economic, and ecological factors, there is a growing realization that if sustainable development is to be realized, India has to address many problems associated with these factors as a matter of priority. Further, the Government also realizes that many of the answers to these concerns lie in the mobilization of individuals, institutions, and resources to develop socially just and environmentally sustainable futures.  This process will also involve changes in people‘s ideas, knowledge, and values to bring about such changes in actions while recognizing that the link between ideas, knowledge, values, and actions does not necessarily follow a simple linear psychological model.

Education is an important instrument towards the development of the individual as indeed, it is a vital instrument in nation-building. Technology has effaced conventional barriers and the world has become a globally networked community of information ideas. The challenges which confront the system of education have evolved rapidly, perhaps too rapidly for our educational system to develop pragmatic solutions to meet them. According to UNESCO, “Environmental education is a way of implementing the goals of environmental protection. It is not a separate branch of science but a lifelong interdisciplinary field of study.” It means education towards protection and enhancement of the environment and education as an instrument of development for improving the quality of life of human communities. In the context of environmental education, it needs to be pointed out that environmental education opens up many career opportunities. With increasing awareness and stress on the study of the environment and its impact at various levels, there is a growing need for environmental educators and professionals. Professionals to deal with hazardous waste problems, lawyers and other specialists to develop government and industry policy, laws and regulations to protect the environment, engineers to develop technologies and products to prevent environmental degradation are the need of the hour.

Increasingly, economists, geographers, and social scientists would be required to evaluate the costs of environmental pollution and depletion and come up with solutions that are socially, economically, and in other ways suitable for the world. Business too needs a new class of environmentally literate and responsible leaders who can study how products and services affect our environment. Environment-related jobs would occupy a prominent place in the years to come. So environmental education, as a discipline and as an aspect linked to all other disciplines, is not only vital in it but also has a tremendous scope in terms of job creation. Environmental Education for Sustainable Development needs to be embedded in all educational activities, so that awareness leads to understanding and understanding to action. It is undisputed that the existence and sustenance of human beings are because of nature. If nature is destroyed because of the ambitious greed of one's interest by encroaching forest lands and water bodies disturbing biodiversity, environment, and ecology, definitely it affects the existence and sustenance of human beings. If we are not careful, we can contribute to environmental degradation. We can take care of the world by providing environmental education to the people to help them develop familiarity with their surroundings that will enable them to take care of environmental concerns thus making it more useful and protected for our children and the future generations.

(The views expressed are the writer's own)

First Published:June 4, 2021, 11:02 p.m.

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