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Environmental ethics in school: What can religious education contribute to sustainable development?

16 December 2011

Photo Credit: World Bank

Simone Birkel

“Environmental protection should become a subject in school,” Greenpeace requires in one of its recent news publications in Germany.  As much as I support this demand, and the discussion about integrating environmental ethics in religious education, the question of whether education alone can achieve the necessary social change towards a sustainable lifestyle is still open.

At least since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the adoption of Agenda 21, in which the triad of ecology, economy and social justice was globally united in the key concept of “sustainable development,” it became clear that environmental considerations must not be discussed apart from social and economic factors – a finding that led to the establishment of the Education for Sustainable Development programme or ESD.

The United Nations declared the period from 2005 to 2014 the “World Decade of Education for sustainable development” to lay down globally the foundation for integrating the principle of sustainable development into national school systems.  Thus, it is difficult to provide ecologically relevant topics to teaching institutions, without taking into account the specific context of the school.

An ESD in schools, especially in religious schools, will only be successful and sustainable if the whole school is involved in the sustainability process, and if, from all sides, attempts are made to reform the school following such criteria of sustainability.  This requirement includes administration, structural and energy-efficient measures, and training modules for teachers and students.  Ideally, the whole search process should lead into a discussion about a common mission statement.

Principles of education for sustainability, UNESCO 2009. Photo Credit: gaby.okayako.com

One possible way forward is the introduction of professional environmental management systems developed for schools, bringing the whole institution into perspective.  As a standard for environmental management, the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme offers a core orientation.  Some dioceses in Europe even offer support to their schools to introduce such environmental management measures.

We need a broad discussion about what religious education can contribute to sustainable development.  Christian pedagogy, as well as schools in general, cannot simply “teach sustainability.”  School and religious education would be overtaxed by such a task: these common assignments cannot be solved exclusively in schools, without creating appropriate social, economic and political frameworks.  At the most, schools can support the process, but not act as decisive engines of an overwhelming sustainable development.

Photo credit: cbm.org

The contents of the sustainability debate were already present before Rio 1992 and also in religious learning schemes.  In the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver in 1983, a recommendation was adopted, which would integrate all national churches in a Conciliar Process of mutual commitment to justice, peace and integrity of the creation.  The core of this process consists of the synopsis of the themes of ecology, economy, and social justice, as well as the manifold initiatives that have developed from it such as fair trade shops, institutions for environmental education, monasteries based on sustainable agro-business, etc.

Encouraged by the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, the theme of sustainability has found its way into the curricula of religious teaching over the last 30 years.  To rediscover them and to update them with topical discussions will be the captivating task of all teachers, not only in Christian schools.

Simone Birkel

Dr Simone Birkel is a theologian and works at the Academy of Social Education in Eichstätt in Germany.  She is also a lecturer for Education for Sustainable Development at the Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.  Her research focuses on early childhood religious education and religious and ecological education in the context of sustainable development.  For more information, please visit her website .

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