Sustainability is at the heart of education


This year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on 28 July. The day represents the calculated date on which we exhausted natural resources for the year. It provides another reminder of the greatest challenge of our time: the environmental crisis. As with many other societal problems, the key to the solution to the environmental crisis lies with education.

Finland had its national overshoot day much earlier than the rest of the world, on 31 March. In addition to the global strain we cause, biodiversity loss is also threatening our own living environment. One in nine animal species and around half of habitat types in Finland are endangered. When we add climate change to the wretched environmental crisis, it becomes clear that the actions of the richest people and societies have resulted in our planet entering a new geological era: the Anthropocene. Humanity is currently the dominant force changing, shaping and destroying the environment on Earth. This power comes with a special responsibility for our own and our planet’s future.

This human activity, which is already actively causing human rights violations, an increase in the number of refugees and the sixth mass extinction, is not separate from education – on the contrary, it is a key part of it. One of the main goals of educational policy has practically always been to increase productivity and thus to make human activity more efficient. How can we get more out of one person-year, for instance? This kind of thinking has made the tremendous advancement of societies possible.

Where basic human needs have been fulfilled, though, we must consider how far and in what ways this work on increasing efficiency should be continued. We do not need more activity that causes environmental destruction, and increased productivity should not be used to enable overconsumption. The goals of educational policy clearly cannot be considered neutral. They play their own role in our sustainability crisis – in both its solution and its preservation.

Education reproduces the world by providing learning, ideas and competence for the labour market and civil society as well as the personal lives of individuals. Building a sustainable society thus requires education to meet its needs. While the environmental crisis continues to get worse, we may consider politics to have failed in this matter. Technological solutions and innovations are a key component of the kind of life that respects the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity, but there is a demand for understanding from all the different disciplines when trying to achieve societal change. The Ministry of Finance, for instance, needs climate and environmental economists, but there are currently not enough experts in the field. Instead of the current conspicuous consumerism, a sustainable way of life must be based primarily on immaterial experiences, and for this, we need artists and experts in the promotion of communality.

Ultimately, education is about our conception of what is known in German as Bildung. While the concept is associated with learnedness and erudition, the most important aspect of Bildung is critical awareness and understanding of the surrounding world. During the Anthropocene, this must be defined from the perspective of sustainability – after all, could we really consider a society that uses more natural resources than the planet can regenerate and drives species to extinction genuinely civilised?

One starting point for a new definition could be the concept of an ecosocial approach to education, put forward by sustainability researcher Arto O. Salonen. The concept focuses on people’s understanding of the interdependence of their rights and duties on the one hand and other people and the wellbeing of nature on the other. The limits of the planet’s carrying capacity are respected through compassion and moderation.

Sustainability can thus be seen to belong right at the heart of educational policy from several different perspectives that, each for their own part, reproduce our world time and time again. This is why we can only resolve the environmental crisis by investing in education and redefining its goals. We must all keep this in mind when building the sustainable transition of the future.


Aku Houttu

Member of the Board
educational policy, Finnish Parliamentary election, environmental affairs