Science has solutions for many of the ills facing our damaged planet, but today's politicians are unwilling to grasp the environmental nettle. That's why education for a sustainable future is vital, writes Jonathon Porritt
You hardly meet anyone these days who isn't aware of our growing environmental problems. Whether it's climate change, collapsing ecosystems, over-fishing, or smaller-scale issues closer to home, we're starting to accept that this is a real threat to our quality of life and future prosperity.
That's the bad news. The good news is that we're not short of solutions to these problems in terms of new technologies - more environment-friendly ways of living, policies to promote "smart economic growth", and so on.
It's just that our politicians lack the will (or inclination) to make a real go of it when dealing with their own generation of citizens. "The voters just aren't ready for it," is how one embarrassed environment minister put it to me after a general election campaign even more scandalously devoid of environmental content than usual.
Which makes the challenge of education for sustainable development all the more pressing. How can we expect adults to embrace the changes that are now so necessary if their childhood and education are as sustainability-free as the average general election campaign?
Education for sustainable development (ESD) has three main dimensions: content, practice and ethos. Content embraces not just what young people need to understand about the workings of the natural world and our relationship with it, but the way in which they absorb that knowledge.
Primary schools have already made huge strides in this area over the last few years, but at secondary level, it's all much patchier, far more dependent on the commitment of individual head teachers. Four subject areas encompass ESD at GCSE level: geography, citizenship, the sciences and ICT.
But we're still far away from anything resembling "sustainable development across the curriculum".
As to practice, the aspiration here was eloquently captured in the Prime Minister's speech to The Prince of Wales's Business and Environment programme a year ago: "Sustainable development will not just be a subject in the classroom; it will be in its bricks and mortar, and the way the school uses and even generates its own power. Our students won't just be told about sustainable development, they will see and work within it: a living, learning place in which to explore what a sustainable lifestyle means."
To make schools living exemplars of sustainable development touches every aspect of the way a school is run, from energy and waste management to the feel and quality of the learning environment, from the way the school grounds are used to the way in which children get to school, from what happens in the school kitchen (if they still have one) to the use of the school as an "extended" community facility.
As to ethos, at the heart of sustainable development lies the concept of interdependence. Schools need to enable children to understand that their lives are entirely dependent both on our relationship with natural systems and on a sense of deepened empathy with all other citizens of planet Earth.
The best of our schools today already live and breathe that ethos, but it is still the exception rather than the rule.
Two years ago, the Department for Education and Skills published its first Sustainable Development Action Plan. Of all the pledges made in it, the Sustainable Development Commission reckons about 40 per cent had been achieved, 40 per cent partly achieved, and 20 per cent not achieved at all.
Not a bad start, but still leaving a huge amount to do - with a real question mark about where the leadership is coming from inside DfES and all its agencies.
From this operational point of view, it's all about providing the right tools (such as the Schools Environmental Assessment Method, or the Sustainable Schools website: www.suschool.org.uk), and ensuring that there's enough capacity in the system to make ESD a reality. Unless Ofsted, the Teacher Development Agency, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the National College for School Leadership, all have ESD up there as a key priority, it will always be an add-on rather than a core determinant of success across the entire system.
Is that so much to ask? Even from a conventional value-for-money perspective, sustainable development is a real no-brainer. Over the next decade, tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money will be invested in new schools and refurbishment programmes. It's scandalous that much of this money will end up in poorly designed, poorly constructed, under-performing schools - not just depriving each of those schools of tens of thousands of pounds every year (through reduced energy bills and running costs), but depriving the nation of a generation of young people who will really understand what sustainable development is all about - and how it will improve our lives now and in the future.
Jonathon Porritt is chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, www.sd-commission.org.uk, and programme director of Forum for the Future, www.forumforthefuture.org.uk