Writings on Sustainability

For more work by Leah Davidson, please visit climateheroes.org, projourno.org, and Imagine Magazine.

UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development: Catalyzing the Creativity of Youth


Unless otherwise noted, all images copyright Leah Davidson

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, opens the World Conference with His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince of Japan and Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology


The UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Nagoya-Aichi, Japan from November 10 to 12, 2014 concluded the UN’s decade of ESD (2005 to 2014). Over this past decade, which ends on what experts predict to be the hottest year on record, we have seen climate change rise to public consciousness, joined forces in the aftermath of frequent and devastating natural disasters, and witnessed a fourth wave of democratic movements in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. I was one of 50 young people, aged 19 to 34, from 48 countries selected to participate in the drafting of a youth statement at a stakeholder meeting in Okayama City to be included in the final report for the UNESCO World Conference and distributed to National Commissions for UNESCO worldwide.


During the three days of high-level roundtables, plenary sessions, and workshops at the World Conference, over 80 government ministers celebrated starting ESD committees, integrating ESD across educational curricula, and organizing think tanks. Unfortunately, this top-level policy to promote ESD goes largely unrecognized by its beneficiaries. Today, 71 percent of people say they “are less likely to take action on climate change because they’re unsure of the difference their actions will make.”


      Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Education speaks out about the difficulty of integrating ESD while fighting illegal immigration


Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Education speaks out about the difficulty of integrating ESD while fighting illegal immigration

As UNESCO launches the Global Action Program on ESD to set the post-2014 agenda, many youth delegates raise poignant questions on the nature of sustainability and potential sources of environmental hope. With dwindling public morale and bureaucratic stagnation, who is responsible for leading innovative change? And what paradigmatic shifts are necessary to move toward this idealistic “future we want”?


Different ways of learning: Removing sustainability from specialist subjects

Environmental science is an academic field of study, but climate change and sustainable development are issues that increasingly need to be approached from an interdisciplinary perspective to appeal to students with vastly different learning styles, strengths, and personality traits. In collaboration with UNEP’s Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in Africa (MESA) Universities Partnership, the University of Swaziland has pioneered a whole university approach to sustainable development, working with every faculty to conduct an audit on a variety of indices, including faculty research on ESD, development of sustainability-themed courses, and student engagement in the local community. When faculties such as English, political science, and mathematics showing zero improvement, the university dedicated additional resources to training teachers and mobilizing student ambassadors who could influence their peers to adopt pro-social behaviors.


In addition to integrating sustainability more broadly into educational curricula, we must experiment with new media and technologies to engage youth who are constantly bombarded with demands for their time. Alexandr Isenco from the Republic of Moldova created Games with Impact, a virtual gaming platform that allows students to compete on 21 sustainability quests and upload photographic proof of their conservation efforts to receive prizes from the Moldovan Environmental Governance Academy and corporate sponsors. Isenco piloted the program for 300 students as a smartphone app and website to address the inadequacy of theory-based education and the lack of support for youth entrepreneurship. As a testament to the pilot’s popularity, Isenco said, “By the end of the program, we had youth voluntarily setting up their own sustainability goals and projects.”


Through social enterprise incubation and skills training, it is possible to develop new outreach tools and peer-to-peer learning platforms that deepen our understanding of environmental psychology and the conversion of positive intentions into measurable outcomes. As Ghana’s Minister of Education Naana Jane Opoku-Agyemang explained, “It’s not the environmentalist's responsibility to talk about ESD... It's everyone's risk.”  


Values-based education: Shifting the focus from having to being

During early childhood, children learn to not lie, cheat or steal. Increasingly, parents and teachers are encouraged to communicate environmental stewardship as a foundational ethical value. Yuri Nakao, a primary school teacher at the Minoh Children’s Forest School in Japan, noted her institution’s novel approach to promoting children’s self-autonomy and dialogue. She writes, “In philosophical discussions, children exchange their ideas about anything they are wondering about. For example, ‘what is freedom?’, ‘what is true happiness?’, and ‘why don’t wars disappear from the world?’. Participating in these meetings gives children a sense of responsibility for others…and the skills needed for peaceful resolutions in conflicts.” 


The Earth Charter provides a popular framework for social justice and environmental sustainability, including principles for respect and care for the community of life; ecological integrity, social, and economic justice; and democracy, nonviolence, and peace. The Methodist University of San Paulo used the Earth Charter to introduce a sustainability leadership program, which led to the integration of environmental ethics across 54 undergraduate courses in 2010. In 2015, the Earth Charter Center for ESD will offer training programs on sustainability communication, storytelling, sensory engagement, and systems thinking as transformative learning methods to teach youth about global interdependence and co-responsibility for environmental justice.


Environmental values also need cultural contextualization. In Kenya, 90% of citizens identify as Christian or Muslim and 80% of schools are affiliated with religious institutions. The Organization for Environmental Education has partnered with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation to develop a Primary School Teacher’s Toolkit in consultation with religious leaders, as well as Farming in God’s Way (FGW) and Farming in Allah’s Way (FAW) programs as faith-based approaches to sustainable agriculture and land management. By involving faith and community leaders in environmental campaigns, people are increasingly likely to take issues of sanitation, recycling, rainwater harvesting, and local food systems seriously. As an example, the Anglican Church of Kenya in Libinu helped establish two greenhouses for members, and the Kirukuma Methodist Academy received soap for a WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) campaign from their local church.


As summarized by the General Rapporteur at the closing plenary, “we have focused too much on the what and how [of ESD]; now we must also focus on the why.”


Youth leadership: Not settling for political stalemates 

From Caroline Zasteril from Plan International, who organized a side panel on child-led approaches to climate change adaptation, to Susan Hopgood, President of Education International, who spoke at the opening panel on the lack of collaboration between generations, participating organizations overwhelming emphasized the need for youth leadership and participation in ESD projects.


The projects of the youth delegates at the World Conference encompass everything from campaigning to stop Girl Scouts from using palm oil in their cookies and developing social entrepreneurship programming with PwC to starting Adopt-a-River campaigns and helping marginalized groups secure employment with eco-friendly organizations. Unfortunately, even though young people have a tremendous capacity for grassroots change, they are frequently excluded from policymaking at the top. “There is still a lack of institutional recognition and support for youth as equal partners,” said Tariq Al-Olaimy from Bahrain at the Opening Plenary. “When it comes to true inter-generational, inter-relational, and inter-regional collaboration, there are still many bridges that we need to build. As just one example, most of the youth delegates present today have had zero contact with government delegations that are here.”

      “There is a feeling amongst many youth in the space, that there is still a lack of institutional recognition and support, as equal partners, and in a way that truly matters,” says Tariq Al-Olaimy


“There is a feeling amongst many youth in the space, that there is still a lack of institutional recognition and support, as equal partners, and in a way that truly matters,” says Tariq Al-Olaimy

In spite of the time and financial resources invested by UNESCO in screening 5000 youth applications, facilitating two months of online discussions, and bringing 50 select participants to Japan, the youth delegates did not have a platform at which to read their statement and instead campaigned for an impromptu side workshop to present their recommendations. Anna Vickerstaff from the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland commented that she was “frustrated by the stagnant structure and perpetual dialogue of the World Conference.”


Corrina Grace, Founder and Executive Director of SERES (Supporting Ecological Resilience and Environmental Sustainability), which has provided 1,400 youth in Central America with mentoring and environmental leadership training, echoed this sentiment. “[Anna and I] started organizing this session after hearing the frustration of the other youth delegates and seeing the disempowerment,” explains Grace. “During the workshop, Madi Vorva from the United States read the vision statement and the 70 people in attendance broke into groups – first, to discuss the sub-sections of the youth statement and then again to meet with youth from their region. At the end, we asked people to listen with attention and speak with intention on what commitments they intended to take to support the youth in their countries. I didn’t want to hear them reiterate the importance of ESD.”

      “It was no longer about how important ESD is… The words had to start with ‘I commit,’” says Corrina Grace about the youth side workshop      Credit: Tatsuru Nakayama


“It was no longer about how important ESD is… The words had to start with ‘I commit,’” says Corrina Grace about the youth side workshop

Credit: Tatsuru Nakayama

Commitments highlighted the diversity of the participants, ranging from including the youth voice in the Swedish delegation’s next statement to UNESCO, spreading the youth message across the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network, and supporting the Sustainable Campus Initiative at the Nagoya Institute of Technology. On the last day of the conference, the young delegates also made public commitments, which included launching a website for youth organizations from around the world to share educational resources, an ESD ambassador certification program, a children’s climate change art and photography competition, and a #HumansofESD platform leading up to COP21 in Paris.

      The official Youth Statement, with signatures of support       Credit: Tatsuru Nakayama


The official Youth Statement, with signatures of support

Credit: Tatsuru Nakayama

When inspired and endorsed, youth display tremendous passion, imagination, and responsibility. Unfortunately, as Grace observed, many youth lie in a state of paralysis as a result of feeling overwhelmed with too much information and apocalyptic news. With inconsistent support from decision makers, youth increasingly need platforms to meet, mentor, and share best practices with other youth on how to effect sustainable local and global change.


At the youth meeting in Okayama, Bokova addressed Millennials: "Don't wait for us, forge ahead; this is where young people can lead the world.” This may sound like the requisite “feel-good speech,” but there lies a striking cord of truth in Bokova’s message. Although youth desperately need financial support and a stronger informal and formal educational system, their increased mobility and connectivity through social media gives them the power to experiment with new ideas for ESD problem-solving and transcend the obstacles to understanding that have prevented previous generations from collective action.



Antarctica and the Power of Love

(TEDxYouth@AntarcticPeninsula speech; originally published in  the Penn Sustainability Review)

Why did I, a small town teenager from Quebec, Canada, travel four days by ship and plane to the coldest, windiest, driest, and most isolated continent on the planet? Quite simply, I wanted to fall in love. All my life, I have heard statistics-for example, that the average global temperature has risen 0.75 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years. When faced with photographs of endangered animals, flooded coastal cities, and deforestation, I wanted to care. And I wanted to change. But I couldn’t because the benefits of driving instead of biking and shopping with friends in the city instead of hiking alone in a forest hit closer to home than the consequences.

Another reason I came to Antarctica was to discover tangible proof of climate change that I could share with my community. During the two-week expedition, ice floes did not shrink before my eyes. The sea level did not rise noticeably, and no penguin appeared to be without food or a habitat. What I gained instead was an appreciation of natural beauty and a desire to safeguard my home at all costs.

In 1959, the world witnessed an extraordinary occurrence. Twelve nations put aside their claims on Antarctic territory and signed the Antarctic Treaty, one of the most successful international agreements. Extended in 1991 to include the Protocol on Environmental Protection, the treaty devotes Antarctica to peaceful scientific use. It is illegal to establish military bases, dispose of radioactive waste, mine commercially, hunt, and fish without permission. Today, 48 countries have ratified the treaty. Unfortunately, Canada, though a signatory, does not have a research station in Antarctica and is only a part member, meaning it has no voice in certain consultative meetings. This concerns me. What also concerns me is the treaty’s moratorium, which is set to expire in 2041. I spoke with author Olle Carlsson and scientist David Fletcher, polar experts who have each visited Antarctica over 100 times. I asked them separately if they thought the treaty would continue past 2041. Both men smiled and I could see a cascade of images. Of Adelie penguins porpoising and ice capturing the sun’s radiant energy. Of snowy mountain peaks blending into the white of the clouds and killer whales gliding through perfectly reflective water. In answer to my question, Olle and David said the same three words: “I hope so.” Realistically, will countries thirsty because of global warming turn to Antarctica, the source of 70 percent of Earth’s fresh water? Will countries in economic turmoil try to find precious metals and minerals underground? Will we as the next generation endanger the fish that give life to so much of the Antarctic ecosystem? We really do not know.

In 2041, I will be 46 years old, and all I ask is that you join me and my fellow polar ambassadors by falling in love with our planet. Don’t protect it because of charts you don’t understand that show the correlation between temperature increases and carbon dioxide emissions. Don’t protect it because you feel guilty after watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Come to Antarctica. Sit down beside a Gentoo penguin rookery. Watch parents feed, reprimand, and play with their chicks. Realize how similar humans are to the birds struggling for survival amid skuas and leopard seals. Climb to the top of a mountain, to that magical place where weather-carved icebergs and endless ice sheets surround you in every direction. Feel your heart absorb the paradise in your midst, this veritable Heaven on Earth.

They say falling in love is a choice, and to a certain extent that is true. It’s a choice to calm the butterflies in your stomach and accept an invitation on your first date. It’s a choice to propose and walk down the aisle. Conversely, the actual process of falling in love is innate, indescribable, and almost inadvertent.

Even if you don’t have the privilege of touring the Antarctic Peninsula and experiencing its age-old wisdom for yourself, go out into your backyard. Listen to the chirping of birds, the footsteps of squirrels, and the falling of snowflakes, each individually and exquisitely designed, and you will find yourself transformed as I have been-miraculously, automatically, and effortlessly.

A time will come when we must decide whether we as an international community are willing to preserve the flora and fauna of one wilderness area in pristine condition for our children and grandchildren. Call me an idealist, but I believe that love, if it’s true enough, has the power to endure forever. It is with this love that we strengthen relationships and prevent wars. It is with this love that we pool our resources to obtain the most accurate scientific data. And it is with this love that seven continents, 193 countries, and seven billion people might work together to keep the treaty effective, Antarctica safe, and our planet alive.