Education for Sustainable Development: An assessment of the current situation

Gunter Keller

Today, as we attentively follow the world and global current affairs, we become increasingly aware that we are facing major societal challenges and changes. They concern the local, national, European and global levels. At stake is the future viability of our planet and thus also the future viability of humanity. It is about whether or not we can develop a way of life that is caring, economical and considerate of our resources. 

The transformation will affect all areas of our society, our economy, the way we produce and consume things, but also our politics and how we live together. Our cultural values, our education and our ideas of a good life will also have to change.

What is on the agenda – we are already in the middle of it – can, to quote Karl Polanyi, be called the "great transformation" (Polanyi 2017).

Many people have been aware of this for a long time and have repeatedly pointed out the necessary processes of change.

  • A first milestone towards a changed consciousness was set 50 years ago, in 1972, by the report of the Club of Rome entitled "Limits to Growth" (Meadows et al. 1972).
  • In 1987, the term "sustainable development" was coined in the so-called Brundtland Report (WCED 1990).
  • In 1992, the UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro adopted Agenda 21.
  • In 2002, the Rio+10 summit in Johannesburg launched the "Marrakech Process" on sustainable consumption and production.
  • One of the most important steps in the global sustainable development agenda is the year 2015. The climate conference in Paris should be mentioned here, in which the reduction of global warming to well below 2 degrees – if possible 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels – was set as a binding target.
  • Another significant event is the adoption of the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 sub-goals (see illustration).

UN (2022): https://sdgs.un.org/goals

Since it is not possible to go into all 17 goals here, I would like to pick out a few that particularly affect us in the industrialised countries.

  • Goal 13 means that we try to do everything we can to halt climate change so that we reach the 1.5 degree target (or stay below 2 degrees of warming if possible).
  • For us, Goal 7 means that we supply ourselves with energy that is carbon neutral so that we can achieve the climate goal. This will result in a conversion of the energy sector to renewable energies.
  • Goal 12 means that we need to change the way we produce and consume. We will use products longer, repair them and say goodbye to the consumer and throwaway society.

What we are facing is a transformation that will change our attitudes, values, norms, ideas, thoughts, feelings and actions. The philosopher and historian Kwame Anthony Appiah has tried to describe the course of moral revolutions (transformations) and distinguished five steps (Appiah 2011, p. 9):

Phase 1: Ignorance, we don't see the problem: there is no climate change.
Phase 2: We recognise the problem but do not make a personal connection. There is climate change, but it has nothing to do with me.
Phase 3: We recognise that our behaviour is part of the problem. We contribute to climate change and consider what we can do.
Phase 4: We start to act and change ourselves and our world.
Phase 5: Looking back at the process of transformation and not understanding why it took so long to change something.

Appiah’s  five phases are so important because they show that a great transformation to a sustainable age has to do with every single person and changes have to start with every single person.

Education for Sustainable Development and Waldorf education – An assessment of the current situation

1. Methodological aspects

Waldorf education is based on several principles, four of which I would like to mention here, which are connected with education for sustainable development.

1) The relationship of the human being to the earth: the human being is fundamentally understood as part of the earth in Waldorf education, which is expressed in the formula microcosm-macrocosm. This refers to the interconnectedness of human beings (microcosm) and earth (macrocosm) (Steiner 1999). It includes a mindful approach to nature (Keller 2011).

2) Compassionate epistemology: In addition to the acquisition of knowledge, Waldorf schools are primarily concerned with grasping things, processes and living beings holistically, connecting deeply with the learning content and acquiring a comprehensive and compassionate understanding (Steiner 2011). In this connection the learning method of conclusion – judgement – concept should also be mentioned (Steiner 1992, p. 133 ff).

3) In understanding the world, the learners' feeling should also be trained and included in order to enable a feeling-based understanding. The aim is to train emotional intelligence and the capacity for aesthetic feeling and empathy. It provides the reason for the special position of art in the curriculum of Waldorf education (Keller 2015).

4) Action competence: If a person has recognised things and wants to change them, they need enthusiasm, will and perseverance. Training the will is an elementary component of Waldorf education and finds expression in a wide variety of projects, work experience and practical and artistic subjects, which, in addition to the content and skills to be learned, are always about starting, persevering and finishing.

Together, the four aspects mentioned describe what is meant by education for freedom and the term "ethical individualism". It is the ability to acquire knowledge independently, to develop aesthetic feeling, to change perspectives and thus to see the world from the point of view of others, to act accordingly and take responsibility. This includes the development of values and morals and the possibility to live an authentic life without double standards (Steiner 1987, Keller 2010).

2. Content-related aspects

The four methodological aspects have led to the Waldorf school curriculum differing considerably from other schools in some areas. In addition to the classical subjects, there are a variety of artistic and practical subjects as well as work experience. Here a holistic education that aims for sustainability can be identified as the defining principle.

The following table provides an overview of content, topics and projects that can be associated with an education for sustainable development and that are practiced in many Waldorf schools. The list is illustrative, not exhaustive.

Class level


1 – 3

  • Loving observation of the natural environment, main lesson from grain to bread, craft main lessons with active connection to the world

4 – 5


  • Anthropology, zoology, botany
  • Closeness to nature: artistic exploration

6 – 8

  • Horticulture
  • Crafts
  • In the history main lesson on the emergence of modern civilisations: a look at the beginnings of environmental degradation through industrialisation and the link to the current situation.
  • Develop own projects to be worked on within the framework of the year project or a separate project.
  • Knowledge of indigenous peoples and sustainable lifestyles
  • Dietetics
  • Closeness to nature: artistic exploration
  • Forestry work experience

9 – 10

  • In the context of the physics main lesson: modern traffic systems and means of transport and their carbon footprint
  • Care of the school's energy system
  • The earth as a whole
  • Oceanography and climatology
  • Closeness to nature: enhanced, observing connection through artistic processes
  • Agriculture work experience

11 - 12

  • Energy and heat consumption and carbon footprint
  • Climate history and climate change
  • Globalisation main lesson
  • Ethical individualism through artistic engagement
  • Projects within the framework of e.g. the year projects


An initial conclusion

In principle it can be said that Waldorf schools deal consciously with the issue of people and the environment and have long been committed to sustainable development. This applies not only to ecological sustainability but also to economic, social and cultural sustainability. However, historically the term sustainability was not necessarily used but rather descriptions such as "human treatment" or "treatment that is beneficial to the earth, plants and animals".

In this context the Waldorf movement not only has the methodological tools (relationship to the earth, compassionate epistemology, the capacity for aesthetic observation and action competence), but also a corresponding curriculum to participate meaningfully in the transition towards a sustainable society.

3. Challenges

However, it is also important to understand that the industrialised nations, and thus we too, make a considerable contribution to climate change, environmental destruction, pollution of the oceans, etc. We as individuals do not do this directly and perhaps not even consciously. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that the negative effects come from the way we live, the way we consume, our need for mobility, our desire to travel and the way we eat.

Despite all our knowledge and development, we have hardly succeeded in improving our situation and that of the earth, its ecosystems and living beings. Technical developments and innovations were mostly compensated by higher consumption.

So it is not enough to just invest in new technology, we need a real transformation to other lifestyles. To do this, we need to change in seven areas in particular, shown here as seven transitions.

The aim must be for Waldorf schools to make a significant contribution to these 7 transitions. We must now do all we can to support the transformation to a sustainable future and empower our pupils to continue on the path we have chosen. Significant efforts and changes will still be needed, affecting both our curriculum and our conception of a good life.


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