Basic Course 1
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Basic Course 5




"Can we trust in a turnaround in the attitudes of a sufficient number of people occurring quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is posed frequently, but irrespective of the answer given, it is certain to be vague. 'Yes' as a response would lead to complacency, 'no' as an answer to despair. It is worth trying to leave this confusion behind you and get to work."

[Fritz Schumacher, eco-philosopher and vanguard of the ecology movement, author of the book "Small is Beautiful" published in 1975]

Overview of the Basic Course Sequences

Basic Course 1: What Does Sustainability Mean?

Basic Course 2: How Do I Act Sustainably?

Basic Course 3: How Does a Local Agenda 21 Function?

Basic Course 4: How Can We Protect the Climate?

Basic Course 5: What Problems Are Encountered on the Road to Sustainable Development?

Basic Course 1: What Does Sustainability Mean?

Spaceship Earth

"Imagine the earth as an enormous spaceship. With people of board it races through space. Communication with our home planet has been cut off. There is no return. The passengers have to survive on the existing stock of food, water, oxygen and energy.

While the number of people on board increases, the stores become less and less. At the same time, waste and pollution volumes increase. Life becomes increasingly difficult, the amount of air available to breathe ever less.

Some of those living on the spaceship begin to panic. They prophesy a soon coming death by choking, thirst, hunger or cold. Others exploit the ever-dwindling stock of resources, and ignore warnings to be take more care in using them measuredly. They trust in something occurring to someone at the last moment to save us all.

[Source: Hans-Georg Herrnleben/Jochen Henrich, "Thema im Unterricht" (Topic in Learning) 7/1997: Umweltfragen, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Bonn (Environmental Matters, Federal Centre for Political Education, Bonn]

"It has taken you about a minute to read the text from 'Raumschiff Erde' (Spaceship Earth). (...) In one minute...


... carbon dioxide emissions amount to 38,000 tonnes.


... mankind destroys 3.5 square kilometres of forest.


... we produce over 15,000 tonnes of rubbish.


... another 90 new cars damage our environment.


... around 60,000 tonnes of earth is washed or carried away.


... the population of the earth increases by 165 people.


... nearly a square kilometre of nature is lost to construction or artificial covering.


... around 40 people die of hunger."

[Source: Hans-Georg Herrnleben/Jochen Henrich, "Thema im Unterricht" (Topic in Learning) 7/1997: Umweltfragen, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Bonn (Environmental Matters, Federal Centre for Political Education, Bonn]

The Central Term of Sustainable Development

If we take sustainability seriously, a drastic need for change results in practically every area of life. Not only do consumer habits need to change, which is certain to be difficult. What is just as important is that there is a need for a fundamental change in consciousness that will change business, society and politics as the following text sketches out:

"Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the term "sustainable development"... has become a major term in environment policy worldwide. (...) A sign of hope can certainly be seen in this for environmental politics, since the integrated consideration of ecological, economic and social problems makes the generic correlation clear in which environmental problems need to be placed if they are to be solved in a socially acceptable and realistic manner. (...) What is important are serious demands for change in the economic, social and political sector.

In the economic sector new forms of management need to be introduced which take nature into consideration as a further factor of production, for instance in the calculation of prices. Here the question needs to be asked as to how this can be guaranteed in individual cases - through political-administrative control and/or the self-obligation of commerce - but an argument is also taking place concerning how large commerce's ability to adapt is in a decentrally operating world market, if the steps on the road to sustainable development are not coordinated with one another internationally and can even not be coordinated at all.

In the social sector wholly new demands are being made of the principle and practice of the distribution of rights from three points of view: In the face of the fact that the model of sustainable development stems from the development-political discussion, the distribution of development chances within the bounds of the North-South problem is affected primarily. The inner-social compatibility of ecological modernisation is concerned secondly, which does not just bring new chances along with it, but also a variety of new problems. How can a guarantee be provided that opportunities for living, working and consuming are distributed in a just manner?

Thirdly both of the problem areas stated above are made worse by what is termed "regenerative distribution justice". The interests of future generations need to be taken into consideration in the distribution of chances as they are taking place today, i.e. our society has to orient itself towards the fact that the present is the future's past and cannot be recalled and we must decide about the opportunities it presents today.

The all-decisive question concerns the readiness of society, the business community and each individual to accept these considerable demands on behaviour, production, consumption and ultimately life style and actually become involved in it. This means that the most grave requirements for change are to be found in the political sector:

Even the formulation of the aims for sustainable development threaten to fundamentally overburden the existing political system, which is programmed to short-term election success and a permanent increase in prosperity for reasons of retaining power. A considerable need for political change can be seen above all in the implementation of such aims, because new value orientations and corresponding life styles can neither be resolved politically, nor communicated. In the discussion concerning the implementation of the "sustainable development" model it is considered unanimous that the improved participation of citizens... represents an important requirement for the success of this idea. (...)

This means that a completely new "culture of dialogue" is required both for the formulation of the aim as well as for the binding implementation of the aims. This assumes the readiness of those responsible in politics and society to chisel out the definition of the aims and the stages of implementation in an open discussion together with committed individuals, groups and associations. (...)

A policy of sustainability demands perceiving a responsibility that goes beyond the 24 hours that exist in a day and beyond the self, which is something that can succeed when the individual recognises that personal interests are a irrevocable part of the interests of common reality. For this reason, the idea of sustainability forces a qualitative leap forward in the participation of the citizen and ultimately in the modernisation of democracy.

It has no longer to do with participation in politically or administratively initiated planning, decisions and measures, but about the self-conscious or jointly responsible participation in the "consultancy of common matters" (Aristotle), in the task of modelling policy.

This means that the protagonists in civil society have to take over specific responsibility for political implementation and take on a policy of sustainability, which in turn results in structural, institutional and financial consequences."

[Source: Horst Zilleßen, "Von der Umweltpolitik zur Politik der Nachhaltigkeit." (From Environmental Policy to a Policy of Sustainability) The concept of sustainable development as an approach to modernisation; in: "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" 50/1998, p. 3-5 and 8]

Sustainability is simple and complicated at the same time. On the one hand, we can understand what is being spoken about here intuitively: A popular saying says that "you shouldn't slaughter the cow, which you want to have milk from tomorrow". On the other hand however, we find it difficult to really imagine a sustainable society. Practically everything has to change, and not least ourselves.

"Much depends on whether success occurs in making this term more pointed and evolving the idea, i.e. bringing the whole spectrum and full potential of the term into the game. Sustainability is far more than just a flip-chart concept for intelligently controlling resource management, and more than just than a term compounded in the test-tubes of the Club of Rome, World Bank and UNO. The idea is lent force as soon as a new concept of civilisation is perceived, as a new draft that is enrooted in our traditions and the human psyche. Tradition and innovation do not have to stand in contrast to one another. A common stock of values, ideas and dreams is an important cultural resource."

[Source: Ulrich Grober, "Die Idee der Nachhaltigkeit als zivilisatorischer Entwurf" (The Concept of Sustainability as a Draft for Civilisation); in: "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" 24/2001, p. 3, Online Version]


The most frequently used definition of "sustainable development" originates from Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institute. It was taken up in the "Our Common Future" report from the Brutland Commission.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

[World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), Our Common Future, Oxford 1987, p. 43]


This definition of "sustainable development" may be accepted generally but it does not actually say very much. For this reason, the famous scientist Fritjof Capra suggests the following operationalisation:

"The key to a functional definition of ecological sustainability is the acceptance that we do not have to discover sustainable communities of people anew, but that we can form them from the model of nature's ecosystem, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals and micro-organisms.

What we have seen is the excellent propensity of the earth's household to covert its immanent capacity for life. For this reason a sustainable community of people needs to be created in such a way that, in its manner of living and its commercial, scientific and physical structures and technologies, it does not disrupts nature's imminent capacity to sustain life.

Sustainable communities develop their pattern for life during the course of time in continuous interaction with other human and non-human, systems. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change as such. This is not a status quo, but a dynamic process of co-evolution."

[Source: Fritjof Capra, "Verborgene Zusammenhänge" (Hidden Correlations). "Vernetzt denken und handeln" (Networked thinking and action) in Wirtschaft, Politik, Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft (Econmony, Politics, Science and Society), Bern, amongst others 2002, p. 298]


"The debate on sustainable development fit for the future aims at achieving a social consensus on new development aims beyond western models of civilisation supported by industrial growth, a forgotten perception of and technological visions of feasibility. The development of innovative, models of social development fit for the future are the concern in this perspective in the sense of a regulative concept, such as democracy, freedom of expression and justice etc."

[Source: Thomas Jäger/Michael Schwarz, "Das sozial-ökologische Innovationspotential einer nachhaltigen, zukunftsfähigen Entwicklung auf betrieblicher und kommunaler Ebene" (The Social-Ecological Innovation Potential of Sustainable Development Fit for the Future at Commercial and Community Level); in: "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" 50/1998, Bonn, p 23]


"Education for sustainable development does not just simply "represent" an extended arm of environmental education on social or economic aspects ... but is (or should) form a strong link between political education, global learning, environmental education and health education."

[Willi Linder, Hohe Ansprüche (High Expectations); in: umwelt & bildung" (environment & education) 3/2004, p. 3]

"The aim of the ... UN Decade ... is to bring together the many initiatives from political to environmental education, from global learning to peace education into one form of education for sustainable development."

[Johannes Tschapka; quoted from: "ökolog Netzwerkzeitung" 3/2004 "Nachhaltigkeit leben (und) lernen" (Living and Learning Sustainability"; in: umwelt & bildung" (environment & education) 3/2004

... continue to Basic Course 2: How Do I Act Sustainably?

[Author: Ragnar Müller]

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SubjectsHuman Rights  I  Examples  I  Democracy  I  Parties  I  Europe  I  Globalisation  I  United Nations  I  Sustainability

Methods:    Teaching Politics    II    Peace Education    II    Methods


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