By Raquel Solomon
As the recipient of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship in the fall of 2011, my follow-on service project involved leading a workshop on sustainable development at the Mae Jemison Reading Room operated by the U.S. Embassy in Johannesburg, South Africa. The reading room is patronized by students from 17 high schools in the Mamelodi community, a township located outside of Pretoria. Having done volunteer work in several South African townships since 2008, I have witnessed the dire reality that the majority of these children face. The lack of access to basic services such as clean drinking water, food, health care, proper sanitation, electricity and a sound education all severely limit a child’s opportunity to survive, much less to thrive beyond the circumstances of their impoverished communities.
The workshop took place prior to the Rio+20 conference, on June 6. Some of the concepts I presented were taken from a course on the Challenges of Sustainable Development led Professor Jeffrey Sachs this past semester at Columbia University. The need for education in the field of sustainable development became evident, as neither students nor adults in the workshop knew what the concept of sustainable development entailed or how they were especially vulnerable in terms of climate change, geographic location, population growth, disease prevalence and other factors specific to the African continent. Yet, this awareness and understanding is key to their empowerment in tackling issues of poverty.
At a session later on in Rio, Director General Irena Bokova of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization spoke of this need. During a panel on “Educating for a Sustainable Future,” she said sustainable development cannot be achieved by political agreements, financial incentives or technological solutions alone. In order to protect the natural environment and promote greater global equity, she said, there must be a fundamental change in the ways individuals think and act.
Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs, who co-chaired the panel, emphasized that education vital to achieving any kind of development, and that children must be empowered to go beyond primary education. And, he said, education about sustainable development is necessary to empower the future generation to grapple with real needs on the ground and the inherited challenge of reconciling economic development and environmental sustainability.
“Education about this challenge requires a new subject matter, an inter-disciplinary curriculum, an understanding of science, social processes, culture, human values and the knowledge to live in a global society”, he said.
My experience in the township of Mamelodi was echoed in their words. Sustainable development can only be achieved if all individuals and societies are equipped and empowered by knowledge, skills and values as well as heightened awareness to drive such change. There is a gap that needs to be filled from the bottom up, through formal and informal education to create a new “sustainable citizenship.”
The sustainable development goals that were deliberated at the Rio+20 conference offer some clear signposts with respect to education, which was voted into the top three of those goals. And driving this agenda is very much a part of the mission of the Earth Institute.
Raquel Solomon is a student at Columbia’s School of General Studies majoring in sustainable development and French, class of 2012, and will go on to pursue a master of public administration with a concentration in energy and environment. She is a member of the Columbia University Coalition for Sustainable Development and attended the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro in mid-June.