Transformative Tools for Sustainability Education

A paper on transformative tools for sustainability education that any teacher can integrate into the curriculum, prepared by
Julie D. Johnston and Peter D. Carter, MD,
for the World Environmental Education Congress
Durban, South Africa 2007

All education is environmental education.
— David Orr

The best educated citizens of the best educated nations in the world are using their best skills to knowingly record — in ever greater certainty and detail — their accelerating destruction, degradation and deadly pollution of every aspect of the biosphere (as outlined by Tickell, 2006). This tragedy both challenges and motivates teachers and environmental educators, who urgently need some additional tools to create rapid and radical transformation.

The common factor in the many barriers to environmentally responsible remediative action is that our influential EuroAmerican culture's mindset sets it apart from Nature (Johnston, 2003). Environmental educator David Orr (1992), amongst others, laments that the EuroAmerican culture does not question whether it is educating for "an active, ecologically competent citizenry" (p. 28), and has said that we still educate at all levels as if no sustainability crisis existed (p. 83). Orr implies that Nature is taught out of children by what is omitted from their education. Teachers are called to consciously be making Nature live again in the hearts and minds of students.

Transformative education is a process that brings about deep and significant changes (for the better) in an individual and ultimately culminates in similar changes at the societal level, principally brought about through innovative and creative teaching and learning, curriculum reform and appropriate policy at the school level.
— Teweiariki Teaero

The following transformative tools for sustainability education aim to bring about deep and significant change in students and the society they live in. They are derived from my qualitative master's research into barriers to environmental action and "sustainable development learning" at the community level, as well as empirical research while developing a Green School sustainability curriculum at Upper Canada College, an independent boys school in Toronto, Canada. In light of the state of the biosphere, GreenHeart proposes these transformative tools:

  1. ecological ethics;
  2. early experiences in the natural world;
  3. life as 'great story';
  4. teaching the evolution -> ecology -> biodiversity -> ecosystem services continuum as an integrated whole;
  5. environmental math and ecological economics;
  6. ecologically inclusive scientific literacy;
  7. Nature-friendly language and metaphors;
  8. environmental history; and
  9. sustainable development learning in action.

Each can be integrated with the others and across the curriculum, at all levels. Together, these tools lead to transformative education for sustainability.


Johnston, J. D. (2003). Sustainable development learning as enticement to environmental action. Unpublished master's thesis. Antigonish, NS, St. Francis Xavier University.

Orr, D. W. (1992). Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, (SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought). Albany, NY, SUNY Press.

Tickell, C. (2006, September 18). Vulnerable Earth. Lecture to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.

This paper (with South African punctuation) is also available as a PDF, which you can view in your browser (click on the link). You can also download it (right-click) and view it in Adobe Reader, or print it.

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