While countries have been affected differently by COVID-19, perhaps the most common impact across the globe has been that the pandemic forcibly changed our lifestyles. Lockdowns and safety restrictions drastically limited mobility, forcing employers to find new ways of working. These measures dramatically reduced daily commutes into city centers and changed how we spend our free time and how we vacation. Transnational impacts affected food supply chains, prompting communities to find ways to produce food themselves. Schools, families and individuals began food gardens and learnt about how to grow vegetables and distribute and share them within their communities.

It didn’t take long for the signs of environmental changes to be reported from cities across the globe, with Manila’s normally polluted skyline showing a clear view of the Sierra Madre mountain range for the first time in decades, and Venice’s popularly frequented canal waters turning clear blue . While such sudden changes cannot be seen as indicative of healthier ecosystems, they do demonstrate the environmental stress caused by daily human activity and that change is possible if alternative structures for living are provided and combined with a collective shift in people’s behavior.

Skyscrapers of Metro Manila with the Sierra Madre mountain range in the background.

Clear views of the Sierra Madre mountain range and the Manila skyline. Photo: Getty Images .

Making sustainable living desirable and accessible

Since 2012 SEI, together with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan, has led the global programme on Sustainable Lifestyles and Education (SLE). As part of the One Planet Network on SDG12, “responsible consumption and production”, the SLE programme investigates, collects and shares knowledge and tools that can help to make sustainable living a norm.  Through a core group of experts, the programme works with grassroots organisations, businesses, governments and academic institutions around the world to develop, test and scale up pathways to creating locally relevant solutions to common lifestyle challenges.

A core focus of the programme is Education for Sustainable Lifestyles (ESL). ESL, a subset of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), localises sustainability issues into community action through education. ESL builds upon the core thematic and pedagogic approaches of ESD, which sees education as essential to supporting critical inquiry and developing the necessary skills for learners to become engaged actors in building a sustainable future. Focussing mainly on the learner’s journey of discovery, rather than merely imparting knowledge to students, ESD and ESL encourage teachers to design interactive, exploratory, and action-oriented teaching techniques that focus on transformative learning.

While ESD weaves global sustainability issues – like climate change, biodiversity and pollution – into subject teaching, ESL links global challenges to people’s everyday activities and to the social structures that enable such actions.

For example, schools in South Africa that took part in the SLE project The Global Search for Sustainable Schools used subject teaching around ecosystems and water as an opportunity to illustrate the connections between climate change, water scarcity and people’s daily choices. For instance, communities in the Cape provinces of South Africa face yearly droughts. Schools in the region took this example of climate change as an opportunity to teach valuable lessons on water use and provision, and how citizens and businesses contribute to the worsening or mitigation of the droughts.

Through ESL students were given space to investigate sustainability concepts (like the circularity of water ), critically examine how these concepts apply to their lives and communities, and collectively try to find solutions to local problems.

Student drawing on poster

A student in South Africa collects in a poster what she has learned about the importance of wetlands. Photo: The Global Search for Sustainable Schools / Water Explorer South Africa.

Education is a tool for societal transformation

While many schools are integrating ESD into their curricula, it remains a secondary practice to traditional approaches to education. As global challenges shake communities, education must adapt so that it encourages and advances the kind of societal transformation needed. Teaching through ESL emphasizes the necessity of disruption in both individual and community habits and the conscious re-evaluation of how our values and actions affect the planet.

Priority action area 5 in the Education for Sustainable Development Roadmap lists the importance of local level activities in achieving meaningful transformation. Social change for sustainability requires cooperation between learning institutions, local public authorities, private companies, civil society and the media. Together these parties help to define and prioritize the actions needed to enable communities to learn, adapt and develop sustainable ways of living. Policy makers must encourage and support the activities and learning of the community, while coordinating actions to align with all SDGs.

“ESL places special emphasis on the importance of social learning and collective processing via family units, schools as a whole and by the communities themselves.”

— Robert James Didham, UNESCO Chair on Education for Sustainable Lifestyles

A student on schools grounds with a bucket grey water and a jerrycan with fresh water.

A student in South Africa presents the qualities and differences of fresh water and grey water, and how they can be used. Photo: The Global Search for Sustainable Schools / Water Explorer South Africa.

To enable policy makers, communities and teachers to integrate ESL into schools and community development, the SLE programme has collated policy guidance, learning material, case studies and practical solutions into one website. The Sustainable Lifestyles Education Hub is an innovative open access database for ESL resources that is filterable by thematic area, format, resource type and language. By collecting such a wide array of resources, the SLE programme is helping to fast-track the spread of knowledge and implement pathways to sustainable lifestyles.

The Education working group of the SLE programme will be presenting the Hub to education policy makers, teachers and organizations at the UNESCO World Conference on ESD which kicks off on May 17.

Perhaps what the Google search trend shows us most is not only a surge of interest in how to increase wellbeing and health, but also a shift in values, a reframing of our priorities and a heightened awareness of the personal-to-global connection. With this unprecedented global desire to learn about sustainable living and communities across the world battling with impacts of the pandemic comes a unique opportunity to utilize education as a tool to transform our world.

The Sustainable Lifestyles Education Hub

On the Hub you will a variety of resources in several languages on how to live sustainably. If you are a sustainable lifestyles or education practitioner we invite you to add resources to the Hub.

Browse the Hub and contribute resources