An Introduction to Using the Earth Charter in Education

An Introduction to Using the Earth Charter in Education

August 2008

Earth Charter in Education:

Philosophy and Practice


This document offers some suggestions for teachers, practitioners and who wish to use the Earth Charter as an educational resource. It provides some key themes and ways of using the Earth Charter and guidelines for its use in education and social learning, especially in relation to education for sustainability.

The mission of the Earth Charter Initiative is to promote the transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework that includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. The Earth Charter came into being through a global civil society drafting process and dialogue that were undertaken to identify a set of widely shared values and principles to guide humanity towards a more just, sustainable and peaceful future.

The Earth Charter emphasizes, through Principle 14, the need to ‘integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.’ From the outset, education has been at the core of the Earth Charter’s purpose and a major focus of the Earth Charter Initiative’s programmes.

Since its launch in 2000, a significant body of knowledge has been developed around the use of the Earth Charter in education. A vibrant network of educators from all regions of the world has contributed to this body of knowledge, based on their practical experiences of applying the Earth Charter in a diversity of educational settings.


The United Nations has declared 2005-2014 the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), which is inclusive of these broader issues of environment, peace and justice. The overall goal of the DESD is ‘to integrate the values inherent in sustainable development into all aspects of learning to encourage changes in behavior that allow for a more sustainable and just society for all.’ A key question is: what are the values inherent in sustainable development that can guide sustainable ways of living?

Sustainable development, in the holistic sense promoted by the Earth Charter, requires a change in both the hearts and minds of individuals and organizational cultures, along with the associated and necessary reform of public policies and programmes. Education is the key to advancing the transition to more sustainable ways of living. Education can accelerate progress towards sustainability by rekindling more caring relationships between humans, and between humans and the natural world, andfacilitating the creative exploration of more environmentally and socially responsible forms of development. For this to happen, it is crucial to foster an education that helps people understand the kinds of fundamental changes needed if sustainable development is to be realized.

Values education is a contested field due to concerns over ’which’ values and ’whose’ values are being promoted. Such concerns are less of an issue when the values being examined represent core values that respect human dignity, are life affirming, and are consistent with those of major cultures around the world. These are important questions, and critical thinking regarding what values should guide our decisions and actions is an important skill that should be promoted through education.

The opening paragraph of the Earth Charter’s Preamble states: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.” In our increasingly interdependent world, education has a critical role to play in drawing forth a sense of universal responsibility towards each other, both to present and future generations, and the greater community of life. The Earth Charter reflects a broad convergence of universal values for sustainable development and can validly claim to represent a set of core and shared ethical principles with a very broad and multiculturalbase of supporters globally.

The Earth Charter provides a unique framework for developing educational programmes and curricula aimed at educating and learning towards a more just, sustainable and peaceful world. The integrated approach promoted bythe Earth Charter emphasizes the relationshipsbetween the different challenges faced by humanity, ranging from the eradication of poverty, to the protection of Earth’s ecological systems, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination. In this regard, the Earth Charter can be used as a versatile teaching and learning resource to undertake peace education, human rights education, environmental education, education for the prevention of HIV and AIDS, intercultural education and education for sustainable development, as well as to assist in exploring the links and inter-relationships between the various dimensions of sustainability.

The Earth Charter can help to improve the quality of education by integrating ethics into all themes and subjects. ’Quality Education’ is based on the four pillars of Education for All movement: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and with others, and learning to be (Delors et al., 1996). Of particular relevance here is Earth Charter Principle 2, which calls for a pedagogy of care: “Care for the community of life with understanding, love, and compassion.”The Earth Charter Preamble stresses that “we must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more”, which implies that education processes, drawing upon the Earth Charter for reflection, can help discern ways in which human potential can be realized. This is a ’caring’ lifestyle orientation that education processes can help to clarify using the Earth Charter as a tool for critical reflection and for responsible action.

Many other principles have specific educational implications. For example, Principle 8 calls on the need to “advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.” Principle 11 affirms the need to recognize “gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.” This principle relates to the efforts of the Millennium Development Goals and Education for All movements to promote basic education for all, gender equity in education, and the improvement of quality of education.


The following are some of the major themes included in the Earth Charter which can be emphasized in educational programs:

  • An overall framing of critical challenges and choices. The Preamble lays out the critical environmental, social and economic challenges that confront humanity, and highlights the choices we must make in order to built a more just, sustainable and peaceful world;
  • The interdependence of social, economic and environmental domains. The Earth Charter principles are organised into four main interdependent sections: “Respect and Care for the Community of Life”; “Ecological Integrity”; “Social and Economic Justice”; and “Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace.” Together, these define the domains of responsibility that must be jointly considered when assessing the critical problems that we face and seeking for possible solutions;
  • Universal and Differentiated Responsibility. The fundamental challenge of the Earth Charter is to live with a greater sense of universal responsibility. The first four main principles provide a strong foundation for a shared ethics of responsibility.The Earth Charter draws attention to the additional responsibility, understood as a capacity to respond effectively, that derives from possessing greater power, wealth, knowledge, and freedom. Those in more privileged situations must assume greater responsibility for promoting sustainability, including assisting those in less privileged circumstances;
  • The notion of the Community of Life. The Earth Charter challenges us all to reconsider the membership of the community for whom we feel morally responsible – does it include people in other countries and cultures, future generations, other living beings, the whole Earth system?
  • Partnerships and collaboration. The conclusion of the Earth Charter (“The Way Forward”) argues that every individual, family, organisation, community and government has a critical and creative role to play in the community of life. Promoting sustainability requires collaboration between all actors at all levels;
  • Global Ethics – A number of courses and workshops offer the opportunity to reflect about global ethics, what are they and where they come from, the drafting process of the Earth Charter and its content can serve as a framework for discussion.
  • Ecological Integrity. The second main section of the Earth Charter brings together a set of action-orientated principles necessary to promote ecological sustainability. The principles are drawn from a range of fields, including ecosystem management and biological conservation, environmental law, environmental philosophy, cleaner-production technology, ecological economics, and environmental education. This theme in itself provides an integrated blueprint for more environmentally sustainable action, including a strong interpretation of the precautionary principle.
  • Social and Economic Justice. The third main section of the Earth Charter sets out key principles that can be seen as a prerequisite to building more peaceful and harmonious societies. These are related to the eradication of poverty and discrimination of all forms, and access to quality education for all, among others.
  • Democracy, Peace and Nonviolence; The Earth Charter provides an integrated definition of peace based on harmonious relationships with oneself, with human communities, and with the biosphere. The Earth Charter constitutes a thematic map of the interrelated issues involved in promoting a culture of peace. This holistic definition of peace can serve to foster positive motivations based on our need to contribute meaningfully to the common good.


The following are some of the ways educators have successfully utilized the Earth Charter:

(a) Awareness-raising - The Earth Charter can be used to help raise people's awareness and sensitivity about the environmental, social and economic problems facing the world, their interdependencies, and the overarching need to live with a sense of global responsibility, especially at a time when we face an environmental crisis of unprecedented magnitude;

(b) Personal development - Awareness-raising needs to be manifested in personal development goals based on values, virtues, and principles that seek the common good, developing an awareness of those basic needs required to lead a healthy and dignified life.

(c) Application of values and principles-The main body of the Earth Charter is action- oriented and functions as a guide to more sustainable ways of living. The Charter can serve as a framework for people and organizations to critically compare their reality with their ideals. This kind of analysis in turn provides the basis for identifying action goals for bringing about positive transformations. The Charter can be used to assess institutional practices and national and global patterns of consumption and production, leading to development of strategies for change, and to provide a comprehensive framework for thinking about corporate social and ecological responsibility. While such assessment can be undertaken in an informal, organic way, formal assessment tools have also been developed to assist organisations in this task (e.g. (EC-Assess).

(d) Facilitate an understanding of the relationship between values, principles, and public policies- It is important to provide learners with the knowledge required to understandthe relationship between both the Earth Charter’s values and the ethical principles and policy and legal instruments to which nation states have committed within international, multilateral legal systems. These commitments entail human rights entitlementsand environmental imperatives that, in turn, createduties and obligations on the part of national and local level governments, corporations, civil society organizations, and individuals. By understanding the legal and policy basis and context of the Earth Charter Principles, citizens can act proactively to promote improved public policy outcomes at the different levels of governance.

(e) Launching calls for action and partnerships amongst all sectors and actors- The Earth Charter concludes with a call for action through, among other things, new partnerships between civil society, business and government at all levels. The educational challenge here is to help foster a culture of, and networks for, collaboration aimed at promoting justice, sustainability and peace, consistent with the Charter's values.

(f) Promoting a global dialogue on ethics for sustainability - The Earth Charter constitutes a valuable tool in promoting the necessary dialogue for the ongoing evolution of global ethics for a more sustainable way of living. The Earth Charter can be used to help catalyse’Socratic dialogues’ in both formal and non-formal educational settings - an ongoing, open discussion that acknowledges the tensions involved in global ethics discourse and respects the differences in opinion that emerge amidst the search for common ground.

(g) Social learning strategies -It is recommended that social learning strategies be developed wherever feasible. These should be based on promoting dialogue between diverse stakeholders interested in education for sustainability and/or sustainable development, to reach a consensus on core visions and educational strategies as a basis for collaboration.

In summary, education for sustainability, as informed by the Earth Charter, should help learners to:

  • Understand the challenges and critical choices that humanity faces; and, appreciate the interdependence between these challenges and choices;
  • Comprehend the meaning of a sustainable way of life and of sustainable development; and,personal development goals, virtues, and character strengths consistent with a sustainable way of living; and,
  • Critically evaluate a given situation and identify action goals for bringing about positive change.


There are many ways that the Earth Charter can be used as an educational resource, depending on the context, and on the educator’s and student’s creativity. Formal and non-formal educational settings offer different opportunities, and the appropriateness of an approach may well vary according to the cultural setting. There is not a single ’best way’ to use the Earth Charter in education. However, based on the accumulated experiences of educators from diverse settings, we can offer the following general guidelines.

  1. Be consistent with the Earth Charter’s values and principles.The process by which Earth Charter educational materials and programmes are developed should be consistent with the spirit of the document, respecting diversity and learning from locally-based activities. Such processes should stimulate the participation of learners through dialogue and the exchange of different perspectives as a practice that will enrich critical thinking.
  1. Use the Earth Charter within existing educational programmes and textbooks.In formal education, it can be very difficult to make room for new content. Therefore, wherever possible, opportunities should be explored to use the Earth Charter within existing educational programmes. Educational systems, curricula and materials can be examined in order to identify opportunities for making use of the Earth Charter, for re-organising existing material, and for informing curriculum development in light of the Earth Charter.
  2. Avoid preaching or proselytizing. Values education requires that teachers and learners remain aware of the need to avoid proselytising, respect the right of individual learners to independently hold or reject values, and understand that within the search for common ground, respect for cultural diversity is a key value.

4. Use the integrated, interdisciplinary vision of the Earth Charter. Education programmes and activities using the Earth Charter should consider all parts and main themes of the Charter, thereby promoting an integrated or holistic approach. Often, one of the parts or themes of the Charter may serve as the entry into reflecting or analyzing a topic. However, the activity or programme should seek as much as possible to work with the integrated and systemic vision of the Charter. This will require reflecting on the effects and implications of one part on another, such as the linkages between humanity’s social, environmental, political , ethical and economic challenges. Educational materials and programmes developed for the Earth Charter should aim to reflect its multidisciplinary character, spanning the sciences, the humanities and the creative arts. The Charter provides a bridge between science and thehumanities that can help to enhance the role of transdisciplinary studies in our educational systems.

5. Provide opportunities for ’learning by doing.’Wherever possible, Earth Charter-based educational materials should use experiential learning activities that involve action-orientated learning or ’learning by doing.’ These could include: community outreach activities; a field trip to visit, experience and see a specific context or situation addressed in class; learning activities that model real life situations, such as role-playing; and, ’hands on’ education experiences with research- oriented activities. Secondary and university aged students might consider forming an Earth Charter youth group and carrying out sustainability and peace building projects. Experiential learning is essential to bridging the gap between espoused values and real-life actions. It also provides opportunities to experience what it means to implement an ethical principle within one’s community or sphere of influence. Experiential learning is particularly important for ethics education, as it is when we are engaged in action that our values are tested and become the most beneficial and enriching at both the individual and societal levels.

6. Use flexible and contextualized educational processes. Earth Charter educational programmes should offer experiences and reflections that are closely related to and rooted in the contextual reality of the learners. Such processes should directly involve the learners and address their priorities as much as possible according to their context