Guest post from a recent Earth Charter Center course participant

Guest post by Raquel Baboolal, on her experiences after the June 2014 Earth Charter Center executive programme for education for sustainable development.

I recently took the Earth Charter Center for Education for Sustainable Development’s course at the University for Peace in Costa Rica called “Education and Values for Sustainable Development: Teaching What Really Matters”. I came to the course to learn about curriculum development, given my interest in developing educational programs in sustainable development that are nested within an ethical framework and that emphasize the importance of the environment.

In fact, this was a theme that arose throughout my course of study at Columbia University beginning with my experience teaching dance workshops to underprivileged children in an after-school program outside Capetown, South Africa in 2008. This was my first exposure to extreme conditions of environmental degradation and social exclusion. When I saw the open sewage, the backyard dumps, and the fallen power lines of my students’ neighborhood, I understood that their marginalized social status could not be separated from the toxic circumstances in which they were forced to live. I felt a sense of responsibility but was not yet sure what it was or how to address it.

Since then I have sought out a framework for understanding these experiences notwithstanding the fact that I live in New York City, which to a large extent epitomizes materialism and consumerism centered on excess versus need. A particular discussion comes to mind in a class on ethics for Sustainable Development that I took with Professor Adela Gondek at Columbia University. I have come to realize that Western society’s insatiability, its need for individual self-magnification through possessions, is leading to the destruction of ecosystems around the globe. I began to see the moral dimensions of excessive consumerism, that in a globally inter-connected world, a purchase made in a chain store on the West Side of Manhattan affects the day-to-day reality of people thousands of miles away. The causes of shantytowns in South Africa had become clear to me.

The Earth Charter program was timely in the sense that it helped me put together another piece of the puzzle with respect to communicating complex concepts such as sustainable development. The course leaders, Sam Crowell and Mirian Vilela, were very knowledgeable and collaborated seamlessly. The use of the Earth Charter as the context for teaching and curriculum development was particularly helpful as it highlights the need for other-regard, ecological integrity, and socio-economic justice. The UPEACE campus itself where the EC course was held is very beautiful and set the stage for an environment in which learning was easy and a welcomed change. I experienced how nature’s abundance, properly preserved and respected, could sustain thriving human communities and that all things, living and non-living are inextricably interdependent.

I particularly enjoyed our daily practice of rituals such as beginning the day outdoors with a hearty “GOOD MORNING!” and the use of dance and storytelling to illustrate Earth Charter concepts. Working in groups was very effective in engaging leadership, teamwork, and the sharing of ideas and best practices. The “soft” approach to teaching and learning was a novel and welcomed approach after having spent much time in more rigid academic and professional settings. It was a pleasure to meet educators and professionals from Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Australia. Carolina Carillo, an English teacher and environmental educator shared during the course about her classes conducted in nature at the CEUNA School in Costa Rica and the extent to which this has affected academic success as well as improved confidence, teamwork, and sociability of her students. This struck me because I believe that environmental education is a fundamental aspect of human development and it was encouraging to hear that environmental education can cultivate a healthy and conscious society.

In my own life, as my father passed away when I was six years old, two things saved me: my love of learning and my love of music. I was blessed with good teachers. What was profound about music and theater was that on stage the limitations of social class and racial difference were forgotten and I could express myself fully without judgment. I am happy to see that the use of movement, art, and theatre is being used at the Earth Charter Center, as well as the grooming of teachers with particular sensibilities to the needs of children. I intend to incorporate the Earth Charter and the methods used in the course in my future workshops and within my sphere of work in the corporate boardroom or when developing environmental policies to be implemented in developing countries.

From the course, I could see clearly what was missing in terms of support to vulnerable communities in South Africa and how environmental and sustainable policies can benefit economic development in New York City and elsewhere. I highly recommend this program not only to teachers, but also to professionals in the private and public sector, non-profit arena, and government as collective effort and ethical action is required to tackle today’s global challenges and to bring about sustainable development that is beneficial for all.