You are viewing an archived web page, collected at the request of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) using Archive-It. This page was captured on 07:56:28 Dec 15, 2015, and is part of the UNESCO collection. The information on this web page may be out of date. See All versions of this archived page.
Loading media information hide

Exploring global realities

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Reflection


This module introduces some of the major issues – the global realities – that need to be addressed in building a sustainable future. As such, it serves as a foundation for the more in-depth studies in following modules. It also highlights the interdependence of these issues and how our daily lives, as inhabitants of the world, are related to social, economic and environmental processes. The module demonstrates that changes to the way resources are used are possible, that social and environmental problems can be solved, and that we have the collective capacity to overcome the many problems we face.


  • To develop an understanding of the range of social, economic and environmental issues facing the world today
  • To develop an understanding of the interrelationships among these different types of issues
  • To recognise that education can play a key role in empowering people to work for a sustainable future.


  1. Behind the news
  2. Exploring the links
  3. Acting locally
  4. Strategic Questioning
  5. Reflection

References and Internet Links

Brown, L.R. et al. (Annual) State of the World Report, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC.

Reuters.com State of the World

UN-HABITAT (Annual) State of the World’s Cities, Earthscan Publications, London.

United Nations Children’s Fund (Annual) State of the World’s Children Report, UNICEF, New York.

United Nations Development Programme (Annual) Human Development Report, Oxford University Press, New York.

United Nations Environment Programme (Annual) UNEP Yearbook, UNEP, Nairobi.

United Nations Population Fund (Annual) State of World Population, United Nations Publications, New York.

World Bank (Annual) World Bank Development Report, World Bank, Washington DC.

World Bank (Annual) World Bank Development Indicators, World Bank, Washington DC.

World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Development Programme and World Bank (2008) World Resources 2008, Oxford University Press, New York.


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien from ideas in Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme).

Behind the news

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

A Letter from the Future

What if future generations were able to speak to us? Just what would they say to us if they could? If they had a voice today, what would they ask us to do for them?

Would they be concerned about the many depressing reports we read in our newspapers and see on televisions everyday? Escalating fighting and war. Growing misunderstanding and conflict between cultural, ethnic and religious groups. Desperate poverty, malnutrition and starvation. Flourishing multibillionaires and fashion shows while millions live on less than a dollar a day. Continued oppression of women, refugees and children in an age that is supposed to be becoming more democratic. Increasing incidence of floods and hurricanes due to global warming. The destruction of tropical forests. Encroaching deserts. Millions more species lost. Cities choking, water courses trickling and vast dead oceans heaving with oil and other undigestables left behind by the human race.

Or would they see that we are really trying to do our best, that we are making great strides in improving environmental quality, reducing global poverty, caring for the unfortunate and underprivileged, and seeking to build the conditions for peace not war?

Just what would they say to us today? Would they thanks us for seeking to live our lives in ways that ensure that our descendants – our future generations – have a clean and safe environment and access to all the resources they need to have a good quality of life?

A Letter from the Future has come to us.

Before you read the letter think about what you think it might say.

Q1: How do you think future generations might feel about the way the human race is managing the world – their inheritance – today? What do you think will be the main message in the letter?

Use your learning journal to describe how you think future generations will feel about us and what they will say.

Reading the Letter

Listen to the Letter from the Future. You have two options:

Or simply read the text – A Letter from the Future.

Q2: What three messages in the Letter from the Future are most important to you?

Q3: Did you expect the letter to be so positive? Why?

A Reality Check

The purpose of the Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future programme is to promote commitment and skills across the world’s teaching profession so that children and youth can develop an enhanced understanding of what it means to work for a sustainable future, a sense of responsibility for future generations, and a spirit of optimism and hope for a sustainable future.

However, despite the progress being made on many fronts – and the optimism expressed in the Letter from the Future – there are still many pressing issues and concerns that need to be addressed. For example, people in many parts of the world are suffering from the effects of ecosystem decline. Examples of this include: water shortages in Australia, India and the Middle East; unsafe water in many towns and cities in Africa; collapsed fisheries off the coasts of Canada; landslides on the deforested slopes of Honduras; forest fires in Indonesia; spreading deserts in north Africa … the list is almost endless.

As a result, Mr Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, states:

Rapid environmental change is all around us. The most obvious example is climate change, which will be one of my top priorities as Secretary-General. But that is not the only threat. Many other clouds are on the horizon, including water shortages, degraded land and the loss of biodiversity. This assault on the global environment risks undermining the many advances human society has made in recent decades. It is undercutting our fight against poverty. It could even come to jeopardize international peace and security.

Ban Ki-Moon (2007) Foreword, GEO4, United Nations Environment Programme.

Read Global Environmental Outlook 4 (GEO4), the report on the state of the planet by the United Nations Environment Programme, and see what it says about the following global environmental issues:

The degradation of natural resources described in these conditions and trends threatens the livelihood of many people, especially the vulnerable and the poor. Human health is jeopardized by contaminated water supplies, urban air pollution and agro-chemical pollution. In fact, increasingly, human health and well-being is increasingly determined by environmental conditions. For example, GEO4 reports that:

As a result of these environmental conditions and trends, GEO3 concludes that:

  • In some cases, climate change is having severe effects on human health, food production, security and resource availability.
  • Extreme weather conditions are having an increasingly large impact on vulnerable human communities, particularly the world’s poor.
  • Both indoor and outdoor pollution is still causing many premature deaths.
  • Land degradation is decreasing agricultural productivity, resulting in lower incomes and reduced food security.
  • Decreasing supplies of safe water are jeopardizing human health and economic activity.
  • Drastic reductions of fish stocks are creating both economic losses and a loss of food supply.
  • Accelerating species extinction rates are threatening the loss of unique genetic pools, possible sources for future medical and agricultural advances.

Choices made today will determine how these threats will unfold in the future. Reversing such adverse environmental trends will be an immense challenge. Ecosystem services collapse is a distinct possibility if action is not taken. Finding solutions to these problems today is therefore urgent.

Source: GEO4, United Nations Environment Programme.

Five Pressing Issues

Unfortunately, it is not only nature at risk! When we think of environmental problems, we often think first of the pollution of the natural environment – of the air, rivers, oceans and seas – and issues of climate change, forest clearing, waste disposal and so on.

However, there are also many problems with our social and economic systems that are causing difficulties for people all over the world. As a result, we are facing many pressing issues.

UNESCO has studied a wide range of these pressing issues and identified the following as the most serious:

Many other pressing issues were identified in We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century, the Secretary-General’s Millennium Report. Briefing Papers on 19 pressing issues from this report are available. Each Briefing Paper is a dossier of information about a current world issue and the UN’s involvement with it. They are arranged in six sections: an overview, progress achieved, a specific focus or case study, next steps, student activities and resources.

Teachers and students can download and print charts and graphs on these issues at the United Nations CyberSchoolBus. These provide a visual overview of what is happening around the world. Topics include: Population, Health, Food and Agriculture, Women, Children, Economic Development, Climate and Environment, and Social Indicators. Also available on the CyberSchoolBus website is InfoNation – an easy-to-use, two-step database – that can be used to view and compare the most up-to-date statistical data for the Member States of the United Nations.

It is important to note that there are close interrelationships between all these five pressing issues. Indeed, it is not possible for any of them to be:

… examined or acted upon in isolation from the others. They are in constant interaction. Violence, for example, is, at once, a cause of poverty and its consequence. Growing populations place increasing stress on ecosystems, but human activity by contributing to climate change further intensifies population pressures though desertification and rising ocean levels. The issues, moreover, are not only related to one another in a physical manner, but also in a psychological sense. How people think about the issues – their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and especially their values – is as important in the search for solutions as the ‘objective realities’ confronted.

Source: UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, paragraph 24.

The Descending Spiral of Unsustainable Development

Source: United Nations Environment Programme.

Living conditions for a great many people in the world are far from good. Even though total global economic production around the world is huge, much of it is distributed very unequally. For example, the top 20% of the world’s income earners – those living in the North – are generally doing well while the vast majority of people are living in conditions of great poverty in many of the countries of the South. In fact, the three richest billionaires in the world have more assets than the combined annual production of the world’s 600 million poorest people!

Thus, for many people the world is in a descending spiral of declining living standards and declining environmental quality.

The descending spiral of unsustainable development is not the result of any one factor but, rather, of the re-inforcing interactions of many problems. This was recognised in the 1987 Report of the United Nations World Commission for Environment and Development, commonly called the Brundtland Report, after Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway who chaired the Commission.

Until recently, the planet was a large world in which human activities and their effects were neatly compartmentalized within nations ... and within broad areas of concern (environmental, economic, social). These compartments have begun to dissolve. This applies in particular to the various global ‘crises’ that have seized public concern, particularly over the last decade. These are not separate crises: an environmental crisis, a development crisis, an energy crisis. They are all one.

Source: World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 4.

The Commissioners reported that this realisation made them focus on one central theme: many present development trends leave increasing numbers of people poor and vulnerable and at the same time degrade the natural environment. As a result, the descending spiral of unsustainable development can only be reversed by actions that simultaneously address social, economic and conservation goals:

No long-term strategy of poverty alleviation can succeed in the face of environmental forces that promote persistent erosion of the natural resources upon which we all depend. And no environmental protection programme can make headway without removing the day-to-day pressures of poverty that leave people little choice but to discount the future so deeply that they fail to protect the resource base necessary for their own survival and their children’s well-being.

Source: Dowdswell, E. (1995) Editorial, Our Planet, 7(2), p. 2.

Many sustainable development challenges face us today. Across the world we see unacceptable levels of deprivation in people’s lives. There are just over six billion people in the world, and 4.6 billion live in the developing countries of the South. Of these, more than 850 million are illiterate, nearly a billion lack access to improved water sources, and 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation. Nearly 325 million boys and girls are out of school. And 11 million children under age five die each year from preventable causes – equivalent to more than 30,000 a day.

Around 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day and 2.8 billion on less than $2 a day. That is two-thirds of the world’s population! However, poverty is not limited to the South. In the industrial countries of the North, more than 130 million people are income poor, 34 million are unemployed, and adult functional illiteracy rates average 15%.

Exploring the links

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The following tasks provide an opportunity for you to explore the connections between many of the major social, economic and environmental problems facing people in the world today. Some of these global realities are shown in this diagram.

Please print a copy of the diagram as you will be using pencil and paper for this activity.

  • Print the diagram
  • The diagram identifies nine major global issues. On your print-out, draw a line between any two issues that you think are related
  • Describe why you think these two issues are related. Can you give an example of how?
  • Now, starting from the second issue you identified, draw a line to another issue that you think it is related to. Once again, describe an example of how or why you think the two issues are related
  • Starting from the third issue, draw a line to another issue that you think is related to it. Once again, give an example of how or why you think the two are related
  • Keep making these links, and giving examples, until you have exhausted all possible connections between the issues

Q4: Analyse the pattern of links you have made by answering the following questions:

  • How many links did you make?
  • Do you believe that any of the links are more important than others? Which ones? Why?
  • How do links such as these affect the way in which social, economic and environmental problems need to be tackled?
  • What is the key lesson that you have learnt from this exercise?

Acting locally

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The conclusion of the World Commission on Environment and Development was that we need a new approach to development. The World Commission called this ‘sustainable development’.

The message of sustainable development can be summarised in three themes:

  • Everything is connected to everything else
  • Human quality of life is just as important as economic development
  • There can be no long-term economic development without attention to human development and the quality of the environment

It is important to remember that these ideas about sustainable development are not ‘new’. These ideas are central to the wisdom and values that inform ways of living sustainably that have characterised indigenous and farming peoples in many parts of the world for thousands of years. They are also found in the programmes and campaigns for appropriate and sustainable development of ecology movements around the world, and especially in the women’s ecology movement in the South.

Given that these ideas are not ‘new’ and are already being practiced in many parts of the world, it is possible to change the direction of the descending spiral of unsustainable development into an ascending spiral of sustainability.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme.

The question, of course, is: how can this be done? This is an important question for governments, as well as businesses, schools, community groups, families and individuals. We all have a role to play in reversing the descending spiral and helping set the world on a path to a sustainable future.

One reason for this is that major issues like the ones studied in the linking exercise are not just global – they also have national and local manifestations – and we need to be able to identify the level at which our actions can be most appropriate.

Scales of action

We need to see the national and local aspects of global issues if we are to be able to identify actions that we, as teachers and students, can take. This activity uses the same nine issues you explored in Activity 2.

Q5: Identify global, national and local examples of the nine major issues.

Explore innovative ways that people are using around the world to solve their local problems by answering the quiz questions in the World Bank’s educational Development Challenge.

Strategic Questioning

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Individuals, families and community groups are best placed to tackle global issues at the local level – and it is at the local level that teachers, schools and students can also learn skills for building a sustainable future.

The first step in learning such skills is to be able to ask the right sort of questions, questions that will lead to an action plan for change. Strategic Questioning is a valuable technique for this.

Strategic Questioning is a form of thinking about change developed by Fran Peavey, a social change worker from North America. Change sometimes causes uncomfortable emotions including denial, fear and resistance. However, change also provides opportunities for new ideas to emerge. Strategic Questioning assists the integration of new ideas and strategies into the development of communities in such a way that people can feel positive about change.

Six ‘families’ of question are used in Strategic Questioning. These move from introductory questions through to more dynamic and reflective questions. These six question families are:

  • Observation Questions
  • Feelings Questions
  • Visioning Questions
  • Change Questions
  • Personal Inventory and Support Questions
  • Personal Action Questions

Source: Adapted from Peavey, F. (1994) By Life’s Grace: Musings on the Essence of Social Change, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, pp. 86-111.

Strategic Questioning helps people create their own solutions to their own problems. For example, Strategic Questioning has been used in India as a means of identifying strategies for improving water quality in the Ganges River. Local people, in partnership with the government, are developing new ways to clean up the river for themselves and their children.

In Strategic Questioning, people usually work in pairs, one as a ‘speaker’ and one as a ‘listener’, to discuss an issue of concern to the speaker.

Q6: The best way to appreciate the power of Strategic Questioning is to try it. There are three ways of doing this. Either:

  • Write your answers to the questions; or
  • Print the questions out and engage in a Strategic Questioning exercise with a friend; or
  • You might like to try both.

Q7: Analyse your experience of learning through Strategic Questioning by answering the following questions:

  • What do you think of the Strategic Questioning process? For example: Was it difficult? Did you feel that it was an authentic way of communicating? Why?
  • Does the process help you feel more confident about the future?
  • Do you feel a little better prepared to engage in action after participating in the Strategic Questioning process?
  • How could the Strategic Questioning process be incorporated into your teaching and/or within your community?


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

This module has introduced some important ideas that contribute to a rationale for Education for Sustainable Development.

Q8: Reflect on your study of this module by listing the key message you will take away from each of the activities you have completed.

Q9: Now that you have completed this module, write a definition of what you think Education for Sustainable Development might mean.

Q10: Read about UNESCO’s emerging vision of Education for Sustainable Development. How does it relate to your definition?