Educating for a Green Economy

Frans Verhagen - April, 2011

Creating Sustainable Communities

Frans C. Verhagen, M. Div., M.I.A., Ph.D. is a sustainability sociologist, co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE), and director of its sustainability education and research program. He is also the founder and president of the International Institute of Monetary Transformation.

Green economies are environmentally sound or sustainable economies. To ‘green’ an economy it is necessary to devise an energy system that reduces pollution, particularly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, such as carbon, that contribute to climate change.  For this reason, a green economy is often called a low-carbon economy, and because such an economy entails a monumental social change—changing energy sources, such as wood, oil, coal, would  to a great extent impact upon a nation’s economic and social structures (Cottrell 1955, 2009)—there is a great deal of debate on whether and how to proceed. In fact, however, the present Green Economy debate is not something new; it had its origin about 40 years ago with the birth of the environmental movement and since then a very small number of economists, such as Herman Daly, have been emphasizing the need for internalizing the environmental costs of economic activities, essential to the development of a green economy. (

The emphasis on the need for a Green Economy increased drastically in the late 90’s and the first decade of the 21st millennium with the ever growing recognition of and concern over climate change and the prospects of its catastrophic effects. The climate crisis has prompted people to start rethinking their economies, their lifestyles and even the future of the planet. This concern reached the highest level of international concern when the United Nations made the Green Economy one of the two major issues to be negotiated at the Rio 2012 Earth Summit, when decisions will be made that will affect human wellbeing for the rest of the 21st century and beyond. 

There are at least three matters that have to be taken into consideration when educating about the Green Economy: process, justice, and integration.

Giving students hands on experience with the process of greening economies seems to be a more fruitful approach than discussing definitions because it engages students more deeply. This would involve gathering information about energy sources and water, for example, and using that knowledge in planning for the greening of their local economy. And because of the interconnectedness of economies, planning on the local level will lead to planning for the greening of regional, national and global communities.

In planning for green economies it will also become evident that the economic philosophy that guides planning is a most important element. The prevailing free market fundamentalism will have to be contrasted with a sustainability economics and its emphasis on the preservation of the natural capital of ecosystems and their services. What these distinctions mean  in practice is most succinctly and provocatively presented by  Korean-born Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism (Chang 2010).

Justice, which emphasizes the social dimension of green economies, also has to be highlighted in discussing the greening of economies. While recognized in some definitions of green growth, which emphasize “environmentally sustainable economic progress to foster low-carbon, socially inclusive development” (UNESCAP) or  “promoting social justice and economic resilience, while operating within ecological limits” (The International Institute for Environment and Development), this dimension is often underemphasized in governmental publications that are more technically and economically oriented. Probing questions dealing with social, ecological and intergenerational justice can be applied in planning for the greening of a particular economy.  EPE’s value-based planning framework for contextual sustainability (Wenden 2004)can be useful in these planning discussions. Dowd (2009) and Wilkinson and Pickett (2009), which deal with inequality and equality, should also be useful.

Integrationand synthesis is a third challenge facing educators who decide to include the greening of economies in their curriculum. That is, more important than acquiring information about green economies is the development of a perspective that sees its relationship with other important issues such as unsustainable development, global poverty and inequality, the climate, food and fuel crises, and the crises of the larger monetary, financial and economic systems that enrich the few, impoverish the many and imperil the planet. The perspective should also connect with the many inspiring programs and projects that try to ameliorate the condition of people, species and planet, such as those that are part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Depending upon the school’s curriculum and the willingness of  subject matter teachers, team teaching one of the ten key areas of the UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative, e.g. cities, energy, buildings,  is an interdisciplinary strategy that would promote integrated learning.  See  for a complete list of the ten key areas.

For further information on green economies, readers may consult  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “Report on Themes and Objectives” (issued on December 20, 2010 and available at ) The report  brings together much of the research on green economies and assesses the seven policy tracks to be followed in transiting  towards a Green Economy: green stimulus packages, eco-efficiency, greening markets and public procurement, investments in sustainable infrastructure, restoration and upgrading of natural capital, getting prices right and ecological tax reform. The UN Environmental Program has published an even more encompassing study entitled The Green Economy Initiative. Its press release presents a good summary for educational purposes. It is available at:  


Chang, H.-J. (2010). 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. New York, Bloomsbury Press.

Cottrell, F. (1955, 2009). Energy and Society (Revised):The Relation Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development New York, AuthorHouse.

Dowd, D. (2009). Inequality and the Global Economic Crisis. New York, Pluto Press.

Wenden, A. (2004). Educating for A Culture of Social and Ecological Peace. Albany, NY, SUNY Press.

Wilkinson, R. and K. Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level. Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York, Bloomsbury Press.