Systemic Sustainability Education


Systemic Sustainability Education gathers a range of emerging discourses framed by ecology and complexity, oriented by the conviction that discussions of formal schooling have been too narrowly focused on humanity – that is, bounded on one end with an emphasis on the individual and at the other with an emphasis on society. The biological and the more-than-human have been largely overlooked. Systemic Sustainability Education might be regarded as a blend of several emergent and overlapping educational emphases:
  • Global Citizenship Education (Global Civics) – a planet-focused type of Citizenship Education (see Democratic Citizenship Education) developed around two principal emphases:
    • Global Consciousness – knowledge of political and ecological issues of pressing practical and/or ethical concern operating at international and planetary levels
    • Global Competencies – skills, attitudes, and dispositions that orient and enable one to participate mindfully efforts to affect the world
  • Global Education – a near synonym of Systemic Sustainability Education. The Global Education movement is typically positioned as an alternative to Standardized Education that picks up on many of the themes of Democratic Citizenship Education, extended to include matters of global culture and ecological sustainability.
  • International Education – a diversely interpreted construct that, most often, has to do with the blurring of political and conceptual frontiers with the movement of peoples and ideas across traditional and assumed boundaries. Some variations of the notion of International Education are focused on structured programs concerned with enabling interactions of diverse peoples and ideas.
  • Sustainability Education (Education for Sustainability; Education for Sustainable Development; Environment and Sustainability Education; Sustainability in Education) – an emphasis in formal education to raise awareness of and develop effective responses to social, cultural, and ecological issues arising from environmental challenges associated with human activity

As might be inferred from the above, “globality” is a major theme and contributing strand in discussions of Systemic Sustainability Education, albeit a topic that tends to be focused on social, economic, and political matters (i.e., concentrated in the realm of the human, sometimes with little or no attention to more-than-human matters). Relevant discourses and constructs include:

  • Alter-Globalization (Alternative Globalization; Alter-Mundialization) – a broad social movement that aligns with themes of global cooperation on such endeavors as climate protection, indigenous rights, maintaining viable local economies, and Global Justice (see below)
  • Anti-Globalization Movement (Counter-Globalization Movement) – an umbrella term that encompasses all social activism that is counter political and economic efforts to accelerate Globalization and Neoliberalism – including, on this page, Alter-Globalization, Global Justice.
  • Cosmopolitanism – the conviction that all humans should be World Citizens (see below), oriented by the idea that humanity is always already a single community
  • Future Shock (Alvin Toffler, 1970s) – a psychological shock upon recognizing that one’s conception of reality is no longer useful, owing to rapid social, cultural, technological, and ecology changes
  • Futurity (various, 2020s) – meaning both “a future time” and “future existence,” an increasingly popular term that typically indicates interests consistent with Systemic Sustainability Education
  • Global Citizen (Global Citizenship) – indexed to Globalization, a reference to a personal identity that is defined more in terms of humanity and global society than in terms of geographic locations and political borders. See also Global Citizenship Education, above. Associated discourses include:
    • Global Social Witnessing (Thomas Hübl, William Ury, 2010s) – a deliberate and disciplined attentiveness to social and cultural dynamics that is oriented by nuanced understandings of psychology, philosophy, and ethics
  • Global Justice (Global Justice Movement) – a broad social movement most often defined as an opposition to international capitalist activities and corporatist agendas
  • Globalism – a term subject to two contradictory definitions. Some define Globalism as a research attitude associated with World-Systems Theory (see Complex Systems Research) that is focused on better understanding the interconnectivity and complex dynamics of the human world on a global scale. Others define Globalism as a politically and economically driven ideology that is intent on eroding national sovereignty and destroying cultural distinctness as it reaches for one-world government. The former definition is the more common in general, while the latter is more prominent among conspiracy theorists.
  • Globalization – a reference to social, cultural, and economic changes shifts greater connectivity and interdependence, owing to developments in trade, transportation, and technology. Subdiscourses include:
    • Cultural Globalization (diverse authorship, 1980s) – the diffusion of ideas, norms, values, fashions, and practices across nations and cultures, especially as enabled and amplified by travel, trade, and information technologies.
  • Mundialization – a movement intended as both an acknowledgement of and a response to Globalization that is structured around declarations of specific towns or regions as “world territory,” wherein diversity is embraced, world rights are recognized, and global responsibilities are foregrounded
  • Neoliberalism (Neoliberal Globalization) (various, 1930s) – a pejorative referring to activities of multinational corporations and international institutions (esp. fossil-fuel companies, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank) that are oriented more by capitalist enterprise than improvement of the human condition or attending to issues of environmental degradation. Near synonyms include:
    • Casino Capitalism (Susan Strange, 1980s)
    • Market Fundamentalism (Free-Market Fundamentalism) (Jonathan Benthall, 1990s)
    • McWorld (Benjamin Barber, 1990s)
    • Turbo-Capitalism (Edward Luttwak, 1990s)
  • Speculative Pedagogy (Magnus Dahstedt, Mekonnen Tesfahuney, 2010s) – a perspective on formal education that is framed by metaphors and assumptions rooted in Neoliberalism (see above), leading to such constructs of and concerns as capitalizing knowledge and realizing returns on educational investments (Note: Speculative Pedagogy should not be confused with Speculative Pedagogies, under Authentic Education.)
  • “Think globally, act locally.” (“Think global, act local.”) (authorship disputed, 1970s) – a near-mantra of globalist and environmental activist movements, intended the signal the vital importance of conscientious action across all levels of organization (i.e., personal, social, corporate, national, international, and planetary)
  • World Citizen (Diogenes of Sinope, 200s BCE) – originally a reference to a sort of sophistication that reflects experiences with diverse peoples and cultures, and currently a near-synonym of Global Citizen (see above)
Systemic Sustainability Education is also associated with:
  • Futures Thinking (Future Studies; Futurism; Strategic Foresight) is an interdisciplinary movement that attempts to anticipate possible futures by analyzing patterns of change and their triggers. The field is oriented toward coping with threats, avoiding disasters, and grasping opportunities through orienting awarenesses beyond immediate circumstances – that is, by enlarging consciousness.


In addition to shifting cultural landscapes, rapidly evolving technologies, and major advances in brain research, growing environmental concerns have triggered more expansive discussions of formal education. Any one of these happenings should have major implications for schooling. Collectively, they compel dramatic rethinkings of the project.


Paradigmatically – that is. in terms of a fitting model or symbol – we propose that a decentralized network is an appropriate visual metaphor here. A decentralized network is a web of association that has no specific center – but, in a very pragmatic sense, comprises many centers. Decentralized networks might also be described as networks of networks, summoning notions of multiple levels of activity, nested systems, and intertwining agents – all of which helps to better understand why decentralized networks are recognized as “fingerprints” of complex learning systems.  


Prominent Metaphors of Learning

Prominent Metaphors of Knowledge

Framed by the definition, “complex unities are learning systems,” knowledge is understood as a vibrant, living system and learning as systemic transformations or a life process through which complex unities maintain internal and external coherence.

Prominent Metaphors of Teaching

Embracing elements from all other moments, education is oriented toward the health of persons, social groupings, cultures, species, and biosphere. A key element of teaching is enlarging consciousness – that is, prompting expansive awareness of oneself-in-the-world.


  • Alter-Globalization (Alternative Globalization; Alter-Mundialization)
  • Anti-Globalization Movement (Counter-Globalization Movement)
  • Casino Capitalism
  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Cultural Globalization
  • Future Shock
  • Futures Thinking (Future Studies; Futurism; Strategic Foresight)
  • Futurity
  • Global Citizen (Global Citizenship)
  • Global Citizenship Education (Global Civics)
  • Global Competencies
  • Global Consciousness
  • Global Education
  • Global Justice (Global Justice Movement)
  • Global Social Witnessing
  • Globalism
  • Globalization
  • International Education
  • Market Fundamentalism (Free-Market Fundamentalism)
  • McWorld
  • Mundialization
  • Neoliberalism (Neoliberal Globalization)
  • Speculative Pedagogy
  • Sustainability Education (Education for Sustainability; Education for Sustainable Development; Environment and Sustainability Education; Sustainability in Education)
  • “Think globally, act locally.” (“Think global, act local.”)
  • Turbo-Capitalism
  • World Citizen

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Systemic Sustainability Education” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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