My perspective, reflected in many years of research, writing and teaching, is based upon an ecological, systemic or holistic way of seeing the world – and also, of seeing education and learning

Stephen Sterling

This informs my critique of mainstream education and learning. And it inspires the elaboration of more holistic approaches – necessary to help meet the challenges of complexity, uncertainty, and unsustainability that characterise our times.

It is gratifying to be able to say that my output of books, chapters, papers, articles, and numerous keynote addresses have in sum had significant and widespread impact on the field of sustainability education, affecting policy and practice across the world.

More than ‘ESD’ or ‘EfS’

The name of this website is Sustainable Education. It is not ‘education for sustainability’ or ‘education for sustainable development’- or one of the other labels that characterise this area.

Why? Because I maintain that the urgency of global issues and the unsustainable culture of our times requires a sufficient questioning and re-thinking of the aims and purposes of education as a whole (particularly as they have been shaped by an instrumental culture in the past 20 years) – rather than a simple ‘integration’ of ESD/EfS into otherwise unchanged policies and practices. And it also requires critiquing ESD/EfS where they fall short in affecting transformative change in educational thinking, policy and practice.


I am now ‘active retired’ and am Emeritus Professor of Sustainability at the University of Plymouth, where I worked for 12 years, mostly as Head of Education for Sustainability. Whilst in post, I pursued the idea of whole institutional change and ‘the sustainable university’ as part of a growing international movement to re-orient higher education to address the extra-ordinary global challenges that face societies, and which will affect young people’s lives in this century.

Prior to University of Plymouth, I was a founder of the Education for Sustainability programme at London South Bank University, and was previously a consultant in environmental and sustainability education nationally and internationally, working with a broad range of clients including international agencies (particularly UNESCO), government agencies, academia, charities and NGOs (including some years with WWF-UK), across many countries. Before that, I was deputy director of a national environmental education NGO, and many years ago, a secondary school classroom teacher in the UK and Canada. When not working, I enjoy nature, walking, cycling, growing veggies, and attempting still to master jazz guitar after years of trying!

Despite working on serious issues for many years, I haven’t lost my sense of humour – and produced my first (and last) book of original puns recently! My Current Puns has been very well received in these tricky times, see

More about my background and learning journey can be found in my doctoral thesis ‘Whole Systems Thinking’ – particularly chapter 1.4 ‘My Story’ – see Publications.

  Download my CV

“Stephen’s contribution is varied and huge. He has been one of the foremost (if not the foremost) thought leaders in the field. His writings are the ‘go-to’ texts.”

Iain Patton, former CEO of the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC)

Research interests

My research interest is in ecological thinking, systemic change, and learning at individual, institutional and social scales to help meet the challenge of accelerating the educational response to the pressing sustainability agenda. All my writing and presentations over the years have been around this focus. See Publications.


I have a reputation as a pioneer in the sustainability education field. Credits include:

  • being one of the very first people to have coined the term ‘education for sustainable development’ ‘ESD’ (at a keynote delivered at an international conference in New Zealand in 1992);
  • writing the UNEP-UK report Good Earth-keeping: Education Training and Awareness for a Sustainable Future, taken by government as a UK report to the first Rio Earth Summit of 1992 – the first high-level study in the UK to look at the role of education in relation to sustainable development;
  • co-writing one of the first distance learning masters levels courses anywhere on education for sustainability (launched in 1994, London South Bank University);
  • co-editing (with John Huckle) the first book published anywhere in the world with the title Education for Sustainability (Earthscan, 1996);
  • writing a report (1998) for the UK government’s Sustainable Development Education Panel on sustainability in schools, a ground-breaking text which laid down the ‘seven key concepts of sustainable development’, which was widely adopted in the UK and internationally in educational policy;
  • writing a book for the Schumacher Institute Sustainable Education (Green Books 2001) which has become a seminal classic that has impacted worldwide;
  • developing the Linking Thinking teaching materials (WWF 2005) – recognised as innovative in making systems thinking accessible to teachers and students;
  • invited to write The Future Fit Framework – An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE,  by The Higher Education Academy;  
  • leading on The Sustainable University (Routledge 2013), which was one of the first books to look at this concept in depth;
  • invited to write the ‘Education’ section of the International Council for Science (ICSU) Review of the Sustainable Development Goals:The Science Perspective (2014) – which subsequently influenced UNESCO’s 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report Education for People and Planet. 
  • invited to write the opening and closing essay for the Great Transition Initiative’s (GTI) Discussion Forum, ‘The Pedagogy of Transition: Educating for the Future we Want’, 2021.

Recognition and roles

  • Distinguished Fellow, Schumacher Institute
  • Fellow, Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC)
  • Senior Fellow, International Association of Universities (IAU)
  • Co-chair, International Jury, UNESCO-Japan Prize for ESD 2015-2019
  • National Teaching Fellowship, Higher Education Academy (2014)
  • Former visiting professor, Centre for Research in Education and the Environment (CREE), University of Bath
  • Former member of HEFCE Sustainable Development Steering Group (to 2011)
  • Former Senior Advisor to the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA) on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)
  • Outstanding Contribution Award (Sustainability), University of Plymouth, Vice-Chancellor’s Enterprise Awards
  • Annual ‘Stephen Sterling Lecture’ series, Sustainable Earth Institute, University of Plymouth
  • Member of UNESCO’s International Reference Group for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-14)
  • Member of Socio-scientific Advisory Committee, World Environmental Education Congress (WEEC)
  • Member, Great Transition Initiative Network (Tellus Institute)

About Stephen Sterling

Find more about Stephen’s background; research interests; achievements; and recognition and roles.

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My Materials

Best known for his writing, find out about Stephen’s publications and presentations.

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‘Active retired’ as Emeritus Professor of Sustainabilty Education at the University of Plymouth, Stephen is available for some consultancy.

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“The circular economy is an expression of systems thinking and in all our insight publishing and educational work we owe a great debt of gratitude to Stephen’s clarity and perseverance in this arena.”

Ken Webster (Head of Innovation), Ellen MacArthur Foundation