The Dimensions
of Sustainable Development

A not-anthropocentric holistic approach offering direction for Education and Development


The ‘Dimensions of Sustainable Development’ were proposed in the course of the Dutch ‘Interdepartmental Program Education for Sustainable Development’ as more orderly concept informing sequences to learn (Rikers, Hermans, & Eussen, 2010). The simple embedded model builds on the notion that within a maintainable ecology a fair spread of existential means, well-being, is the only base for accepting differences in welfare (Eussen, 2007). We therewith sought to prioritize phenomena following their natural chronological sequence and from there their causal relations and inter-dependencies to achieve a better understanding of values.
Earth’s ecology is respected as conditio sine qua non while welfare is positioned as a human-inherent strive for the accumulation of values beyond the realm of well-being. Worded otherwise later, when human activity preserves the Earth’s natural capital and does not diminish the well-being of people living today or in the future, then it is sustainable (Remington-Doucette, Hiller Connell, Armstrong, & Musgrove, 2013). The Dimensions of Sustainable Development therewith present an initially not anthropocentric worldview, understanding anthropocentrism as an orientation on human-related values when defining policies related to the environment (Norton, 2005).

Although we are long due to reason and act beyond the illusionary balance of People, Planet, Profit and Donut-like ideas, concepts still resting on human interest, anthropocentric and welfare-driven, we appear to keep beating about the bush while the academic discourse and policy development don't provide or highlight alternative directions. Had we accepted a perspective on welfare within the realm of well-being and the Earth as encompassing joint maximum resource, a now nearly impossible ‘debate’ of re-shuffling the (ab)use of scarce resources between the ultimately rich and vastly poor would have come within our reach and solution-oriented approaches decades ago (indeed, starting out in 1972).

The Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Envisioning a logical order instead of an unreachable balance

The Dimensions

a nested concept replacing the People, Planet, Profit mantra


first respecting Earth's life giving value


then seeing we all secure always enough for everybody


and consider the acceptance of abundance in stead off excesses.

The Dimensions of Sustainable Development allow for a logical reasoning with the capacity to unclutter the discourse, offer initial direction and synthesize education into a coherent framework. Most important, they are proposed to replace the idea of ‘People, Planet, Profit’, the recital of which grew so common in the (E)SD-discourse it came close to a mantra, an idea no longer judged on its merits while used continuously. Noting that both ‘people’ and ‘profit’ regard ourselves, while ‘planet’ has no voice of its own and can only be represented again by ourselves, People, Planet, Profit leaves us with people talking to people about what other people should (not) do. A popular yet only seemingly pluralistic approach that furthermore presumes a balance of qualities of a such different order that it is no more than a poor balancing act without a rope to stand on.
The popularity of People, Planet, Profit can be understood from its simplicity but also comes to use of those with little sense or need for urgency. Its ambiguity allows for an array of interpretations that result in a vagueness most welcome to an actor-based concept, allowing for participation while avoiding responsibility. It however positions welfare as a pre-condition for well-being, growth as a legitimation for an irreversible use of ecology. Such was brought to our attention already decades ago - an economy built on continuous expansion of material consumption is not sustainable (Meadows et al., 1972), repeated in the ever-cited Brundtland definition of ESD (Brundtland, 1987) and ever since. Yet the dominantly anthropocentric idea stubbornly refuses Planet a place at the table, thus has it on the menu. Referring to its origin, the ‘Triple-P bottom-line' conceived in industries’ accounting sector, we see the Earth’s ecological integrity as the real bottom line and therewith not part of a negotiable balance (W. Scott, 2005). For a more extensive description of thoughts, read further under Earth, Well-being and Welfare

Sustainability can not be Served in a
Simple way

matters are entangled, connected and disjointed, more colorful, perhaps complex yet not curious.

"People, Planet, Profit comes down to
People talking to People about what (other) People should do"

Jos Eussen (2007)

Replacing the anthropocentric
People, Planet, Profit mantra

Eponymous models that presented planetary boundaries and society in an embedded way, such as ‘The Doughnut Economy’ (Raworth, 2013, 2017), are seen to remain fundamentally anthropocentric and reason within the limits and limitations of present-day structures and institutes. Next to the idea of chronological perspective, the likely prioritizing of phenomena, not-anthropocentric worldview and value-orientation, the Dimensions of Sustainable Development invite to reason outside the present box and consider contemporary structures, institutes, common organizations and behavior no longer as given facts but subject to transition. Following this, the Dimensions of Sustainable Development provide a framework for more logical reasoning as it unclutters the discourse(s), provides initial direction and has the capacity to synthesize education into a coherent framework.

"You are either at the Table or on the Menu"

Have we ever seen or heard the Planet speak?

Are People and Profit two separate identities?

Do we only have to mind the overlap?

And what about non-human life? 

A holistic integrative sustainability approach

The Dimensions appear close to other holistic integrative sustainability approaches (Tilbury & Wortman, 2004, Griggs et al., 2013), which however mention both ‘society’ and ‘economy’; we regard the economy as the articulation of how society interprets and transfers values, both for well-being as well as for welfare. A more distinct delineation is required to provide for a foothold to name and weigh values that underpin our decision-making. Hence, we proposed a value- and not an actor-based approach, encompassing values regarding Earth and Well-being, while acknowledging that also Welfare comprises not only tangible elements but values of its own such as those in the realm of the Arts, a person’s sense of achievement and longer-term resilience.

The Dimensions call for and lead to a de-growth perspective by ways of (a critical pathway of) learning-processes reasoned through more naturally and less anthropocentric. 

of the Dimensions
of ESD for Education

As the Dimensions of Sustainable Development call for a (renewed) understanding of values and involve behavioural aspects, the concept has critical meaning for education. Students will arrive at vast fields of knowledge, phenomena and experiences that present them with a variety of aspects and situations requiring understanding and capacity for action alike. This notion of transversal thinking combines with transdisciplinary learning, enabling profound understanding and handling of issues, transversal to be understood as ‘multi-purpose’ knowledge and skills applicable and required in a multitude. Such include but go beyond obvious competencies listings such as ‘21st Century Skills’, ‘ESD Competences’ and ‘Circular Skills’.
As understanding of phenomena in a dimension rests on a profound and interrelated knowing of the one(s) encompassing it, the learning becomes contextualized, coherent and strategic. The setting provides guidance for a logical, natural and consistent learning pathway, interrelatedness also informed by evolution and history. Therewith education based on the Dimensions of ESD gives rise to a clearer and more confronting study, preventing anthropogenic ambiguity. 

Theme-based Education

The application of the Dimensions of Sustainable Development sees to the emergence of future defining themes, functioning as leitmotivs for education through the lens of Earth, Well-being and Welfare.
As across the board, the variety of people involved in the OPEDUCA Project (home to numerous countries and a variety of cultures), reasoned Water, Food, Construction, Energy and Health to be the most relevant and encompassing future defining themes, they were concluded to be of such universal quality future-oriented i.e. ESD-based Education should be built from there. Following a reasoning informed by evolution and history, the themes can be projected on the Dimensions of ESD (see graph) – phenomena then appear in an orderly fashion as each theme crosscuts every dimension. 

Furthermore, the universal character of the themes is seen to contribute to collaborative boundary-crossing learning of students in a local-to-global perspective, joint interests presumed to provide a foothold for the exchange of cultures, beliefs and citizenship, allowing the learner to experience togetherness and mutual dependencies. This notion of ‘global citizenship’ is elementary to transversal competencies.


Since the future defining themes crosscutting the dimensions are in- and extrinsically related to each other, the resulting theme-based learning per definition requires transdisciplinary understanding because the phenomena are so from nature. Multidisciplinarity concerns the disciplines an issue comprises, two or more ‘engulfed’ by the issue, an interdisciplinary approach requiring (parts of) two or more disciplines to address an issue. A transdisciplinary view is positioned outside the realm of one or an assembled group of disciplines and can only be addressed as a joint effort.

Integrative thinking and transdisciplinary learning and education come naturally to humankind, we cannot do otherwise, it is not an innovative consideration in ESD. Transdisciplinarity serves our disciplinary understanding and proficiency in subjects and vice versa, ESD a spiraling process, a return to our gift of intelligence which goes hand in hand with continuous connections to the transdisciplinary world around and inside us. From there the OPEDUCA Concept sees the rise of transversal competencies.

Another (different) kind of Science

The notion that sustainable development calls for a different type of science, one able to deal with ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty (Brand & Karvonen, 2007), does not mean ESD needs to be characterized the same. Acknowledging that sustainable development requires a wider community of stakeholders (Scholz, Lang, Wiek, Walter, & Stauffacher, 2006) is regarded a characteristic of each science to begin with. Referring to a lack of ‘external interdisciplinarity’ (Klein, 1990) and a need for ‘co-production of knowledge' (Carolan, 2006), we underline the need for a democratization of science (Fischer, 2000) and in the realm of ESD most profoundly. The concept of the Dimensions of Sustainable Development can contribute to the realization of ‘sustainability science’, reasoning that social consensus of what is unsustainable requires a special form of science, a research paradigm that reflects sustainable development’s multidimensional character and encompasses different magnitudes of scales (of time, space, and function), multiple balances (dynamics), multiple actors (interests) and multiple failures (systemic faults) (Kemp & Martens, 2017).

Where we Are

Although Earth’s life-granting capacity can likely be extended through technology, it is limited per definition. Presenting Earth as encompassing dimension builds on its regenerative life-granting capacity, respecting ecology as a perpetual source, not as a resource to balance our behavior. In contrast to the neo-classical idea, man-made capital can in principle replace it and other notions of ‘weak sustainability’ (Hartwick, 1978; Solow, 1974) human and natural capital are seen as complementary, not interchangeable. A thinking partly in line with ‘Planetary Boundaries’ (Rockström et al., 2009), although I regard the calculus of earth’s carrying capacity as less relevant. Human expansion will eventually lead to the use of not replenishable sources to such an extent it is more relevant to question if development seen as growth can ever be sustainable (Tijmes & Luijf, 1995). Taking distance from the idea our ecology is only valuable through the lens of human interest, the Dimensions represent a quite strict manifestation of non-anthropocentrism. Each of us from youngest age on deserves a chance to understand Earth’s life-granting capacity as a universal value, one to internalize for reason of personal development and to relate to when considering Well-being and Welfare. This to sense, understand and form an opinion about for example ‘Ecological Modernisation’, postulating that technical and managerial approaches could solve the environmental crisis and lessen the need for radical changes (Baker, 2007), ponder if the challenge is not more about human life in harmony with the natural environment (Towell, 2016) or even adhere an ecocentric orientation and stand up for the environment independent of its value to humans (Kortenkamp & Moore, 2001; Thompson & Barton, 1994).
For the effectuation of ESD it is essential the learner is not derived from her own study and experiences, is allowed the choice of value, position and action. Believing a human can care about something that is entirely beyond his use (McCauley, 2006), I chose deep over shallow ecology (Naess, 1973), seeking to have all contemplate in a profound way instead of accepting nature to be dominated by science, technology and capitalist production (C. Merchant, 1981). If not, we would derive the learner from her own choice and pre-set a rather poor learning pathway, bypassing the essence of personal(ity) development. Moreover, it should not be taken for granted we have an adequate understanding of Earth already, a substantial body of knowledge is still out there waiting for discovery. As we find ourselves to have learned too little from the little we know, new findings, insights, a better understanding and true advocacy are called for to begin with. 

What we Need

Whereas the survival of an animal depends on how well it adapts to the natural environment in which it lives, humans evolved to change and adapt it to provide for their fundamental needs. Doing so respectfully meets the essence of sustainable development, providing for the needs of humankind in an equitable way without doing violence to the natural systems of life on earth (Kemp & Martens, 2017). Having preluded on this informed idea when positioning Well-being as the inner dimension, the term still seeks to be understood. It is obviously most challenging, if doable at all, to define what wellbeing is to whom, when and under which circumstances. Let alone one can easily quantify the various qualifications and weigh them, finding persons and groups in endlessly definable modus vivendi. If we however reason from ‘mens sana in corpere sano’, there might be a certain harmony and consensus to start out from. Contemplating this and looking through the lens of ESD, 3 components of well-being can be discerned:
- Fundamental needs i.e., minimal living conditions.
- The ability to live a full life, including mental, social and cultural aspects.
- The interdependency of both with Earth.

Discussing the Dimensions of Sustainable Development with a variety of people from early on, they regardless of nationality, gender, age, culture, expertise, profession, belief, age group or any other thinkable divide between them, qualified alike aspects as most relevant when asked ‘what do you need?’. From the individual perspective, it always concerned basic needs ‘water’, ‘food’ and ‘shelter’ (cross-referring each to ‘health’), then ‘not living alone’ (social aspects such as family, group, and interaction), followed by elements as ‘understanding’ and ‘expression’. ‘Happiness’ was largely conceived as the combination of multiple values. When contemplating ongoing thematic learning pathways, I found near-perfect agreement youngsters should have a fundamental and growing understanding of water, food, construction and energy.
It was as insightful as it is logical to find mental, social and cultural aspects came down to exchanging the ‘I’ (‘What do you need?’) for the ‘We’ (‘Are you alone needing, generating and using such?’), togetherness following out of joint achievement and use. From there we could register a series of silently remarked complementary values such as ‘company’, ‘fellow’, ‘partner’, ‘sharing stories’, ‘being together'.
Acknowledging there are those who adhere to (even) more subjective and less material manifestations of Well-being, it is essential for ESD to start out from a stricter formulation. Otherwise, this so essential inner Dimension will underly the more exact, objective elements of the outer and inner Dimensions Earth and Welfare, become subject to borderless and eventually fruitless debates that lead to ill-informed action or none. Not allowing Well-being a well-defined Dimension of its own leads to skipping essential values or leaving them in the nimble middle where they dwindle. What divides Well-being from Welfare can be addressed by distinguishing between ‘in need of to be(come)’ and ‘desire’. Acknowledging Maslow’s classification regarding physiological needs that deal with survival and higher needs related to the use of our full potential, ‘Western’ civilization tends to align self-actualization with Welfare (‘the more, the better’). Our understanding of Well-being ought not to be interwoven with Welfare (Marks, Simms, Thompson, & Abdallah, 2006) as it holds qualitative aspects such as autonomy, freedom, achievement and the development of deep interpersonal relationships’ (Kahneman & Sugden, 2005) as well as further mens sana aspects like self-fulfillment and love (Chuengsatiansup, 2003; Holden & Linnerud, 2007). All these justify the Wellbeing Dimension as a holder of values to be respected for all.
For good order, despite the many positive associations also Well-being carries the conflict of unsustainable development within it, especially since it touches on our (over-)population in relation to the earth’s carrying capacity. Although the speed and intensity of problems arising might be less dramatic compared to a welfare-driven consummation of our planet, the earth's capacity to support human life is limited even when considering the most modest interpretations of wellbeing.  

What we Desire

The divide between Well-being and Welfare is marked most simply by pointing to all we desire to make, have, use and be when having achieved Well-being. Since the economy also substantially delivers on Well-being, the Dimensions concept therewith diverges from a more polarising academic discourse in ESD that postulates ‘the economy’ as the cause and manifestation of (unsustainable) welfare. In contrast, in the entire OPEDUCA-concept economy is seen as a manifestation of human behaviour, the mere materialisation of our value exchanges. The Welfare Dimension is positioned to mark overconsumption and excessive ownership of goods and materials (coal provides warmth in the realm of well-being, solar cell powered outside heaters on a winter’s terrace manifest welfare). Where such an exchange of values and resources, whether or not explainable from a possibly deeply rooted human instinct to collect, own and use for own benefit, touches on other people’s well-being and earth’s life-giving capacity, it marks the demarcation line where value-transfer becomes value-abuse (coal to the outside heater; the point is not to merely ponder the alternative of a nylon oil-based ski-jacket or the ecological justness of a sheep wool cushion and chunky-knit, but to question the heated outside seating to begin with).

We should realise more profoundly it is not ‘the economy’, nor industry in its lap, but all of us, as the consumers we are, who hold the key to sustainable development by way of controlling our consumerism (Dolan et al., 2006; Marks, Thompson, Eckersley, Jackson, & Kassar, 2006). It is thereto essential to be aware of the fact Earth has no cash register, does not hold account of the natural resources it provides us. Consequently, our understanding of the value chain is principally false as it starts off with free commodities from which towers of progress and wealth are built. Although I do not seek to quantify the price of one ounce of fresh air, obviously the pricing and margins throughout the system are likely to change considerably if we do. We would then be confronted with a new sensation of value, informing us where and in what degree we wrongly applaud products and services due to an unjust valuation of values. As amongst others reported in ‘Les instruments économiques au service du développement durable’ (Bourke & Vallejos, 2014), economic instruments can, by changing prices and market signals, discourage certain modes of production and consumption and encourage others Expanding on the analogy used above, when understanding the price of the outside heating (including production, logistics, energy-use, etc.), the relevant question we face is to what use we bring it. And having waived the outside heating for comfortable seating, what about mounting it on the side of an ambulance in cases of emergency treatment in the cold?

There should be an understanding the individual can gain Welfare over well-being because of achievements resulting from (more, harder) work, talent, luck and intellect, from efforts adding to the well-being of others. Is the comedian who grants millions a good laugh or the heart-surgeon expanding lives not entitled to a larger living room or a Rolex? But then how to value the Welfare of the computer-game developer who collects substantial margins from youngsters’ time of life and budget? Can we come to reason with ourselves when applauding a salary of 650.000 euro’s a week for a soccer player and at the same time feel good about granting nurses a 1.000 euro one-off bonus for exceptional efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic? Judging the essence and value of Welfare in relation to well-being rests on a profound understanding of phenomena and requires a deeper look at and within ourselves – there the challenge lies.

If we do not clearly demarcate between well-being and Welfare, the larger mass of people, when having achieved the first, will run for the latter without giving it conscious thought. Will, driven by extrinsic, materialistic and self-imposed needs, follow others’ excessive consumption and self-inflict a deterioration of Earth and well-being just achieved. As to the excessive part of welfare, Worldwatch President Flavin stated: “The drive to acquire and consume now dominates many peoples’ psyches, filling the space once occupied by religion, family, and community” (Starke, 2004). We seem to grasp around desperately, accepting illusions of happiness when seeing the soccer player on his private beach during a season break and miss out on the air-purifying plant we just trampled on.

It is our choice, and I gather it within our ability, to steer ourselves to fulfil Well-being for all, ‘filling out’ that Dimension second to Earth. If we then have resources left to generate and uphold a Welfare Dimension, such might be most legitimate. Whether or not and in which degree Welfare as an excess over well-being can be realized then depends on a fuller understanding of how products and services for both Dimensions are generated and brought to use. Re-calibrating our economy should result from a coming to our senses, following a re-consideration of what we want to produce, to then change the means and systems we use for it. If not, present measures ill-informed might delude us more than we realise, be most temporary in effect and less sustainable than stubbornly preached.

Not looking in the eye what drives us to gather and consume makes cowards of us all in the light of sustainable development. Makes us turn off the shower half a minute earlier and feel good about it, to then dress in new trousers on the production of which a thousand-fold of the water ‘saved’ was spent, dressing up for it makes us feel good. If a not-replenishable resource like Yttrium is spent on the production of a cell phone combined with energy derived from fossil fuels to play a game, I will not judge that good or wrong, for one can regard the joy of playing a great fulfilment, but consider the gamer entitled to an informed choice of value, based on insight and understanding how the same resources could be used to combat malaria and purify drinking water for the Well-being of many.

Endlessly discussing our system’s dependencies and dynamics, overstressing the complexity and uncertainty of it all, will not help but prevent us from looking at the larger picture made up of quite clear strokes. Inundated with rules, programs and regulations we masquerade and falsify our positions and arguments, forget we can stop consuming meat this very moment, no longer change our closet of fine wearable clothes because somebody called a new fashion season and switch off our mobile for an hour of paper-based reading. We can at any moment take the most simple decisions that will instantly alter the gluttony of our global machinery because we are many. The thought that the deteriorating capacity of the masses can be turned to an immensely positive effect without even scratching Well-being achieved, should give as pause.
It feels as if we forgot we are still capable of action as if too much reasoning not merely puzzles our will but deludes our mind and ability to act. Solace may come if we see to re-frame the message of ‘lower consumption’ as ‘psychological lightness’ towards the sensation of shedding unnecessary heaviness, not afraid of losing out on illusionary values (Newton, 2007).

The acknowledgement of an understandable and justifiable Welfare dimension is critical for the inclusive and problem-solving character of the sustainability debate as it more profoundly and from a constructive perspective invites all to the table.
It will also allow us to put the ‘inevitability’ of amorph economic growth under more scrutiny (Norgaard, 1992) and recalibrate the ‘politically powerful’ idea of progress towards a more realistic development paradigm (Barry, 1999). 

© Copyright 2004-2022 KidsLive! Foundation - All Rights Reserved
For academic reference and publications: Eussen, J. F. G. (2022). ESD-based education - - ISBN 9789464235906