5. Our changing nature

As our lives become increasingly virtual, we need to reconsider the relationship we have with the physical world and our physical selves. We have seen the impact of climate change: the Earth is warming, sea levels are rising and seasons as we know them are slowly vanishing. Heat waves and wildfires are increasingly making summers “no go zones” for entire regions. Human well-being is intrinsically intertwined with caring for our planet. And not just on a global level: in a touch-less society, we cannot forget the benefits of physical contact and face-to-face encounters. “To touch is to give life” said Michelangelo. This was later validated by science: premature babies gain weight when rubbed lightly from head to foot. Education can help foster a thriving relationship with our own minds and bodies, with other human beings and with the natural world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that, despite our best laid plans, the future likes to surprise us. Trends can accelerate, bend and break. As the shock subsides, open and important questions emerge about the long-term effects of these shifts.

Earth is the only place in the universe known to harbour life (at least for the moment). The oldest known fossils are around 3.5 billion years old, and a number of discoveries suggest that life on Earth may have appeared even earlier. But while Mother Nature is bountiful, even she has limits. Human consumption of natural resources currently exceeds the capacity of the planet, and we now find ourselves in ‘ecological debt’. The interest we are paying on this compounding balance – from soil erosion to the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere – comes with huge costs now and for the generations to come. Education is key to building green skills and the understanding of the importance of acting urgently to ensure long-term sustainability.

Humans have been shaping the face of Earth for centuries. Since 1970, our ecological footprint has consistently exceeded Earth’s biocapacity. In 2021, we exceeded it by over 70%, which means that globally, we lived as if we had 1.7 planets available instead of only one. Rates of consumption vary by country: for example, the United States consumes as if it had five Earths available, France three and Colombia slightly over one. On average, OECD countries consume the equivalent of over three Earths.

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for natural resources in a given year exceeds Earth’s biocapacity for that year. While in 1970 Earth Overshoot Day fell on 30 December, in 2021 it fell on 29 July. This gap between human consumption and nature’s capacity to meet our demands cannot be sustained indefinitely. Unless our footprint gets smaller (or another liveable planet is found), stocks will eventually run out and humanity as a whole will have to pay the price.

The carbon footprint is the fastest-growing component and the lion’s share - currently 60% - of our ecological footprint. Global energy-related CO2 emissions reached an all-time high of over 33 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2019, over 11 times the amount of emissions in 1900.

In 2020, CO2 emissions reached the highest-ever average annual concentration in the atmosphere – around 50% higher than when the industrial revolution began. Global warming, severe drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, increased wildfires, and food and water supply disruptions are only some of the consequences. If current trends continue, this frightening list is expected to get longer. Education is key to shifting course, with R&D systems developing technological solutions and classrooms working to empower students to take action in the global fight against climate change.

From ancient times to the present, the calming and healing powers of nature have been well documented. Yet natural spaces are shrinking as our cities and populations grow. Biodiversity is being lost at an accelerating rate, with 25% of all plant and animal species now threatened with extinction. In an attempt to restore our broken relationship with nature, we are increasingly setting aside protected areas on both land and sea. In addition, cities are slowly becoming greener, with everything from rooftop gardens, beekeeping and urban farms emerging to help protect biodiversity and ensure city-dwellers have adequate opportunities for exposure to nature. Given the importance of time spent outdoors in contact with nature for health and development, how can education contribute to connecting learners with the natural world?

The world is facing its sixth mass extinction event, with a 68% drop in populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish on average since 1970. One million plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction. This ongoing decline of biodiversity has profound implications, from jeopardising climate-change mitigation, food and water security to increasing the likelihood of infectious diseases outbreaks.

To combat this, there have been concerted efforts to designate protected terrestrial and marine areas. Protected terrestrial areas have increased more than nine-fold between 1950 and 2021, now covering on average 16% of land area in OECD countries. Twenty-seven OECD countries currently meet the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi target to protect at least 17% of their land area. In addition to safeguarding natural spaces on land, there has also been progress in protecting marine areas. Between 2000 and 2021, protected marine areas increased from only 3% to more than 21% of total area. Yet, large variations persist among countries both in the extent and effectiveness of nature protection.

The world increasingly lives in cities, with urban population rising from 1.5 to over 3.5 billion since 1975. This growth is projected to continue, increasing to 5 billion by 2050, while at the same time the share of population in towns and rural areas is expected to continue to fall. But the future is not just grey: new and innovative ways to incorporate green spaces into urban structures are being developed, including rooftop gardens, vertical forests, pocket-parks, urban beekeeping and urban farming.

Green urban spaces can have a multitude of benefits, from improving air quality, protecting biodiversity and helping keep cities cool. They can also help inject life into urban centres, making room for play and social interaction while potentially reducing social isolation. Engaging students in growing their own food in school gardens, promoting food waste reduction and composting activities in schools can help re-connect urban residents with the natural world. Education, outdoor learning and daily access to nature are key to helping students thrive while they learn about, value and grow with our natural world.

Humanity today faces a ‘triple challenge’: ensuring global food security and nutrition, sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people involved in the food chain, all while combatting environmental pressures due to agriculture. Yet not only are we steadily outstripping land capacity, we are also eating more unhealthy highly processed foods. Developments of innovative systems and technologies – such as agroecology and smart farming – aim to reinforce the sustainability of food systems, contributing to more efficient land use at the same time as they protect and enhance the natural resource base. But will we be able to break our love of ultra-processed foods? Education plays a role in ensuring all students have access to nutritionally balanced diets. It can also support the development of strong health literacy while raising awareness of the social and environmental implications of food production and consumption.

Over the last centuries, agricultural land development and use have grown along with our population. But agricultural land is not only finite, it is also a major driver of deforestation, habitat loss, soil erosion and agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1960, food production and land use have been increasingly decoupled, with food production more than tripling while agricultural land volume has grown by only 10-15%. This decoupling was initially achieved through more intensive use of inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation water. Since the 1990s, growth in food production has increasingly been driven by greater efficiency and productivity.

While not yet a silver bullet, alternative approaches to intensive agriculture such as conservation agriculture, agroecology and data-driven precision agriculture have emerged. These approaches all aim to continue increasing food production capacity while also improving its environmental sustainability.

The industrialisation and globalisation of food systems have helped drive the growth of ultra-processed food in human diets. New food production and processing technologies have enabled long-distance transportability, longer shelf-life and even entirely new product categories, such as microwaveable popcorn. Per capita sales of ultra-processed food are rising worldwide, and are highest in Australasia, North America and Western Europe. In middle-income countries, where sales growth has been (and is projected to remain) rather high, absolute sales volume is approaching equivalency with that of high-income economies.

While processed food can support safe, affordable and nutritious diets, the regular or excessive consumption of energy-dense and nutritionally poor ultra-processed food - rich in sugars, salt, oils and fats - is associated with higher prevalence of obesity, cancer and other non-communicable diseases. Education is key to teaching students healthy nutrition and fostering nutrition equity.

Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”. But where would we be without our bodies? From more effective treatments for cancer to fully sequencing the human genome, medicine is helping us live longer and healthier lives. But this is just the beginning: advanced human-machine interfaces, implants, drugs and genetic modification all increasingly enable humans to enhance their physical, cognitive and emotional selves. A growing number of biotech companies are even trying to cure ageing, further pushing boundaries in the search for the elusive elixir of the fountain of youth. However, while opening up tremendous possibilities, human enhancement is also raising important ethical challenges and questions about what it means to be human. Education is key to helping us think through these ethical challenges, taking into account individual versus collective well-being.

The past century has seen a significant improvement in average life expectancy around the globe, although progress has slowed down in recent years in many countries. Importantly, gains in life expectancy have been largely in good health. For major causes of death like cancer, the raw numbers of deaths have increased as the population has grown and aged. But improved treatment and better awareness and prevention have been key to reducing the overall probability of cancer death: when controlling for population ageing, death rates have indeed decreased by 15% between 1990 and 2019.

Yet, challenges remain for further raising the quality of life in our elder years. Despite billions of dollars spent on dementia-related disorders, for example, medicine is still struggling to find a cure for these and other neuro-degenerative diseases, expected to become increasingly prevalent as our societies age.

In addition to medical progress on disease, targeting the ageing process itself has gained momentum in the past two decades. There is a growing investment in and market for anti-ageing science, with the number of ageing biotech firms increasing from only two companies in 1999 to 161 by 2020.

These companies aim to impede ageing by intervening with the biological changes driving the process – something that, if successful, has led some futurologists to claim humans could eventually live forever. Pushing human biological boundaries, whether through long-life elixirs or other human enhancement technologies, may radically redefine terms such as health and illness, treatment and enhancement, normality and abnormality.

Will we ever conquer ageing, or is ageing built into our genes? Will people have the option to change themselves and their children in ways that, until now, have only existed in superhero cartoons? What will this mean for education and lifelong learning?

As our lives become increasingly virtual, the ways in which we communicate and interact are changing. Billions of emojis are sent every day to express love, thanks, congratulations and an almost infinite set of emotions or ideas. Over the last decade, tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have invested billions in augmented and virtual reality technology. Bringing the digital world into the physical, immersive technology can transform everything from how we socialise to how we choose our clothes, furniture and even houses. But even though more activities can be performed online, nobody really lives in cyberspace. Human beings are innately social creatures, in need of physical touch. As the line between the real and virtual blurs, how can education help people thrive in an increasingly hybrid world?

Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) is transforming the way we experience the world, altering what we can see, hear and feel. Gaming makes important use of this technology, with the number of new patents related to AR/VR exploding globally between 2010 and 2020.

Augmented reality can make the gaming experience more exciting by superimposing virtual images on real surroundings - Niantic’s Pokémon Go being a great illustration. AR is now integrated into thousands of smartphone apps, allowing consumers to see everything from how furniture will look in their rooms to the effect of makeup items before purchase. Millions of people currently use AR when they apply filters to their Snapchat or Instagram stories.

In contrast, virtual reality creates a completely new, artificial environment to inhabit. Soon, VR tools such as Facebook Oculus may even allow people to attend meetings in virtual offices. However, social interactions still remain fundamental even within an augmented or virtual reality. Efforts are underway to include more social elements within this technology – as especially VR is still profoundly isolating.

In 2015, for the first time in history, a non-word won the title of “word of the year”. It was the picture emoji, which Oxford Dictionaries felt best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of that year. This is emblematic of how emojis are increasingly part of our social interactions. Their numbers are increasing, with 3 616 emojis formally recognised in 2021, an increase of over 200% since 2010. They are also becoming more inclusive, now covering different skin colours, diverse family structures and gender identities.

As a growing share of our daily communication takes place in digital environments, emojis help translate our physicality, from body language to emotions, to the virtual realm. Yet although they can help with human bonding, we can all admit that a hug emoji is not the same as a hug. Physical learning environments and face-to-face interactions remain crucial to help students of all ages learn how to learn, play and work together.

Trends allow us to consider what current patterns might mean for the future. But what about new patterns, shocks and surprises that could emerge over the next 15 to 20 years?

Building on the OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling, this section encourages readers to consider how growth could connect with education to evolve in multiple ways. Two vignettes illustrate possible stories: the Reader is invited to adapt and create new ones as desired. The next page sets out some key questions for education, and a set of potential shocks and surprises that could impact education and learning in unexpected ways. The descriptions of each scenario can be found in the Introduction of this volume.

Despite the best laid plans, the future likes to surprise us. What would these shocks mean for education and learning if they came to pass? Can you see signs of other potential disruptions emerging?

  • Age-standardised cancer death rate: Weighted average of the age-specific cancer mortality rates per 100 000 persons, where the weights are the proportions of persons in the corresponding age groups of the WHO standard population. It is a summary measure of the death rate that a population would have if it had a standard age structure.

  • Agroecology: A holistic and integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems. It seeks to optimise interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while also allowing people to exercise choice over what they eat and how and where it is produced.

  • Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR): Augmented reality is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information. Virtual reality is a simulated experience that can be similar to or completely different from the real world.

  • Biodiversity: The global variety of species and ecosystems and the ecological processes of which they are part, covering three components: genetic, species and ecosystem diversity.

  • Carbon footprint: A measure of CO2 emissions associated with fossil fuel use. In Ecological Footprint accounts, these amounts are converted into biologically productive areas necessary for absorbing CO2. It is part of the ecological footprint because it is a competing use of bio-productive space: increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations are considered to represent growing ecological debt.

  • Conservation agriculture: Conservation Agriculture is a farming system that promotes minimum soil disturbance (i.e. no tillage), maintenance of a permanent soil cover and diversification of plant species. It enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface.

  • Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi target: The Convention on Biological Diversity is an international treaty for the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of resource benefits. It was ratified by 196 nations at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Target 11 of the convention states that by 2020 at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of coastal and marine areas will be conserved.

  • Earth’s biocapacity: The Earth’s capacity to produce biological resources used by people and to absorb waste material generated by humans, under current management schemes and extraction technologies.

  • Ecological footprint: A measure of how much area of biologically productive land and water an individual, population, or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and resource management practices.

  • Energy-related CO2 emissions: Emissions related to the combustion of fossil fuels (liquid fuels, natural gas and coal) and emissions associated with petroleum feedstocks.

  • Emojis: Digital pictographs (pictorial symbols) that are typically presented in a colourful form. They represent things such as faces, weather, vehicles and buildings, food and drink, animals and plants, or icons that represent emotions, feelings, or activities.

  • Global hectares (gha): A biologically productive hectare with world average biological productivity for a given year. It allows researchers to report both the biocapacity of the Earth or a region and the demand on biocapacity (the Ecological Footprint).

  • Human-machine interfaces: A user interface or dashboard that connects a person to a machine, system, or device. Common current examples include touchscreens and keyboards.

  • Life expectancy: A measure of how long on average a person of a given age can expect to live, if existing death rates do not change.

  • Nutrition equity: The principle according to which everyone should have the same opportunity of access to an adequate diet that is healthy, nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity or postal code.

  • Pocket parks: Small urban open spaces usually no more than 1 000 square metres that provide a safe and inviting environment for surrounding community members. They serve a variety of functions including small event space, play areas for children and areas for relaxing or meeting friends. They are also known as parkettes, mini-parks or vest-pocket park.

  • Precision agriculture: A pioneer technique that provides farmers with near real-time analysis of key data about their fields. Paving the way for full automation of farms, this technique uses big data analytics to provide productivity gains through an optimised use of agriculture-related resources including savings on seeds, fertiliser, irrigation and even farmers’ time.

  • Protected areas: A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.

  • Sequencing the human genome: The human genome is the operating manual containing all the instructions that help a single cell develop into a human. It guides human growth, helps organs do their jobs and repairs itself when it becomes damaged. It is a collection of long polymers of DNA, an extremely large molecule that looks like a long, twisted ladder. Sequencing the human genome means determining the order of the four chemical building blocks - called bases - that make up the DNA molecule.

  • Sixth mass extinction event: An ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch (with the more recent time sometimes called Anthropocene) as a result of human activity. It is also called the Holocene extinction.

  • Smart farming: Applying information and data technologies for optimising complex farming systems. The focus is on access to data and how farmers can use the collected information intelligently, with the goal of producing more and better food with less investment and the same amount of land.

  • Ultra-processed food: Products with additives and industrially processed ingredients that have been technologically broken down and modified. Examples include sugar-sweetened beverages, confectionery, savoury snacks, refined baked goods, sweetened yoghurts, biscuits, and many varieties of fast food and ready-to-heat products.

  • Urban beekeeping: The practice of keeping bee colonies in urban areas.


This work is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of the Members of the OECD.

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

Photo credits: Cover © MemoryMan/Shutterstock.com. Chapter 1: © Nightman 1965/Shutterstock.com; © Vladi333/Shutterstock.com; © Elnur/Shutterstock.com; © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com. Chapter 2: © Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock.com; © Martin Novak/Shutterstock.com; © Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com; © ImageFlow/Shutterstock.com. Chapter 3: © ozrimoz/Shutterstock.com; © metamorworks/Shutterstock.com; © Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock.com; © Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com. Chapter 4: © Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock.com; © Doraemonz32/Shutterstock.com; © Olivier Le Moal/Shutterstock.com; © fizkes/Shutterstock.com. Chapter 5: © Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com; © Chattaphan Sakulthong/Shutterstock.com; © Kateryna Mostova/Shutterstock.com; © Anton Watman/Shutterstock.com.

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