Challenging behaviours & challenging climate change

For the past six months, along with a colleague, Arooj Khan, I have been working in a secondary school for young people who have been excluded from mainstream schools. The school is situated in an inner suburb of Birmingham, the second largest city in England. Most of the young people are boys, aged 11-16, and the majority come from Black or South Asian backgrounds. Most of the young men present behaviours that are deemed to be ‘challenging’ for mainstream schools (what are sometimes referred to as ‘Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties’).

I have worked in over 60 alternative education spaces in the course of my research over the past 15 years. However, this particular space is very different. The ratio of teachers to pupils is very high, as the staff spend considerable time both managing students’ behaviour and working with them to change their disposition to learning – and, indeed, to institutions and to adult ‘authority’. The school has recently decided to move away from teaching traditional subjects, including science, in order to focus on more vocational forms of learning – from brick-laying to car mechanics.

In this context, with the school, we have been co-delivering a programme of experimental, sometimes artistic activities that have been designed to encourage the students to think and learn about climate change. In particular, given Birmingham’s heritage as an industrial city – and therefore a key hub in the generation of what some term the Anthropocene or Capitalocene – our activities are focused around energy.

Our principal aim was – and in many ways still is – to explore diverse forms of energy. We wanted students to not only learn about but to experience different forms of energy, so that the sessions went beyond imperatives to save energy by turning off lights, or an appreciation of different forms of renewable energy technologies. As Johnson et al. (2014) and many others have argued, both of these latter kinds of learning are wrapped up in lighter-green understandings of sustainability that see the very same (mainly powerful, mainly white, mainly Western, mainly male) actors proposing technological solutions to the problems for which, arguably, they and their ancestors are largely responsible.

In this light, our programme of work enabled us to articulate what Affrica Taylor (2019) frames as ‘small stories’, which ‘counter the conceits’ of the rich white male’s Anthropocene. We took the students for walks around the school and the local community, encouraging them to identify challenges for living sustainably, and to acknowledge small, local acts (such as tree-planting) that might address climate change. We took the students to the Lapworth Museum of Geology at the University of Birmingham, where they had the chance to pick up and examine rocks and minerals and to think about the longer-term histories of the earth. We went to a local science museum where the students used LEGO to construct wind turbines (although see my reflections on this, including the ethics of learning about climate change through mass-produced plastics, here). We tried out a range of small devices that enable users to literally see the energy embodied in a piece of fruit, or in their own bodies.

Our collaborations led to the articulation, exercise and expenditure of a whole range of ‘energies’: embodied, elastic, gravitational, solar, wind, electrical, etcetera. But one thing that was so striking about our work was how it raised questions about the relationship between ‘challenging’ behaviours and climate change. If, as Peter Kelly writes in another post, notions of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘resilience’ are central to young people’s lives – and survival – in the Anthropocene, then what do those terms mean in the context of young men who are (at least) triply-disadvantaged by their age, their ethnicity, and by behaviours that have been identified as ‘challenging’?

Here, I suggest, we need to tread a very careful path. Some of these young men experience a range of mental health issues and/or disabilities, and the school and its staff do important and often difficult work in trying to find ways to support their students. And we know that these kinds of challenges (especially mental health issues) are faced by increasing numbers of young people, worldwide, for a range of reasons. At the same time, these young men are not, generally, the kinds of young people whose voices are routinely heard or accepted when it comes to debates about climate change. In the context of the #climatestrikes in recent weeks, it is not, generally, these kinds of young people who figure prominently. And this, I think, is because of the nature of the ‘challenge’ that different groups of young people present.

This observation is by no means a critique of Greta Thunberg and the likely millions of young people marching for our (and their) earthly future. Indeed, Greta talks about her own ‘challenging behaviours’ and mental health issues openly. Nor am I suggesting that all of those young people are taken from narrow segments of rich societies – they are not. The challenge they present is legitimate, urgent, and of fundamental importance. It is, instead, a broader attempt to question what we mean by challenge when it comes to how we think about climate change, climate-related injustices, and climate action, and to intersectionalities of youth with ‘challenging behaviours’ and race.

I want, then, to return to the ‘challenging’ behaviours exhibited by young, predominantly Black and South Asian heritage men at the school in Birmingham. I don’t want to romanticise these behaviours – as I mentioned above, we need to tread a very careful path here. Yet the approach we took – a progressive series of often very different activities, over a series of weeks and months, with no commitment to a ‘curriculum’ or teleological approach to learning – led to flashes of insight and challenging moments, which, in turn, might challenge how we think, teach about and take action on climate change. These were interwoven with both more conventional forms of learning about climate change (as the boys examined interactive maps that showed how much of the UK would become flooded if global temperatures continued to increase at the current rate) and behaviours that would challenge most of us (fights, misogynistic references to girls, constant attempts to undermine teachers). As I say, I am not seeking to romanticise these acts.

But a couple of vignettes stand out for me…

  • …as we walked through the community near the school, a local activist patiently pointing out trees recently planted to provide shade and mitigate the effects of Birmingham’s air pollution problem, one of the boys referring to the tree as a ‘gas-guzzling mother-fucker’…
  • …as we returned to school from the walk, in the middle of a session where the invited speaker was talking about the features of an eco-house, a group of boys suddenly decided to get out some Jenga blocks and build a huge tower, which they then proceeded to knock down, noisily, ‘like a tornado hit’…

…and these vignettes are just two of many, in which ‘challenging behaviours’ were entangled with challenges of and for climate change doxa, in all kinds of ways, opening out all kinds of questions. For instance, in the first, although the boys constantly swear, what are we to make of this kind of expletive-laden utterance? As Peter Kelly explores in a recent post, Greta Thunberg’s message is so striking because it counters a somehow fluffy, patronising, paternalistic sense in which adults must ‘give’ the next generation ‘hope’ for their future – something on which I’ve written at length elsewhere (Kraftl, 2008). Instead, the #climatestrikes are designed to disrupt, to shock, to draw attention to how awful things really are and could become. What, then, is the role of the expletive as part of this imperative?

Or, consider the role of play, imagination and small acts of violence, as in the destruction of the Jenga tower. Might we consider these small expressions of speculative fabulation (Haraway, 2016)? In particular, what if it became apparent that, that very same day, the boys had been learning about a tornado that hit the local area in 2005, causing millions of pounds worth of damage – in a country that is not prone to large numbers of destructive tornados, but where they and other forms of extreme weather are becoming increasingly common as temperatures continue to rise? In this context, the apparently silly, playful, impulsive, disruptive construction of the tower and its subsequent destruction might render a rather different challenge.

To repeat, my intention is not to celebrate any and all kinds of ‘challenge’. Rather, it is to raise questions about who is able to utter or perform a challenge, in and to the ways we think and act on climate change – and how.


Johnson, E. et al. 2014. After the Anthropocene: Politics and geographic inquiry for a new epoch. Progress in Human Geography, 38 pp 449-456.

Haraway, D.J., 2016. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Kraftl, P., 2008. Young people, hope, and childhood-hope. Space and Culture, 11(2), pp.81-92.

Taylor, A., 2019. Countering the conceits of the Anthropos: scaling down and researching with minor players. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp.1-19.

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