‘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.

Entangling plastics and childhoods in the Anthropocene

The broadcast of David Attenborough’s flagship BBC television programme Blue Planet II has heightened our attention to plastics, especially in the UK. The final progamme in that series documented some of the damage that plastics are doing to the world’s oceans. Plastics have come to dominate environmental discourses to the extent that some environmental campaign groups have called for a re-balancing – given equally (or perhaps more) pressing problems such as climate change, desertification, flooding and the like.

Whatever the relative risk posed by plastics, one of the things that I struggle with is how we might (or might not), or should (or should not) seek to connect plasticky practices, discourses, materialities and processes with childhoods. As soon as one includes ‘children’ and ‘plastics’ in the same sentence, a range of images comes to mind, especially in the Minority Global North: of LEGO; of dolls; and, especially, of the range of claims about the artificiality or disappearance of contemporary childhoods. My question – which forms part of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship called Plastic Childhoods – is to ask how else children and plastics are entangled.

In particular, I want to cut through some of the sensationalist coverage of children, and of plastics, and of children and plastics. I will do this through a range of methods that involve, to an extent, what Spyros Spyrou (2017) has provocatively termed a ‘de-centring’ of children from an analysis of childhood. I have argued that this kind of move might mean thinking beyond childhood (and youth) studies’ insistent focus upon children’s voice, agency and politics – although not at all meaning that we should dismiss our commitment to working with children. Practically, in my current project, this means, for instance, exploring the emergence of terms and images associated with childhood and plastics in social media networks. It also means an analysis of the literal presence of plastics (and especially micro- and nano-plastics) in children’s everyday environments and their bodies. Simultaneously, however, I bring children back into the equation by using the social media analyses in workshops with groups of secondary school students, and by involving those students in the collection, analysis and interrogation of the nano-plastics.

This urge to decentre children and young people is becoming increasingly widespread in writings on, from and beyond the Anthropocene, and particularly those that deploy new materialist philosophies. Although I think any decentring must be done with the greatest possible ethical, political and emotional care – and should not, in my view, be done solely for intrinsic reasons – I do believe that this move can be a progressive one that asks us to think and, especially, to write differently about childhoods. It can also encourage us to look elsewhere for traces of childhood that usually lie beyond our radar as childhood or youth studies scholars.

As an example, think of the massive oceanic trash ‘vortices’ that are gathering, circulating and dissipating in the world’s oceans. These vortices contain an amorphous mass of plastics, as well as woods, metals, vegetation, feathers, and marine life both living and dead. They have become – aesthetically, affectively – emblematic of our plastic problem. Take an image like the one below, taken from a video during a boat ride in the Caribbean (full video available here: https://boingboing.net/2017/11/20/boaters-stumble-on-massive-car.html)

figure 3. what

The video was taken on a tourist boat ride. At one point – as the music blares and the boat drifts through the vortex – a female American voice sounds from off-camera. She begins to list off a range of objects, whilst others are visible on-screen. Plastics – and, on occasions, the plastics constitutive of especially Western childhoods – are prominent: sandals, dolls, toy cars, bottles… . For me, watching and listening to the video is reminiscent of Bruno Latour’s (2005) analysis of the effects and affects produced by listing. As he argues, listing renders the most quotidian and taken-for-granted objects somewhat distant. That distance may be created by the listing (the cataloguing) done by trained professionals – the distance create by archaeological excavation and display, for instance. Or, in this case, that distance is created by a voice calmly and somewhat monotonously listing a range of everyday (childhood) objects encountered during what no doubt started out as an idyllic cruise off the coast of Honduras.

Watching this video raises a number of questions: both in terms of my immediate interest in childhood and plastics; and in terms of where, when and how we do childhood and youth studies. At present I don’t – and, I suspect, as a community, we don’t – have all the answers to these questions. Given the occasional emergence and/or absent presence of children (or, at least, objects associated with some kinds of childhoods), is this trash vortex a legitimate site for childhood and youth studies? Since they range from the very tiny (nano) the very large (planetary): how do we conceptualise and study the scales of plastics, as they become entangled with childhoods, when childhood and youth studies scholars scalar range is usually far more limited? How can we or should we seek to integrate children’s ‘voice’, ‘agency’, ‘politics’, ‘rights’ (etcetera) into analyses of phenomena like oceanic trash vortices? And, how can or should we link up objects/spaces like trash vortices with other objects/spaces of contemporary childhoods: toy factories; garbage heaps where some children work; bedrooms; digital technologies…? These questions could form starting points that might enable a broader and more critical interrogation of children’s entanglements with plastics, and I look forward to ideas, discussion and critiques as to how we might move forward in addressing them.


Kraftl, P., 2013. Beyond ‘voice’, beyond ‘agency’, beyond ‘politics’? Hybrid childhoods and some critical reflections on children’s emotional geographies. Emotion, Space and Society, 9, pp.13-23.

Spyrou, S. (2017) Time to decenter childhood? Childhood. 24:  433-437.