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Environmental protest & education: ‘Something’s gone wrong somewhere’

Lynda Dunlop, Senior Lecturer in Science Education, University of York Lucy Atkinson, University of York Denise McKeown Maria Turkenburg-van Diepen

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the combustion of fossil fuels is the main contributor to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Young people in England cannot expect to learn much about this in their formal education: while the curriculum requires young people to learn about the impact of carbon dioxide by humans on the climate (in geography and science), the social and political causes of, and responses to, climate change do not feature. These absences have attracted the attention of Teach the Future, a youth-led campaign that calls for the repurposing of the education system around the climate emergency.

The role of young people in environmental activism has raised tricky questions for education, particularly where youth demands for environmental justice put them in conflict with the education system – a system which, according to many young people, is not providing an adequate climate education. In relation to school climate strikes, the National Association of Head Teachers has cited concerns for off-site safety and security, stating that, ‘It is every school leader’s first duty to keep children safe during school hours. They therefore cannot condone pupils leaving school premises to take part in protests…’. Those organising the climate strikes, on the other hand, interpreted safety over the longer term: ‘We feel that, facing a lethal ecological crisis, we as a generation must take direct action where the older generation has failed. As Greta Thunberg said, “You don’t have to school strike, it’s your own choice. But why should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more?”’. Environmental protest, then, presents challenges to young people, teachers and school leaders.  

‘Young people don’t take to environmental protest lightly, and given their preferences for ‘dutiful’ strategies of dissent, there is a place for teaching a broader range of methods of participating in politics.’

Our research (Dunlop et al., 2021) has found that young people don’t take to environmental protest lightly. Speaking to youth in schools and colleges in areas affected by the prospect of fracking for shale gas (a method of fossil fuel extraction), we found representations of protest as disruptive, divisive, extreme and less desirable than other forms of participation – even though there was consensus that a transition to renewables was favourable to fossil fuel extraction and use. Young people tended to see protest as ineffective in bringing about change but effective in awareness-raising. These representations – and preferences for more ‘dutiful’ forms of dissent – persisted despite the fact that there was widespread opposition to fracking, and anger and frustration about how decisions about fracking had been handled by the government. We found some evidence of anti-political sentiments from young people we spoke to, including negative attitudes towards formal politics and lack of trust in government.

Lawy and Biesta (2006) have argued for ‘learning democracy’ rather than ‘teaching citizenship’. We have to question what young people are learning about democracy through their experiences with fracking in their communities – whose interests are favoured, why and over what timescales? Our research on youth representations of environmental protest suggests a place for education to intervene in environmental and social justice. It is important that young people understand that there is currently a right for young people to participate in protest, so there is a place for teaching about the UN convention on the rights of the child and the UK human rights act (under both of which protest is protected). In citizenship, there is potential to discuss moves by the state to strengthen restrictions on protest through the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill 2021 – the justification for which has been set against the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests – when teaching how laws are made, shaped and enforced. Given youth preferences for ‘dutiful’ strategies of dissent, there is a place for teaching a broader range of methods of participating in politics – for example, using case studies of young people using the law to fight fossil fuel extraction in their communities. For example, Youth Verdict in Australia have used the law to object to coal mining in their community.

Schools have an important role in supporting young people and their teachers to respond to the climate crisis – a crisis that will require both individual and collective responses. We need educational spaces to deal with politics, and a broader policy context which welcomes and enables, rather than shuts down, political debate in schools.  


This blog is based in part on the article ‘Youth representations of environmental protest’ by Lynda Dunlop, Lucy Atkinson, Denise Mc Keown and Maria Turkenburg-van Diepen, published in the British Educational Research Journal on an open-access basis.


References

Lawy, R., & Biesta, G. (2006). Citizenship-as-practice: The educational implications of an inclusive and relational understanding of citizenship. British journal of educational studies, 54(1), 34–50. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8527.2006.00335.x

Dunlop, L., Atkinson, L., Turkenburg, M. G. W., & Mc Keown, D. (2021). Youth representations of environmental protest. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3737

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