As academics working to ameliorate the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction through education, we often question the efficacy of our efforts. As higher education teachers, we wonder: is our teaching helping students to envisage sustainable futures and their roles in realising those futures? As colleagues, we wonder: do our contributions encourage consideration for the natural environment in decision-making? As researchers, we wonder: do insights in our reports and papers seed ideas in the minds and conversations of policymakers or practitioners? And as individuals, we wonder: are our everyday practices in step with the sustainable futures we preach? Such questions have become the basis for much of our work.
In our latest paper – ‘Standing back or stepping up? Exploring climate change education policy influence in England’ (Greer, King & Glackin, 2023) – we report on a series of interviews with individuals in positions of influence relative to climate change education. We found that 23 out of 24 these (potential) influencers believed that education plays an important role in response to the crisis, but further analysis indicated that most of them were ‘standing back’ rather than ‘stepping up’ to influence.
In exploring the reasons for not ‘stepping up’ we found many instances of deference to bosses, to organisational priorities and to cultural norms. Interviewees explained that they were not in a position to rock the boat, or to step outside of expected practices given the precarity of their role or organisation. We understood; we, too, have felt hampered in our professional responses to the environmental crisis and constrained in our abilities to influence. But rather than viewing their deference as a weakness to be overturned, we sought to explore whether it might enable action and change. With climate activists occupying Waterloo Bridge in central London, just outside our door, we wondered whether quieter forms of activism have a role.
‘We, too, have felt hampered in our professional responses to the environmental crisis and constrained in our abilities to influence.’
Drawing on the work of El Khoury (2015) and O’Brien and colleagues (2018) we explored the potential of ‘infrapolitical dissent’ to work alongside deference as a lever for change. Infrapolitical dissent comprises ‘off-the-radar’ actions that can permeate norms and discourses to ‘dilute’ the status quo, creating environments where alternative ideas can develop. Infrapolitical actions can be discreet, understated and informal. As El Khoury (2015, p. 105) writes:
Infrapolitical activities are often the unsung tide of actions that enable, and are the underpinnings of, a visible, public transcript-registering breakthrough.
The concept of infrapolitical dissent accorded with the deferential tendencies that we observed among position-holders who recognise that directly confronting power is more likely to involve risking their position within power structures, and/or that of their organisation, than it is to bring about positive change. Rather, infrapolitical dissent can correspond with cautious and strategic relationship management that enables position-holders to maintain their position of (potential) influence. As we describe (Greer, King & Glackin, 2023, p. 17), it can take on a range of everyday forms:
Convening or turning up to meetings can change the dynamic at the table; engaging in casual conversations or political talk can seed ideas; fostering and prudently engaging with connections can swell the cohort of people who view themselves as responsible for and with capability to ‘step up’.
We go on to explain (Greer, King & Glackin, 2023, p. 17) the importance of infrapolitical dissent, as follows:
It amplifies the significance of a wider range of actions and individuals, highlights the influencing potential of informal actions undertaken by those individuals who operate from within the structures of power, and it can legitimise the covert and powerful work that position holders already do.
The idea of infrapolitical influence continues to be generative in our ongoing work. As teachers we have trialled pedagogical practices that prompt students to critically engage with the environmental crisis and their role in relation to it; as colleagues we challenge ourselves to introduce ideas and encourage others to experiment with new practices in response to climate change; and as researchers we continue to investigate questions in environmental education that defy easy answers. Just like more overt forms of activism, these quieter approaches to influence require commitment and energy, but we are encouraged when students engage with challenging new perspectives, or when we sense ideas and language that had previously felt awkward or out of place, landing more comfortably in our interactions with colleagues. We are also encouraged by connecting with others who are choosing to ‘step up’ in their everyday contexts to influence for changes that are needed in response to the environmental crisis.
This blog is based on the article ‘“Standing back” or “stepping up”? Exploring climate change education policy influence in England’ by Kate Greer, Heather King and Melissa Glackin, published in the British Educational Research Journal.
El Khoury, A. (2015). Globalization development and social justice: A propositional political approach. Routledge.
Greer, K., King, H., & Glackin, M. (2023). ‘Standing back’ or ‘stepping up’? Exploring climate change education policy influence in England. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3888
O’Brien, K., Selboe, E., & Hayward, B. M. (2018). Exploring youth activism on climate change: Dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous dissent. Ecology and Society, 23(3), 42–55. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10287-230342