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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Peter Kelly, Peter Kraftl, and their co-editors about their two edited collections on young people and the anthropocene

Our members, Peter Kelly (Deakin University, Australia) and Peter Kraftl (University of Birmingham, UK), talk about their two co-edited collections (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022):


Q: What are these two volumes about?

Both volumes aim to disrupt orthodoxies in and innovate for childhood and youth studies, in order to generate new ways of thinking, doing, and being that can broach the circumstances of what has become termed ‘the Anthropocene’. Rather than taking the latter as a stable, uncontested epoch or phenomenon, our co-editors, colleagues, and contributors offer diverse, creative, and unsettling ‘cuts’ through challenges such as climate change, environmental degradation, the ‘slow violence’ of toxic pollutants, and the ongoing crises of global capitalism – and the ways in which these and other forces impact children and young people, childhood and youth, and how we think about and tell stories of these. ‘Technologies’ aims to account for the less obviously bounded stuff – pollutants, chemicals, industrial ruins – that today’s children and future generations of children have been left to deal with by their ancestors.

Our colleagues and collaborators experiment with different modes of representation in order to consider new modalities for working with children and young people and of becoming attuned to the ways in which new configurations of human and non-human – ‘new normals’ – weigh upon children and young people in visceral and affective ways. ‘Stories’ presents a range of conceptually informed narrative accounts of children and young people’s ongoing entanglements with the multiple ‘crises’ of the Anthropocene. The authors use biographical narratives and arts-based methodologies to further the discussion surrounding young people’s well-being, resilience, and enterprise. Through these stories, they seek to critically engage with the literature on the Anthropocene and interrogate concepts such as agency, structure, and belonging.

Q: What made you initiate these volumes?

Along with many childhood and youth scholars, we have become concerned at the ways in which – despite decades of childhood and youth-focused research, policy, and advocacy – for many children and young people, the ‘dial has not shifted’. In many contexts, and intersecting with processes of marginalisation and minoritisation, children and young people remain some of the most vulnerable social groups – particularly to challenges and crises such as climate change, resource insecurity, violence, and social injustice. Current and future generations of young people are growing up with multiple, intersecting crises; meanwhile, young people themselves are – through activism and movements both local and global in scope – calling out these injustices.

We are part of a growing community of scholars, activists, practitioners, and artists who wish to both draw attention to the complexity of the compound challenges facing children and young people, and who are calling for new ways of doing childhood and youth studies that can broach those challenges. Such a response requires a disposition – individual and collective – that is at once generous, modest, caring, critical, unsettling, and (at least in small measure) hopeful. Inspired in part by feminist new materialist and posthuman thought, our aim is to decentre or move the individuated, exceptional human subject out of focus in order to witness our entanglements within the more-than-human world.

For the books, these commitments mean the coming-together and rubbing-together of diverse conceptual, methodological, political, and ethical orientations: no single perspective or discipline can ‘solve’ the crises of the Anthropocene that face children and young people, but neither is there a single solution that might magically emerge if everyone simply comes together. Yet it might – it must – be possible to generate loose alliances of scholars, activists, disruptors, practitioners, and leaders (including young people), who might work across global contexts whilst being attuned to the specificities of local places. Thus, these volumes offer provocations, juxtapositions, and experimentations in broaching technologies and stories of the Anthropocene that might enable us to work towards such an alliance.

As one possible way forward, and based partly on the connections fostered by the books, the Code Red Alliance (currently 20 leading researchers from 15 universities around the world) aims to leverage the existing work of ‘networked individuals’ into new, large scale applications to global philanthropic foundations in order to produce two key outcomes. The first is new models of childhood and youth – that promise to transform conversations and interventions so that children and young people can adapt to and live well with multiple forms of uncertainty. The second desired outcome is ethical innovation in projects concerned with education, work, digital tech, play/leisure, food (in)security, and young people’s participation, in order to promote new forms of intergenerational and interspecies justice. 

An excerpt from the books:

In August 2021, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres (2021) issued a press release coinciding with the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2021) Working Group 1 report Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The language used by Secretary-General Guterres in the press release is unequivocal:

Today’s IPCC Working Group 1 report is a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible. (emphasis added).

This language, and the science on which it is based, does not appear out of thin air – even if it continues to be widely dismissed by climate sceptics and fellow travellers as ‘alarmist’, even ‘wrong’. It emerges from a complex history over the last 50 years or so in which various individuals, scientists (social and physical), scientific bodies, international agencies, organisations (less so businesses and governments), and international agreements and treaties have gathered ‘evidence’, developed theories and arguments, and tried to respond to the increasingly apparent disruptive and profound changes to various earth systems, and to the organisms and structures and ecologies being transformed and threatened by these changes.

What the code red for humanity doesn’t reveal, or address, are the consequences for the other organisms that share the planet as a result of the crises that it identifies. It is a ‘human exceptionalist’ or Anthropocentric view of the crisis (Haraway 2016a). In this sense, the code red is both a powerful call-to-human-action, and a powerful example of the Anthropocentrism that continues to structure many of the stories that many humans tell about the planetary crisis that human actions have produced, and are producing and reproducing. It is a powerful example, therefore, of some of the limits of telling stories about the Anthropocene.

These collections emerge from a sense that we need to develop new practices for ‘troubling’ the ways in which young people and the environment relate with one another (Haraway, 2016a). This sense has a fundamentally generational inflection: one in which current and future generations of young people are being rendered responsible for and are being left to live with the environmentally-deleterious acts of previous generations (Kraftl, 2020; Skovdal and Benwell, 2021).

Scholars from a range of disciplines have increasingly come to talk of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a way of denoting the present environmental moment. The extraction and burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels, together with intensive industrialisation and large-scale agriculture, have left indelible deposits in the geological record. In particular, scientists concur that there is a clear link between the acceleration of Anthropocene change and the expansion of capitalism, especially since 1800 (Lewis and Maslin, 2015). However, the term ‘Anthropocene’ does not merely denote a geological epoch that is solidly grounded in scientific ‘fact’. Rather, the term has become mobile, contested and complicated (with many alternative terms being proposed), deployed across a range of disciplines as much as a provocation or opening for debate as an unequivocal diagnosis of our earthly condition (Morton, 2013). The reasons for this are at least four-fold, and each has implications for young people – and hence for the present volumes.

First, although the indicators of the Anthropocene are broadly globalising, the implications for diverse human populations are far from uniform (Swyngedouw and Ernstson, 2018). Thus, scholars have begun to ask and to theorise how experiences of and responses to the Anthropocene may play out across familiar lines of class, race, gender and ethnicity (Grosz 2011; Yusoff 2013, 2018). However, despite the vulnerability of children to human-induced earth-systems changes (e.g. UNICEF, 2014), and modes of action and activism designed to draw attention to those vulnerabilities (Walker, 2021), critical and detailed analyses of children’s and especially young people’s multi-faceted and diverse interactions with the Anthropocene remain fairly rare (Kraftl et al., 2020). Most broadly, therefore, these books are concerned with the implications of a potentially paradigmatic shift in thinking about the Anthropocene for the study of social difference and marginalised groups, such as young people.

Second, scholars have considered what the Anthropocene paradigm shift might mean for theorising the relationship between ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ (Tsing et al., 2021). There exist longstanding attempts to overcome the separation of ‘society’ and ‘nature’ (from deep green ecology to Actor-Network Theory; Hinchliffe 2007). Yet, as several scholars have argued, the Anthropocene thesis could take us beyond these approaches (Castree 2014). The Anthropocene could extend debates about global earth-systems change beyond conventional questions of climate change. Crucially, we would no longer simply address human ‘impacts on’ the environment; rather, the ineluctable entanglement of humans with and as earth processes (Johnson et al., 2014). Whilst humans have a demonstrable effect on the earth, the planet’s feedback loops (in climate change, flooding, desertification, erosion) are posing challenges at a scale and speed that humans are simply unable to keep up with – or engineer solutions to. Evidently, many of these debates are conditional; however, with a particular attention to broadly-understood technologies and stories of the Anthropocene, these volumes break new ground in posing, systematically researching, and theorising plausible ways in which young people’s lives, bodies, futures, aspirations and everyday interactions are entangled with artefacts of the Anthropocene epoch.

Third, the potential paradigm shift heralded by the Anthropocene has led to some highly critical debates about the term ‘sustainability’. The Anthropocene occasions an opportunity to reflect on the current model of predominantly capitalist industrial progress (Cook et al. 2015), where ‘sustainable development’, so entangled with neoliberal modes of governance, has maintained, if not exacerbated global environmental injustices (Raco 2007), especially through green technologies (Dalby 2014). Critics increasingly ask how else we might relate to the massive forces of geopower to propel, supercede and even destroy humanity. These critiques frame some important questions for this book, such as:

  • how can the Anthropocene paradigm move humans to “less noxious modes of production and consumption” (Bennett 2010: 111) than do notions of ‘sustainability’?;
  • how might the articulation of ‘smaller’, qualitative, wildly experimental (Lorimer and Driessen 2014; Taylor, 2020) or alternative (Kraftl 2015) narratives of children’s and young people’s everyday lives challenge the sometimes heroic technocentrism of many responses to global environmental change, from which groups like children and young people are often excluded, or in which they are directly exploited?;
  • and, most importantly: in light of these critiques, if discourses and practices of sustainability are so limited, to what extent must we create radically new models for relating children, young people and the environment – which exceed present foci on Education for Sustainability (Greenwood 2014; Taylor and Pacini-Ketchabaw 2015), children’s and young people’s environmental behaviours, and their responses to specific environmental threats?

Finally, a focus on childhood, youth and the Anthropocene requires not only conceptual and methodological experimentation, but new forms of scholarly collaboration and compilation. Despite advances in interdisciplinary childhood and youth research on energy, plastics and much besides (Kraftl, 2020), isolating the ‘impact’ of young people in the geological record is virtually impossible. Rather, a suite of experimental interdisciplinary techniques and conversations, carefully sourced and integrated from several disciplines, is best suited to articulating how young people’s everyday lives are entangled with/as the Anthropocene. Such an approach may require a re-programming of the very scientific techniques that have been critiqued for their Anthropocentrism to form part of alternative interdisciplinary stories about how children and young people interact with our planet’s changing systems. For example, Jamieson (2020: 228) suggests a need for scholarship in family studies and personal relationships to be better attuned to the challenge of climate change and the ‘theoretical melding of micro and macro, social and natural worlds’.  These books, then, open out and juxtapose a ‘litany’ of eclectic stories (Bogost 2012). It is in laying out alongside one another these diverse stories, from different parts of the earth, that these books should create effects and affects that may be defamiliarising, troubling, challenging, provocative, generative and, perhaps, even, inspiring.

Indeed, there, and here, it is not our intent to settle the Anthropocene ‘argument’ (Kunkel 2017), or to impose some sort of Anthropocene orthodoxy on our contributors. Yet, these collections emerge from a shared view that we need to develop new ways of ‘troubling’ orthodoxies of/in childhood and youth studies at a time when earth systems are in crisis. And in doing so, we feel that we have to try to name this time, these presents, these futures in ways that connects to wider discussions – in childhood and youth studies, and in those fields that might productively inform the work of childhood and youth studies.



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