Climate change and childhood

Climate change and childhood


Dr Richard C. Mitchell, Professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University, celebrates the work of youth climate activists and advocates for a transdisciplinary approach to education.


Read more about his research here:



Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening and joining us today. In this episode we will be looking at the work of Dr Richard C. Mitchell, Professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in Canada. He celebrates the work of youth climate activists and advocates for a transdisciplinary approach to education.

In a British television interview in June 2020, Swedish school student Greta Thunberg said that the world had reached a tipping point where social injustices could no longer be ignored.

By linking the three most significant issues of our time – climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter protests – the teenaged activist helped raise their profile among millions of people, particularly among her international peers.

It’s just two years since Greta Thunberg began her Fridays for Future school strikes to draw attention to the threat of climate change. She has since attracted phenomenal media coverage, and become a new global voice for the environmental movement.

No stranger to speaking truth to power, she was just 16 when she addressed the UN’s Climate Action Summit. She told world leaders they were not “mature enough to tell it like it is” and added: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”

Though Greta Thunberg is perhaps the best-known, she is only one of millions who have emerged as effective agents for environmental change attracting youth activists around the world, particularly from global South regions. One of her contemporaries from Mexico is Indigenous activist Xiye Bastida-Patrick who helped organize the climate strike in New York after welcoming Greta Thunberg to the city in September, 2019. They both addressed the United Nations that same month, as well as attending the COP25 climate conference in Madrid last December. Xiye Bastida-Patrick shared the work of her non-governmental organization during both summits.

Canadian Indigenous teenager Autumn Peltier has also addressed the UN on the subject of water protection. With startling simplicity, she told her audience that “we can’t eat money or drink oil”. Like Thunberg, Autumn Peltier has also spoken at the World Economic Forum’s 2020 meeting in Davos, Switzerland where all three advocated for young climate activists of colour to be more fully represented in media.

These conscious, articulate and powerful young women are acting far more intelligently, decisively and maturely than many adults in authority. Cutting through the noise to what really matters, they represent an unprecedented demonstration of true global citizenship.

So, what can we learn from the way young activists like Thunberg, Bastida-Patrick and Peltier are reaching their peers by calling adults in authority to greater account?

The phenomenon they represent has attracted the research imagination of Dr. Richard Mitchell, a childhood and youth studies educator from Brock University in Canada.

He believes that to engage more young people in the world in a similar way, we need to re-evaluate our teaching, research and professional practice with children and young people. We must also transform our educational institutions, and with greater humility listen closely to the views and voices of young people who are leaving their classroom for the streets throughout the world.

In particular, Mitchell advocates rejecting the prevailing western approach to education that presents knowledge in subject silos. Instead we should teach across subject boundaries, bringing together knowledge and skill sets from across the disciplinary continuum to resolve myriad interconnected problems of the 21st century.

Known as “transdisciplinarity”, this holistic and cross-pollinating approach to educational reform can be traced back 50 years to the work of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, French sociologist Edgar Morin, and Austrian astrophysicist Erich Jantsch.

The great benefit of this approach is that students learn not only separate packets of information, but also what matters for the sake of our collective life on earth.

It’s an approach that helps young people to look at the world holistically and consider the connections between all things. For example, in her recent television interview Greta Thunberg emphasized the concept of social justice is also central to understanding the climate crisis, coronavirus pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Mitchell points out that transdisciplinarity would also benefit adults and politicians. This is particularly the case in the UN’s efforts to build a global partnership for sustainable development and to achieve its 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

The goals recognise that ending poverty, hunger and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality and spur economic growth without destroying shared ecosystems. None of these can be achieved in isolation and they must all be addressed while we tackle climate change and work to preserve our planetary environment for future generations.

And what else must we do to ensure that the work of young activists like Thunberg, Bastida-Patrick, and Peltier receives the attention and respect it deserves?

In addition to re-evaluating our formal interactions with children and young people and transforming our educational institutions, Mitchell believes we must rethink what we value as knowledge. In particular, we should teach that there are different ways of understanding, including Indigenous world-views which value the interconnectedness and interdependency of all forms of life.

This is crucial in colonial settler societies where Indigenous people have resisted the enforced acceptance of western belief systems. Education systems need to recognise that traditional knowledge also holds sophisticated insights and takes different approaches to problem-solving.
There have been many initiatives in Canada to “decolonise education”, in particular, the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission that recommended Canadians “hear with new ears” in order to allow change to happen on personal and societal levels.

According to Mitchell, we are missing flexible and related ways of thinking and organizing that foreground the centrality of interconnected relationships between human beings, nature, and our so-called school “subjects”.

We could learn much from approaches to education that Indigenous peoples throughout the world have practised for millennia, and which allow for the development of the whole person.

Yet school systems in Canada, like those in Britain and most of the world, are still based on Eurocentric 18th century assumptions about learning. As the Black Lives Matter protests have urged, we need to change what we teach young people, face difficult truths about our histories, and seek justice for those experiencing oppression.

But is it only elementary schools or do universities also have to change?

The transdisciplinary, decolonialised approach to education advocated by Dr. Mitchell and others doesn’t only have implications for schools. Universities must also find ways to take into account the extreme complexity of the 21st century. Critical problems like climate change, or threats to shared water systems, cannot be solved by thinking and working in traditional silos.

To respond to such urgent planetary problems – problems that threaten young people’s futures – researchers in every field must contribute something relevant and new. The structures that exist in all levels of education, as well as in politics and business, are based on outmoded industrial age thinking.

Researchers could learn from a transdisciplinary approach. In the same way that quantum physics looks beyond Newtonian principles and linear logic, transdisciplinary approaches can do the same for a wide range of topics. Knowledge from diverse fields is essential to predict complex systems such as weather, families or local and global societies.

Our dominant western educational and developmental paradigms often miss what is essential. We must therefore change how we think, because the crises we face do not play by the old rules.

As philosopher and religious thinker Jeffrey Kripal, from Rice University in Texas, advocates, we have to “flip” our consciousness, rethink how knowledge is produced, and reintegrate humanities with the social and traditional sciences. We must no longer bow to the “fetishization of quantity”.

For the sake of generations to come, universities as well as schools must find ways to take into full account our growing interdependence and complexities of the 21st century. We need to embrace multiple ways of knowing if we are going to respectfully face and care for the children and youth of the world today and provide for those in future generations.

And if we think about those young people of today for a moment, what is it that makes them different?

Mainstream understanding of what it means to be a child or young person is inadequate to understand what young activists like Thunberg, Bastida-Patrick and Peltier are saying, doing and what they are about.

Mitchell believes they are paying attention to science in ways that governments and business people have dangerously ignored. They represent a very different kind of understanding and a new form of consciousness than we have seen previously.

They are intelligent enough in a time of unprecedented complexity and change to be listening to the right voices in terms of the science that tells us we are destroying our planet. They are also connected, thanks to internet technology and social media, in ways that humans have never been connected before.

Together, they have had an impact in more than 170 countries around the world. But they are just the tip of the iceberg, as they have mobilised millions of young people, especially in the global South.

Perhaps because of this, there has also been a backlash. For example, defensive adult critics have vilified Greta Thunberg because of her Asperger’s diagnosis and suggested that her criticism of economic systems is invalid if she has no comprehensive solution.

She has also been derided by a number of powerful world leaders who display the kind of ignorance that prohibits change and keeps us from protecting the environment. This is despite such leaders being signatories to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which demands that we pass on to young people what is rightfully theirs – a healthy world and a healthy environment.

Our societies are failing and young people all over the world are calling adults out. It’s the job of adults – as educators, parents, corporate leaders and politicians – to hear what they say and to act. We must also listen in radically new ways with the eyes and ears of young people where all individuals and societies are respected and in dialogue.

Our shared world faces a collective existential climate crisis and we must shift to a planetary perspective. Young activists like Thunberg, Bastida-Patrick and Peltier represent a new level of global consciousness-raising that is both inspirational and optimistic. We fail to take note of what they are saying and what they stand for, at our peril.

That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science. See you again soon.

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