Victims, saviours or villains? Children in popular climate imaginaries

Victims, saviours or villains? Children in popular climate imaginaries

Catherine Walker

Fifteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg pulls no punches in calling out the world’s leaders on their inaction on climate change. “You say you love your children above all else, yet you are stealing their futures in front of their very eyes” she said to a packed auditorium at the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP24) in Katowice in December. Greta has become a familiar figure in the climate movement since beginning her school strike outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018. Her strikes inspired a nation-wide day of action in Australia in November, and have galvanised the global #fridaysforfuture movement.  Greta, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s and selective mutism at age 11, explained in a TEDx talk in Stockholm that she speaks only when she thinks it necessary. Calling out the world’s inaction on climate change, she continues, “is one of those times”.

Greta’s public addresses are laced with irony. One of her discursive techniques is to upturn ideas of ir/rationality and im/maturity and, by implication, their societal associations with adulthood and childhood. “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children” she said at COP24. Greta’s message is clear: the current generation of adult leaders are entirely irrational for not acting on growing evidence of the catastrophic impacts of human-induced climate change, and a new generation must act to change this.

Greta’s intervention demonstrates the exceptional moral currency of childhood in public debates. Talk of the new generation of climate activism’ sparked by Greta’s actions imagines children as the saviours of the climate movement. Yet Greta’s talk belies another powerful imaginary of children as victims. Greta’s phrase “stealing their futures” invokes how children, who have not caused the environmental chaos they are born into, will live for longest with the consequences. She is by no means alone in evoking children’s futures to make a case for urgent climate action. Shortly before the landmark COP21 summit in Paris, UN chief negotiator Christiana Figueres spoke of her children as the main motivation for her work: “I realised that I was turning over to my daughters […] a planet that had been diminished, by our carelessness, by our recklessness.”  Indeed, it is difficult to find a speech on climate change that doesn’t reference ‘future generations’ as the main rationale for action. Intergenerational justice is at the heart of climate change discourse.

And of course, this makes sense. Why else do we act if not for the sake of future generations?

Nonetheless, in the dual positioning of children as victims and saviours of climate change, the difficulties that children might encounter in reconciling these roles is underexplored. One area that allows for such exploration is children’s experiences of Education for Sustainable Development, which since the publication of the United Nations’ Agenda 21, has been routinely prioritised in the global sustainability policy toolkit.  The often unquestioned rationale of Education for Sustainable Development is that children become ‘agents of change’ by carrying environmental messages between schools and homes, thereby making household practices more sustainable.   As a UNICEF report entitled Our Climate, Our Children, Our Responsibility states, children’s own awareness of climate change is “the key to influencing wider household and community actions and, therefore, policy responses.” However, as colleagues and I found in our research into everyday family lives and environmental concerns in India and the UK, this envisaged role for children fails to take into account the generational positioning of children in family negotiations of practices underpinned by ideas of adult rationality, as well as the difficulties of changing practices that are shaped by various structural factors and constraints.

As I argue elsewhere, ‘children’s imagined role as ‘agents of change’ assumes a straightforward crossover between childhood’s symbolic power and children’s embodied and emotive ‘pester power’ in everyday life (Walker, 2017a). This is not borne out in practice. The problematic assumption that knowledge leads to action underpins the ‘behaviour change’ model central to many consumer-led climate policies. This model rests on the theory that greater knowledge of the environmental impacts of everyday behaviour will prompt ‘consumers’ into action, perhaps with some nudging by governments along the way. This model has been criticised by social scientists who use theories of practice to show how changing practices is more complicated than is acknowledged in many climate policies. But where does this model leave children when intensifying environmental education efforts doesn’t always lead to changed practices? And where children in industrialised countries consume resources at the same—or greater—rates as the adults lambasted by Greta, does that make children climate ‘villains’?

An alternative strand of environmental education agrees that children do not need more knowledge on environmental problems, but rather they need to learn to appreciate and value nature through spending more time outdoors. Here again children are presented as victims, this time of adult constraints. In this approach, critically appraised by geographers of childhood and youth,  reconnecting children to nature is seen as the key to nurturing concern for the environment, as well as solving a whole host of societal ills, from childhood obesity, to poor eyesight from ‘screen time’, to raised carbon emissions from indoor climate control and technological devices. This approach is presented in the 2012 National Trust report Natural Childhood, which draws on psychologist Richard Louv’s highly influential ‘nature deficit disorder’ theory. ‘Natural childhood’, Louv cautions, is giving way to sedentary, protected, indoor childhoods. Nonetheless, if children themselves do not conform to a ‘natural childhood’, it is easy for them to become stock villains of the environmental movement, preferring to spend time on an X-box than learning to appreciate nature.

This is not to deny the many problems of sedentary and unsustainable lifestyles for the health of both people and the planet, or the value of time spent outdoors. Yet instead of lamenting ‘nature deficit disorder’, perhaps we should be considering the reasons why some children do not spend much time outside. In many cities, the lack of green space is a frequent indicator of deprivation. Moreover, where green spaces do exist, nature is not universally kind. In my research into children’s everyday environmental concerns in India and England (Walker 2019), children’s stories of everyday life in India were populated by mosquitoes circulating around stagnant water, rabid dogs and deadly snakes hiding in trees and undergrowth. The limitations of romanticised understandings of both childhood and nature are discussed elsewhere in Affrica Taylor’s book Reconfiguring the Natures of Childhood, which analyses children’s ‘messy’ encounters with nature using what Taylor and others term a common worlds’ framework, that sees worlds as shared between humans and other forms of life.  An understanding of the messiness of human-environment relations is essential to avoid children becoming villains in what environmental philosopher Sheila Jasanoff terms ‘an impersonal, apolitical, and universal imaginary of climate change’ that ‘takes over from the subjective, situated and normative imaginations of human actors engaging with nature’.

So, beyond the stock figures of victim, villain or saviour, how can children contribute to moving humanity beyond the climate impasse? Reflecting on Greta’s extraordinary (and highly exceptional) rise to fame, I argue that it is by reminding humans to use our imaginations to think beyond our tangible present. Political psychologist Molly Andrews argues that the imagination underpins the everyday storytelling that helps us to make sense of the past, present and future.

What Andrews terms ‘the narrative imagination’ can be used to prompt action. In Greta’s speech at COP24 she imagines a scenario of telling her children and grandchildren in 2075 why leaders in 2018 did not act on climate change “when there was still time”. Talking to children about their environmental concerns in my research in India and England also generated a range of narratives of how climate change was and might further impact on their own and others’ lives—from drought and flooding, to species extinction, to speculating about going to live on the moon. Whilst these narratives often took place in times and places distant to their own lives, children demonstrated their imaginative capacities to make these times and places meaningful to themselves and their listeners. For example, one 12-year-old in London linked an abstract statistic to a familiar place in his present, saying ‘there are only six hundred Bengal tigers left in the world. That’s like double the amount of people in my school.’

Of course, imagination is not the recourse of children alone. However, children’s narratives teach us that we need to be more imaginative in how we think about, communicate and prompt action on climate scenarios. In a topsy-turvy world where adults’ lack of serious action gives rise to serious protest by children, imagination is not an object of fantasy. Rather, it is perhaps the greatest tool to get beyond the current climate impasse.

Phoenix, A., Boddy, J., Walker, C. and Vennam, U. (2017) Environment in the lives of children and families: Perspectives from India and the UK. Bristol: Policy Press
Walker, C. (2017a) “Embodying ‘the Next Generation’: children’s everyday environmental activism in India and England” Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences Vol. 12, Issue 1-2, pp. 13-26
Walker, C. (2017b) “Tomorrow’s Leaders and Today’s Agents of Change? Children, Sustainability Education and Environmental Governance” Children and Society, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp.172-83
Walker, C. (2019) “Environment and Children’s Everyday Lives in India and England: Exploring Children’s Situated Perspectives on Global-Local Environmental concerns” in Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, Michael Bourdillon & Sylvia Meichsner (Eds.) Global Childhoods beyond the North-South Divide. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.


Catherine Walker is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester and previously worked on the cross-national Family Lives and the Environment study, linked to the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods node NOVELLA (Narratives of Varied Everyday Lives and Linked Approaches). This article was developed from an invited presentation in January 2019 given at the Exploring Childhood Publics event, organised by the European Research Council- funded Connectors Study.

IMAGE CREDIT: Common Dreams UN Secretary General António Guterres seated next to 15-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg at UNFCC COP24. (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License).