State education, petro-pedagogy and Environmental Justice

By Haira Gandolfi on behalf of and with support from the EEJ steering group (Mollie Baker, Elsa Lee, Taylor Hughson, Mary Murphy, Alexandre da Trindade and artist Rachel Wooller) and with thanks to Stuart Tannock (UCL Institute of Education).

Throughout this academic year the Education and Environmental Justice (EEJ) steering group has been engaging with a wide range of conversations about the relationships between educational systems, environmental issues and social justice. In our previous blog post, Elsa Lee started this wave of diffractive thinking for our group by exploring the place of race in learning about environmental behaviours.  In our second set of reading group + seminar sessions, we delved into the links between environmental justice and state education through an exploration of the notion of ‘petro-pedagogies’. This concept was first proposed by Emily M. Eaton and Nick A. Day in 2019/2020 to make sense of their findings[i] around teaching practices and resources about climate change, energy, and environmentalism found in the state educational system of Saskatchewan, Canada. The authors propose that ‘petro-pedagogies’ encompass recurrent teaching practices and resources that “work to centre, legitimize, and entrench a set of beliefs relating to climate change, energy, and environmentalism that align with the interests and discourses of oil industry actors” (Eaton & Day, 2020, p. 458).

These petro-pedagogies promote specific views on environmental issues that are dissociated from global perspectives and systemic aspects, such as the role of corporate power and geopolitics in the climate crisis. That ends up creating what the authors link to a ‘regime of obstruction’, which restricts young people’s (and our) understanding of the links between these environmental issues, social concerns and inequalities, and political decision-making processes, thus preventing the wider society from re-imagining and taking action towards a different world on a large scale – e.g. a post-carbon economy. Among the specific ‘set of beliefs’ promoted by these petro-pedagogies, they identified:

  • A focus on people’s (e.g. students) own individual subjectivities, centring discussions about causes and solutions for climate change (and other environmental emergencies) on an individual level, such as personal choices related to consumption (e.g. greener products, recycling), conservation activities (e.g. building bird houses, planting trees), etc.
  • A ‘bias-balanced’ approach to discussions around environmental crisis, one that values oil industry’s input on the issue for the sake of taking a ‘neutral stand’ and ‘accounting for multiple perspectives’.
  • A ‘no-simple solution’ discourse coupled with a focus on the benefits of fossil fuels to modern life and ‘pros and cons’ discourses (e.g. around fossil fuel divestment).

But how do these petro-pedagogies find their way into state education? Eaton and Day suggest that the defunding of state education that has been systematically happening in different countries opens up space for corporate powers with vested interest in controlling public’s engagement with environmental issues to enter this system with the offer of financial and material support, such as professional development programmes for teachers, teaching resources, etc.[ii]

Bringing this closer to the UK, we also engaged with other readings[iii], [iv] that identified specific strategies through which the specific set of beliefs about environmental issues promoted by petro-pedagogies have entered state education around here: from specific set of expected teachers’ behaviours around discussions about politics and support to (youth) activism in the form of the Teachers’ Standards document, to direct input by fossil fuel companies into the UK educational landscape – through support to, for instance, teaching and learning initiatives & networks; curriculum development; and educational research. 

The artwork seen here – called Mission Creep – was produced by the artist Rachel Wooler as a response to our readings and discussions around these petro-pedagogies. More specifically, it represents how educational ideas and strategies promoted by corporations involved in exploitation of natural resources have become entrenched in state education through certain teaching practices, resources, and views on the geopolitical and justice angles around environmental issues: a regime of obstruction happening quietly and from the inside, through the occupation of educational spaces and discourses. 

Image 1: Mission Creep 2021. By Rachel Wooller, Commissioned by EEJ. Materials: plant root and yarn. About this, Rachel says: “Mission Creep is about the insidious nature of oil and gas companies’ involvement in schools and their attempt to influence young minds, hence the yarn winding around the roots of a young plant.”

As part of our work on this topic, we invited one of these UK-based researchers in our EEJ seminar: Stuart Tannockfrom the UCL Institute of Education. Stuart’s wider academic work involves, among other things, this kind of investigation around the links between state education and regimes of obstruction, of which petro-pedagogies are an exemplary case, as he argues in one of his latest publications “The oil industry in our schools: from Petro Pete to science capital in the age of climate crisis[v]. During this conversation with Stuart, we talked about how petro-pedagogies in the UK and more widely share a common depoliticised approach to, for instance, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Education: one that avoids bringing a social justice and action angle to students’ engagement with questions around exploitation of natural resources, scientific & technological development, and environmental issues, instead framing our current scenario of environmental emergencies as one purely linked to a view of physical & natural sciences as areas disconnected from geopolitics, economy and wider social complexities.

Expanding on this point, we also briefly explored how these strategies of ‘restriction of imagination’ and ‘obstruction of socio-political’ discussions are also classic tropes of (neo)colonial endeavours, including how they deal with (and justify) exploitation of natural (and human) resources for the sake of scientific, technological, and social ‘development’[vi]. Haira Gandolfi, for our EEJ group, contributed to this reflection by drawing on her recent publication on Decolonial Science Education[vii], highlighting how the physical & natural sciences in general have been historically depoliticised and emptied of their socio-cultural roots within the field of STEM Education. This field has been especially prolific in promoting an acritical perspective about exploitation and uses of natural resources, with a stark absence of discussions about the legacies of ‘physical and natural sciences’ and of ‘naturalist travels’ to epistemic, environmental, and social injustices in former and current (neo)colonies in the Global South.

Devoid of these considerations about the complex links between environment, society, and scientific knowledge & development, an analysis of ‘pros and cons’ of individual decisions can then be more easily correlated with impact on the natural world, since we are now dealing with physical & natural sciences through the absence (or invisibility?) of those more complex, ‘difficult to control’ variables of socio-political nature. And if individual decisions (instead of socio-political ones) can be ‘shown’ to have a direct link to solutions for our current environmental issues, then what would be point of pushing for wider social changes such as national divestment from fossil fuels or more environmentally just policies and geopolitical strategies?

A critical question that we discussed in relation to these readings, was the role of the teacher/educator who is faced with the kinds of resources that are made available to schools in this way. Skilled teachers who have been capacitated to handle these very difficult questions in the classroom will act as mediators between children, parents, commercial multinationals and government policy. Recognition of the complexity of this task is paramount if we as knowledge producers and teacher educators in the academe are going to be able to contribute to responding to the questions being raised by young people everywhere.

This question of environmental justice and obstruction to action is one that has been permeating the work we have been doing here in the EEJ group, and in our following sessions we will continue those discussions. In the next set of events, we look into the specific case of Higher Education institutions to reflect, for instance, on whether and how these regimes of obstruction to wider and more comprehensive engagement with environmental issues and action (in administration, teaching, researching) can also be found within our work in neoliberal universities. And we are excited to continue working with Rachel Wooller as a way of revealing our developing ideas and discussions in creative forms.

[i] Eaton, E. M., & Day, N. A. (2020). Petro-pedagogy: fossil fuel interests and the obstruction of climate justice in public education. Environmental Education Research, 26(4), 457-473.

[ii] More on this here: Fontdevila, C., A. Verger, & M. Avelar. (2019). The Business of Policy: A Review of the Corporate Sector’s Emerging Strategies in the Promotion of Education Reform. Critical Studies in Education, 1-16.

[iii] Dunlop, L., Atkinson, L., Stubbs, J. E., & Diepen, M. T. V. (2020). The role of schools and teachers in nurturing and responding to climate crisis activism. Children’s Geographies, 1-9.

[iv] Tannock, S. (2020). The oil industry in our schools: from Petro Pete to science capital in the age of climate crisis. Environmental Education Research, 26(4), 474-490.

[v] See endnote iv.

[vi] de Sousa Santos, B. (2015). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Routledge. 

[vii] Gandolfi, H. E. (2021). Decolonising the science curriculum in England: bringing decolonial science and technology studies to secondary education. The Curriculum Journal.

Categories: Tags: , ,