Pedagogies of the climate activism space

Image credit: unsplash, Mika Baumeister, CC0

In this post, Lisa Howard provides a feminist reflection on the climate campaigning space, and her thoughts on how a gender critical perspective can advance climate action that does not inadvertently reproduce colonialist, patriarchal power relation. This post is part of our November and December Hot Topic theme: COP26 and embedding the climate emergency in our teaching.

I often feel that being a PhD researcher is a way of life rather than a job. As a sociologist, the curiosity and politics you develop as part of a critical social scientific journey do not just switch off along with your laptop at the end of the day. And for me, this way of life is brilliant and exciting because it means learning is a quotidian adventure.

This notion leads me to share with you my thoughts on just one of the many pedagogical spaces I’ve been able to enjoy now that the coronavirus restrictions on mobility have lifted. I recently joined a local environmental group (name withheld to protect identities) as I’ve been feeling increasingly desperate about the worsening climate and ecological crisis. Global leaders have for decades failed to bring about the rapid economic and regulatory change that this situation demands, and with the upcoming COP26 climate summit and critical attention on the UK, it felt like a good time to get involved.

Within a few short weeks, taking part in organising action for COP26 has taught me a lot about how people work together at the local level to address global problems. Scholars have long argued for the merits of experiential learning in addressing pressing social problems, proposing that civic engagement is a learning space that is “rooted in problem based, reflective, ‘deep learning’ pedagogies of empowerment, transformation, critical thinking and social participation” (O’Connor et al., 2011, p. 106). In particular, learning through “affective domains” (ibid, page 71) is an idea that resonates with me, as I reflect on intersecting issues that flow from my own subjectivity. What follows are my feminist reflections on the climate campaigning space, and what I feel could be learnt from a gender critical perspective to advance climate action that does not inadvertently reproduce colonialist, patriarchal power relations.

During group meetings and other interactions with this climate action group I have observed hallmarks of what scholars Jody Chan and Joe Curnow (2017, p.79)  might refer to as men ‘doing white masculinity’ through the performance of ‘climate expertise’. It became clear to me early on that certain individuals in the group were drawing on ‘malestream norms’ of hegemonic masculinity, that is – asserting authority and leadership through ‘expertise talk’. This ‘expert identity’ (Pulé & Hultman, 2021) shaped decision-making via a subtle dismissal of others’ ideas that did not fit with the male expert’s own opinion on the matter. Concurring with Chan and Curnow’s research findings of environmental movement groups (2017), I found that these self-designated male authority figures carved out their space through verbose time-hogging, dominating the conversation by speaking louder, more frequently and for longer. Masculinised men are more used to being listened to than those who align with more feminised norms, and I found this to be the case even when useful conversational input came from the less dominant members of the group. At other times, for example within informal conversations with male activists, I often experienced ‘mansplaining’ about the science of climate change, displaying assumptions that I had little knowledge on the subject.

The online space did not prove to be any easier in evading hegemonic masculinised ‘expert identities’. On one occasion a chorus from several men in a chat group was directed at me, asserting the need to engage with trolls on Facebook to “tell them the facts” about climate after I had suggested such interactions encouraged unproductively aggressive escalation. In their interactions with me – knowing I was a woman – this gang of ‘experts’ failed to consider the disproportionate level of abuse that women experience on social media.

Our climate and ecological crisis is rooted in interlocking systems of classist, racist, sexist, colonialist, ableist, homophobic, and anthropocentric domination (Macgregor, 2017; Malin & Ryder, 2018). Research has found that mainstream environmental groups reflect and reinforce the social privilege of White people, and particularly White men, through implicit bias, and low levels of engagement with diversity and environmental justice concerns (Paperson, 2014). The behaviours I observed were rewarded socially when they resulted in ideas being adopted by the group, and by people turning up for activities that these white, able-bodied men had steered. This suggests that it is not just the malestream norm performers who are reproducing patriarchy, but also the rest of us in the group who accept and uphold gendered norms.

So other than understanding how gendered norms play a part in the tackling of global issues at the grassroots level, what else can be learned? The great critical educator Paulo Freire (1976) would advocate learning as a political and moral “practice of freedom” towards social justice and change. I reflected on the low-level anger I felt at the gender inequity of some of the activist micro-interactions, and this experiential learning has made me critically reflect on my own social position. Seeing (and hearing and feeling) masculinised expert identities operating in the on and offline spaces enabled me to imagine other relations of control, power and privilege, such as those of class, race and ability. The environmental movement has long been critiqued for its largely white, middle class membership. There are likely to be exclusionary micro-practices that I am part of, and helping to reproduce, and my pedagogical foray into this activism space has made me determined to incorporate an ethic of intersectional justice into my future campaigning practices, within and beyond this climate action group.


Chan, J., & Curnow, J. (2017). Taking Up Space: Men, Masculinity, and the Student Climate Movement. In S. MacGregor & N. Seymour (Eds.), Men and Nature : Hegemonic Masculinities and Environmental Change.

Freire, P. (1976). Education: The Practice of Freedom. Writers and Readers Ltd.

Macgregor, S. (2017). Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Malin, S. A., & Ryder, S. S. (2018). Developing deeply intersectional environmental justice scholarship. Environmental Sociology, 4(1), 1–7.

O’Connor, K. M., Lynch, K., & Owen, D. (2011). Student-community engagement and the development of graduate attributes. Education and Training, 53(2), 100–115.

Paperson, L. (2014). A ghetto land pedagogy: An antidote for settler environmentalism. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 115–130.

Pulé, P. M., & Hultman, M. (2021). Men, Masculinities, and Earth : Contending with the (m)Anthropocene (Pulé, Paul). Palgrave Macmillan.

Lisa Howard

Lisa Howard is a third year Sociology doctoral researcher, exploring parent-led intergenerational climate justice activism in the UK. In addition, she is currently working on a six-month Research Fellow post which is looking at ideas around citizens’ trust in the City of Edinburgh’s Net Zero 2030 strategy.

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