Making the Other Through Good Intentions

  • Malin Ideland
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Education and the Environment book series (PSEE)


This chapter is an introduction to the book, describing the aim, empirical data and theoretical framework. Since the book seeks to problematize the incontestability of Environmental and Sustainability Education (ESE) and how to be an environmentally friendly student (the eco-certified child), it departs from Foucault’s thoughts on how discourses organize how it is possible to live in a certain context and how “kinds of” desirable and undesirable people are made inside these discourses. Ultimately the book aims to shed light on what is “into the bargain” with good intentions to create a sustainable society; how the idea of a common future in fact makes distinctions between social classes, races, and nationalities. The chapter outlines how these analyses are done from theories deconstructing normality and the Other.


Environmental and Sustainability Education Foucault The Other 

Mmmm, cotton candy. Yummy. Maybe not as tasty as Fairly Nuts or Vermonster, but very good. I am in the “taste room” at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in Vermont, USA. It is the last stop (before the obligatory souvenir shop), and the peak of the guided tour of the factory. The ice cream tastes amazingly good, and even better when I take a closer look at the walls of the room. On them hang paintings and posters with the company’s slogan: Peace, Love and Ice Cream. I read: “We strive to minimize our negative impact on the environment, from cow to cone” and “We seek to support nonviolent ways to achieve peace & justice.” It is not only the ice cream that is good—maybe one can become good through eating it? Through something so simple as a conscious choice of ice cream, it seems possible to contribute to saving our threatened environment and to fight against social injustices. Good that we went by plane from Sweden to the USA, drove to Vermont and experienced this!

Ben & Jerry’s is in many ways an exemplary company. Their tasty ice creams are not just organically produced and fair-trade certified. Besides the fact that the company has been involved in a number of social justice projects, in the home state of Vermont as well as in other places in the world. During 2015 they launched the ice cream cone Save our Swirled with the aim of highlighting climate change. While finishing the writing of this book, they engaged in the Swedish and EU political debate about refugees and for more generous rules for asylum. Their trademark is a symbol of the possibility of humane and sustainable business (Edmondson, 2014).

Certainly, the world needs more companies like this. But one can also understand Ben & Jerry’s as a symbol of how the solution to complex sustainability and environment issues has been culturally translated into individual consumption choices. Laws seem out of fashion; instead it is up to you and me to become knowledgeable about problems and solutions and to make sustainable choices, like buying sustainable ice cream. Michel Foucault (1980) wrote that we need to understand power in this kind of society as if the king’s head has been cut off. Governing and exercise of power does not just happen through state government, but through people’s souls and their will to feel and appear normal. As will be discussed later, this means that the individual’s intentions, actions and feelings become entangled with global environmental problems.

Back to the ice cream. The website YouthXChange, which is supported by the United Nations organizations UNESCO and UNEP as well as business corporations, suggests a number of ways for youngsters to contribute to a better world. One suggestion is to buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream under the heading: Ice Cream with a Mission:

The company has a progressive, non-partisan social mission that seeks to meet human needs and eliminate injustices in local, national and international communities by integrating these concerns into their day-to-day business activities. The company’s focus is on children and families, the environment and sustainable agriculture on family farms. (

In my home country Sweden a 0.5 liter can of this ice cream costs around 60 kronor, which means around 7 US dollars. In other words: the United Nations, as a symbol and an organization, is used to promote an ice cream brand which is as tasty as it is expensive. How can that be possible? To be able to understand this one needs to understand the context. The platform YouthXChange is a part of a global educational reform. In 2014 the United Nations’ decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) 2005–2014 came to an end ( After that the Global Action Plan (GAP) was initiated ( This pedagogical discourse and practice, which today mostly is referred to either as Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) or as Environmental and Sustainability Education (ESE) has its roots in environmental education (EE) in the 1960s and 1970s.1 During the early nineties, the environmental debate was widened and put into a context of social and economic factors. The notion of sustainable development became a symbol of our time. In Our Common Future , also known as the Brundtland Report, sustainable development was described as follows: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, 1987). To put it briefly, it is a matter of using the earth’s resources responsibly, and striving for a more equal society. Social and economic development for “everyone”—with ecological sustainability—is an important goal. There is criticism both against the development paradigm and against the way that social and economic factors are assessed as ecological, particularly in the research field of education for sustainability (e.g. Jickling & Wals, 2008; Kopnina, 2012). As a result, people talk of ESE rather than ESD, stressing Education and Environment rather than Development. This brings in the broad sustainability perspective, while simultaneously emphasizing the ecological problems and toning down the development discourse. In this book, I will use the term ESE for the same reason.

Education has been held up as an important tool for achieving a sustainable society. The idea was—and still is—that everybody can help, that the world can be saved with the aid of education, engagement, and a will to do the right thing. Children and adolescents—and also adults—should therefore be educated and socialized in new lifestyles, demanding ecological, economic, and social sustainability. What this means in purely concrete terms is harder to define. As pointed out by several scholars (e.g. Bengtsson & Östman, 2013; González-Gaudiano, 2005; Gough & Scott, 2006; Hillbur, Ideland, & Malmberg, 2016), ESD, and ESE are “slippery” concepts. This makes them receptive to political and societal changes. They can be given meaning depending on how, when, and where they are used and work as “an airport hub for meaning making” (Mannion, Biesta, Priestley, & Ross, 2011, p. 444). This is clear in the way that “sustainability” is used by companies in their codes of behavior or in justifications of political decisions, in applications for research funding, or in selling products. Sustainability is not merely a political will; it is also a symbol which means that the United Nations can be used to advertise a brand of ice cream in an educational context, under the cover of saving the world. Sustainable development cannot be contested. Who could be against working for sustainability?

This book aims to problematize the incontestability of sustainable development and the notion of being an environmentally friendly person in general, and a pupil in particular. I want to discuss from a critical standpoint how the talk of sustainable development and environmental consciousness—in school and in society—construct and maintain a cultural theses for the desirable child; the eco-certified child. I also wish to problematize how this construction of the normal, desirable child simultaneously single out individuals and groups as problems—as the dangerous population. Does the understanding of the dangerous population really have anything to do with the effects of lifestyles on the environment? Or is it a matter of other social categories, for example, to do with class, race, and nationality? Ultimately the book aims to shed light on what we get “into the bargain” with our good intentions to create a sustainable society. How can we understand that the idea of a shared world and a common future actually serves to make distinctions—between people, age groups, social classes, races, and nationalities?

The book is an outcome of a research project at Malmö University, funded by the Swedish Research Council: “The Eco-certified Child: On Subject Constructions in Education for Sustainable Development.”2 The project explored cultural understandings of what environmentally friendly people are supposed to be like, in teaching material and policy texts aimed at school and preschool, and how the image of what was named “the eco-certified child” simultaneously (re)produces class-specific, racial and national norms. Distinctions are made—unintentionally—between people. Another aim of the project was to problematize the role assigned to children in the work for sustainability. What does it mean that children are made responsible for the future of the world? Through illuminating and problematizing the good intentions of a culturally and pedagogically elevated practice (ESE), unintended inclusions and exclusions into the categories of normal and deviant human beings can be disrupted.

Think We Must

This book is an attempt to critically approach a field which is important and which has the best of intentions, namely, to deal with enormous challenges such as environmental disasters and social injustices. The problems are real, no doubt of that. I don’t underestimate either the explanations or all the consequences for humans, animals, and the ecological system. On the contrary, this is one of the most important challenges for the world. Despite that, or rather because of that, I seek to problematize environmental actions as well as children’s play, emotions, and knowledge. Below I will claim that practices aiming to make children and youngsters happy can be problematic, as well as the attempt of including “everyone” in the sustainability project. I will also suggest that helping can be seen as a colonial practice and that tolerance is an exercise of power. Through these disruptions of the commonsensical good, I emphasize that it can simultaneously be impregnated by injustices and inequalities. In this process I take on the role of what Sarah Ahmed (2010) calls (feminist) killjoy—to problematize the good intention and recognize that it may have problematic consequences that might even prevent real change.

In a TED talk, with over 15 million views, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) brings up the problem of “the single story”: that one strong narrative about a category of people, a country, a continent becomes an established truth. For instance, Adichie shares an anecdote from her own childhood. She, a black girl born and raised in Nigeria, wrote children’s books about white children, longing for the snow and drinking ginger beer. This was the single story about “children in books.” Similarly, there is one single story about Africa as poor, corrupt, and plagued by war and starvation. Adichie states that even if this narrative about Africa is not false, it isn’t the only possible one. There are so many different stories that can be told—about Africa, but also about education, environment, and sustainability. Taking on the challenge, this book adopts a critical stance in order to problematize the single story, how it has become a hegemonic truth and how it has (most likely) unintended consequences.

The beautiful rhetoric and pictures characterizing the discourse of ESE and environmental engagement obscure injustices produced through the very good intentions. Naomi Klein writes aptly that we are politically and culturally trapped in our imagination of environmental issues and social injustices; we need to challenge the ways we see and talk about them. At the end of the day it comes down to what Donna Haraway (2016) writes about in her book with the mind-teasing title Staying with the Trouble: “Think we must; we must think. Actually think, not like Eichmann the Thoughtless” (p. 47). The Eichmann referred to is the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, whose unwillingness or inability to think for himself, instead referring to a bureaucratic system, is Hanna Arendt’s famous example of the banality of evil (Arendt, 1963). The evil lay in the commonplace thoughtlessness, not in the lack of knowledge of what was happening (Haraway, 2016, pp. 36ff.). Think we must; we must think.

Being in the Truth

To be able to think outside the hegemonic truth, theoretical tools are needed. In the upcoming sections I will introduce the ones I have been inspired by and learned from in my analyses of the ESE discourse. Throughout its rather short history, ESE has (roughly speaking from at least a Swedish perspective) changed from being a practice based on explicit characteristics for environmentally friendly ways of living in the 1970s, to today’s emphasis on a pluralistic approach which aims to make room for different subjectivities (Öhman, 2006). The desirable child constructed by the current discourse of ESE is the modern, cosmopolitan child—the reasonable and empathetic problem solver who listens to different opinions before taking a stand and acting. But ESE holds an inherent conflict; it aims to promote a pluralistic, democratic approach at the same time as it has an important and urgent problem to solve.3 This means that the child (like any human being), through its “free will,” is supposed to voluntarily adapt to a certain way of thinking and living at the same time as a pluralistic discourse characterizes the practice. It is an illustrative example of Foucault’s (e.g. 1980, 1983) theories of power: how to make the individual will comply with the common will without any external force. In this theoretical section, I will elaborate on my understanding of how governing—not beyond, but through—free will is possible (Ideland, 2017).

The eco-certified child, a concept that I play with in this book, is not a real person of flesh and blood. It is rather a kind of figuration that is historically and culturally constructed, functioning as a cultural protocol for how children are supposed to act, the demands that must be satisfied (Castañeda, 2002). In other words, it is a stereotyped ideal image of the environmentally friendly person, in the shape of a child. “Child” here does not refer to a specific age but is a metaphor for the notion of a malleable—unfinished—person. “What is the child but a human in an incomplete form, which must acquire the necessary traits and skills to live as an adult?” as Claudia Castañeda asks (2002, p. 1). She continues by arguing that embedded in the assumptions of the child is “potentiality rather than an actuality, a becoming rather than a being: an entity in the making” (ibid.). These assumptions make the child educatable, and also an investment for the future. A citizen in the making, comprising a promise of a better society (Popkewitz, 2012).

The eco-certified child is no innocent figure; it does something to us and our ideas about normality and deviation, about good and evil. By connecting different attributes to different bodies—genders, age groups, skin colors, geographical places—it “makes up” different kinds of people (Hacking, 2006), categories of people whose possibilities are conditional. Because the figuration is reconstructed time and again, it also makes a great many demands of people if they are to be perceived as citizens contributing to a sustainable world. Ian Hacking (1995) calls it “looping effects”; discursive constructions act on the world in highly concrete and material ways. The narratives not only describe the world and its inhabitants, they actually produce ways in which we can think, talk, act, and live (Foucault, 1991). The ways in which one can live differ depending not only on material living conditions, but also on how you are categorized and positioned in society. This book seeks to take this discursive figuration to pieces and to discuss what makes it appear like an obvious truth, and what it does to our view of what you are supposed to be like if you want to be reckoned as environmentally friendly. This will be done by analyzing “governing technologies”: rhetorical and visual devices that (re)produce the figuration in a way that we take for granted, making it “natural” and irrefutable (e.g. Foucault, Senellart, & Davidson, 2007; Rose & Miller, 2010). The governing technologies organize how we are supposed to act, but by illuminating them we can expose the commonsensical truth in a way that enables us to question what it does to us and the world and discuss alternative ways of talking about the environment, sustainability, and human beings.

As Foucault expresses it, being in a discourse, belonging there, and being regarded as “normal” means “being in the truth” (Foucault, 1971). The eco-certified child is materializing “the truth” as regards issues of environment and sustainability. By appealing to accepted ideas of reason and normality, the discourse (re)produces cultural understandings of who lives a good life and indicates those who need to change in order not to risk threatening the world with their lifestyle; those who become the Other. This is also how Foucault—with his concept of governmentality4—explains how people can be “steered,” not in opposition to but through their “free will” (Foucault, 1991; Foucault et al., 2007; Hacking, 2006; Serder & Ideland, 2016). Foucault (1990, p. 86) writes: “power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.” Steering people in our “advanced liberal society” is not done from the throne (laws and rules), but through the longing and willingness of citizens to fit into the picture of the normal and reasonable person (Rose & Miller, 2010). The more taken-for-granted (masked) the discourse is, the more effective it is. This steering—which is sometimes defined as neoliberal, at other times as advanced liberal—with a reluctance to regulate, has been made possible, among many other things, by the growing fear of a strong state in the postwar era (Hursh, Henderson, & Greenwood, 2015).5 In this political ideology, a person can only be free when liberated from the state and able to make choices in a free market. But a person’s free will must go in the same direction as the general will—which may seem like an inherent irony in the advanced liberal society. The freedom is therefore regulated, not least of all with reference to the security of the nation—or indeed the survival of the planet (cf. Rose & Miller, 2010). Free—responsible and informed—choices should be made in relation to the general will and the security of the population (Foucault et al., 2007).

The Making of the Other

This understanding of how people are governed means, to use Foucault’s words, that power is not repressive and limiting but in fact productive. The discourse does something to us, it makes us talk and act in specific ways. And it makes us refrain from talking and acting in other ways. The discourse in Foucault’s sense does not only consist of what is said, but also what is unsaid (Foucault, 1971). Or, as Rodney Carter (2006, p. 223), puts it: “There is no speech without silence, otherwise there would just be unmodulated cacophony; likewise there would be no silence without speech, just a universal meaningless, emptiness.” Everything can’t be said, but we need to scrutinize what stories are missing. What is left out is also a kind of storytelling, and by emphasizing some perspectives, events, and narratives, others are hidden, silent, or even unspeakable in a certain context (Billig, 1999; Kulick, 2005). It is often marginalized groups’ stories that are not told, or told from the perspective of the superior. That means that besides scrutinizing what is said, silent narratives also will be considered as a kind of governing technologies organizing possible ways to write.

In this book I use the word (re)produce to describe what both the spoken and the unspoken discourses “do”; it is often accepted truths that are reproduced, while the figure of the eco-certified child actually produces something new. It does something to us that did not necessarily exist before. Among other things, the discourse has the effect that certain ways of life are reckoned as undesirable. In an environmental context this may perhaps seem self-evident: the problems in the environment have arisen as a result of human activities. But what is reckoned as undesirable is not always connected to the effect on the environment. Instead I will argue that the figure of the eco-certified child rather is effecting—(re)producing—distinctions between humans in terms of social class, nationality, and race. The discursive effect is something other than the expressed intention; the wish to point out the right way of living make up one part of the population as good citizens, other as dangerous; a threat to themselves as well as to the society in which they live (Nadesan, 2010). Thomas Popkewitz’s book Cosmopolitanism and the Age of School Reform: Science, Education, and Making Society by Making the Child (2012) historicizes and problematizes the ideal cosmopolitan citizen of modernity. He shows how the American education system is based on this ideal, and how it has developed in history. But his study also points out that school reforms aimed at including all pupils in this ideal citizen also exclude by defining certain ways of life as problematic:

Equally important, cosmopolitanism embodies a particular mode of organizing difference. That entails comparative installations that differentiate and divide those who are enlightened and civilized from those who do not have those qualities–the backward, the savage and the barbarian of the 19th century and the at-risk and delinquent child of the present. The universal and inclusive practices of school reforms that speak about inclusion locate difference and incomplete elements, points, and directions in the processes of inclusion and exclusion. (Popkewitz, 2012, p. 4)

The notion of the dangerous population is (re)produced through inclusive political initiatives such as “no child left behind.” These unintentional effects Popkewitz conceptualizes as “double gestures of inclusion and exclusion.” Total inclusion is a political illusion, and we must discuss what it means to try to include people into something, scrutinizing the inclusions and exclusions that are (re)produced through these good intentions. Moreover, the category of pupils who have to be included, those who deviate from the notion of the desirable students, often coincides with groups that are already stigmatized in society, such as immigrants, people with functional disabilities, those with low income or low grade of education (Popkewitz, 2012). Through the good intention to include everyone, or as in the case in this book, to save the world from environmental degradation, a polarization is made between Us, those who fit in, and the Other, those who are a problem. The Other functions as a counter to the normal, what We should not be. In this way, the Other is at once undesirable and indispensable. The Other threatens the order at the same time as s/he is indispensible for the understanding of the position in society as “normal,” “environmentally friendly,” “good” or “reasonable” (Butler, 1993; McClintock, 1995).

Wendy Brown (2006) has investigated and problematized how tolerance can be regarded as a way to create subordination and superordination, that is, to exercise power. Despite the good intentions of tolerance, it does something more, it “produces and positions subjects, orchestrates meanings and practices of identity, marks bodies and conditions political subjectivities” (Brown, 2006, p. 4). To tolerate someone or something is also to define what is normality and what is deviance—but it also means that one can become good by noticing and accepting this person or thing. Brown sees a problem in that “tolerance” normalizes and depoliticizes power relations by dressing them in a beautiful language of goodness and inclusion. The practice and the idea of tolerance—unintentionally—differentiate people. In exploring the good intention of sustainable development I am inspired in this book by Brown as regards how ESE—unintentionally?—(re)produces desirable subjects, marking out which bodies, behaviors, and feelings fit in or do not fit in, and hence dictates the conditions for people’s ability to act politically.

The book explores how the Other is constructed in terms of class, nationality, and race. More refined theoretical tools for investigating this come from postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and whiteness studies. Postcolonial theory helps me to understand how ideas about the world that are based on colonial structures still organize the way we think and act. Stuart Hall (1992) writes that “the West” is done in relation to “the Rest” (see also Said, 1978). Hall shows how the Western world has used stereotypical “Others” to constitute and uphold a discourse of Western Enlightenment as, for example, rational and civilized compared to the Other as the dark side, forgotten, repressed, and denied. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) conceptualizes it as epistemic violence; an exercise of power by limiting the understanding of valid knowledge. She sheds light on how notions of knowledge, civilization, and education have been used to undermine non-Western methods, or approaches to knowledge. By that, she problematizes not only the colonizers’ use of science and technology, but also today’s efforts to provide technology, medicine, and especially education to the “uncivilized” parts of the world. In these colonial processes the subaltern’s voice is not heard. It is silenced through the epistemic violence of not recognizing him/her as “reasonable,” “rational,” or “scientific” (cf. Haraway, 2004, p. 88). Through modernity’s connections between development, rationality, and the Western world (or the Global North), the governing technology of what Santiago Castro-Gómez (2002) calls coloniality. The concept of coloniality is offered as a way to escape the fact that the notion of postcolonialism presumes a “pre” and a “post.” It is also a distinction in relation to colonialism, which refers to a specific historical period. Castro-Gómez writes: “…coloniality references a technology of power that persists today, founded on the ‘knowledge of the other.’ Coloniality is not modernity’s ‘past’ but its ‘other face’” (2002, p. 276). And in that sense, I study how it organizes how we consider ESE and the people that inhabit it—at home and in other places. It is a way of thinking of the world.

The book is also inspired by critical race studies and whiteness studies. For example, I use Sara Ahmed’s (2010) critical race theories on how certain characteristics are attached to certain bodies—or certain kinds of people as Ian Hacking (1995) conceptualizes it. Ahmed takes the example of how “terrorism” is stuck to a man from the Middle East. Other examples are how “caring” sticks to a female body, of a certain age and with a certain look. Similarly, Gloria Ladson-Billings (1998) points out that in an American context, “intelligence,” “science,” and “middle-class-ness” are connected to whiteness, while “under-class,” “welfare recipients,” and “basketball players” become marginalized categories of blackness:

The creation of these conceptual categories is not designed to reify a binary but rather to suggest how, in a racialized society where whiteness is positioned as normative, everyone is ranked and categorized in relation to these points of opposition. These categories fundamentally sculpt the extant terrain of possibilities even when other possibilities exist. (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 9)

Whiteness has for centuries been connected to desirable human qualities, such as rationality and beauty, building on an imperialistic historical narrative in which whiteness is represented as the “light of the world” (Dyer, 1993, 1997). Blackness, on the other hand, has represented the unknown, mystery, and danger. In other words, the attributes follow a traditional hierarchical cultural system—the governing technology of coloniality. Otherness can also be constructed through positive attributes, such as more natural or exotic. This cultural system structures what kinds of bodies have access to what spaces, as well as how different kinds of people can be acted upon (Ahmed, 2010; Essed, 1991; Puwar, 2004).

Reasonable Emotions

In recent years the research field of ESE has taken a keen interest in emotions, both the feelings that children and adolescents have about sustainability issues—often emotions of hopelessness and fear—and how these can be turned into positive feelings of optimism and empowerment. But there are also studies about the significance of emotions for learning, that as an individual one must be moved in order to be changed (e.g. Fröhlich, Sellmann, & Bogner, 2013; Håkansson, Östman, & Van Poeck 2018; Kramming, 2017; Ojala, 2013; Otieno et al., 2014). In other words, emotions are viewed from the individual’s perspective, as a psychological phenomenon, and closely linked to learning in the sense of change.

This book is also about emotions, not as something attached to the individual but how emotions are valued in society and thus contribute to the construction of normality and alterity. For this analysis I turn, again, to Sara Ahmed’s work on the cultural politics of emotions. Emotions are often described as individual and even intimate, but Ahmed (among others) sees them as socially organizing the world. She aims to escape the psychological view of emotions as something that comes from the inside, entering the outside—the “inside out” perspective. Further, she distances her work from a group-psychology perspective, the outside entering the inside—the “outside in” perspective. Instead, she states that:

emotions create the very effect of the surfaces and boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside in the first place. So emotions are not simply something “I” or “we” have. Rather it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the “I” and the “we” are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others. (Ahmed, 2014, p. 10)

Ahmed describes emotions as “sticky”; they glue communities together. But at the same time, emotions position the Other on the outside. This Other she calls the affect alien —the one who feels the “wrong” thing at the “right” time or the “right” thing at the “wrong” time (Ahmed, 2010). In other words, emotions are about attachments, about what connects us to such categories as “reasonable” or “empowered” and that which “holds us in place” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 27). Emotions do things on a cultural level: they set up the distinctions between normality and those who need to change to be included in that. Some emotions are elevated and seen as signs of cultivation and reason, while others are signs of the opposite—which could be either too strong or too weak feelings for a “reasonable” citizen.

In other words, emotions must be domesticated; the eco-certified child is reasonable. And education is a way to make the population reasonable so that they can tackle problems such as pollution. Daniel Tröhler (2009, 2011) talks of the educationalization of societal problems. Education is viewed as a way of solving general problems in society. This way of viewing school and education started in the nineteenth century, in the wake of the Enlightenment, but it has been intensified since the mid-twentieth century. Tröhler draws attention to a number of specific problems that have triggered national and international school reforms. He mentions, for example, how the launch of the first Russian satellite, Sputnik, in 1958 led to anxiety in the Western world about lagging behind in technological development; this sparked educational reforms with a focus on science, mathematics, and technology. In a similar way, we can see in Sweden how school is held up as the place that will successfully deal with everything from sex to a flexible labor market. Sustainable development is of course no exception, and since the early 1990s school and its pupils and teachers have been in focus when sustainability problems have been discussed (Ideland & Tröhler, 2015). School and societal development, in other words, are closely linked. Thomas Popkewitz (1998) even states that it is impossible to understand school as a phenomenon without linking it to a hope of being able to steer not only family life but also society as a whole.

In our time, then, there is a powerful belief that school can make children and young people “reasonable” (helping them into “the truth” and into the right emotions). Here school is a part of the modern project; society and the future can be planned and steered. This rationalization will tame all that is magical and irrational, decisions and development will be based on reason. Society must be capable of calculation and planning, and therefore knowledge, development, and growth will liberate people and society alike (Bauman, 1996; Weber , 2009). Whether it is possible or not can be discussed, and there are many philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and other scholars who have questioned the rationality of modernity, if it exists at all. For instance, Jane Bennett’s (2001) book The Enchantment of Modern Life points out the need to upset the distinct categorizations of modernity in order to create a new ethics—not least for the environmental movement. Furthermore, Bruno Latour (1993) claims that these distinct categorizations, for instance the separation of nature and human activity, have never been really possible. This is an ideal rather than a societal form. In any case, the ideals of modernity construct conceptions of an ideal person. This can be described as a cosmopolitan citizen living rationally and solving problems, while also being empathetic, inclusive, and tolerant (Popkewitz, 2012); an ideal inside and beyond the ESE discourse, but which is excluding in a double gesture.

The Making of a Book

This book is written from a Swedish perspective, using Swedish empirical material and also discussing the making of Swedishness. Can this be interesting for an international audience? On the one hand: Maybe not. The analysis focuses on how a national identity of the Swede as an environmental hero is historically produced and today (re)produces an idea of Swedishness through knowledge of and engagement in sustainability. On the other hand: Absolutely, since the analysis focuses on how a national identity is historically produced and (re)produces nationalism in the name of a commitment to sustainability. This is an issue not limited to Sweden, but something important to discuss in more general terms; who is included or excluded in the category of environmentally friendly people, and how is it related to class, nationality, and race? Also, the question of children as agents of change for the future is a common theme in transnational educational policy on ESE.

But to give you a bit of the context: Swedish education policy after Second World War—from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s—follows a route of modernization and reorganization in the creation of the Swedish welfare state (Lundahl, 2002). In recent years, however, it has changed and the state project of education is today clearly influenced by transnational edu-policy—as with many other nations’ school systems. International assessments, with follow-up reports, steer the political governance of school. Beside an internationalization of school governance, the Swedish system has undergone a neoliberal turn in both an economic and a cultural sense. In economic terms, this is because education today is organized in a hybrid public/private way. The Swedish educational system has gone from a strong welfare state system to what Stephen Ball (2009) would conceptualize as a recalibration of the state into a market. Market orientation was gradually introduced during the 1990s with a growth of “corporate schools,” allowing profit for the owners. The marketization and neoliberalization of the educational system is thus not only about earning money, but also about constructing the meanings and practices of schooling and learning. In the knowledge economy, a certain kind of ideal citizen is constructed: the enterprising subject with certain dispositions and knowledge (Olmedo, Bailey, & Ball, 2013). As will be discussed below, this enterprising subject is also a part of the eco-certified child. Furthermore, the marketization of Swedish education has opened up for an increased heterogeneity concerning how to “do” school, and for business actors to provide teaching and learning tools such as teaching material. It is in this context the book must be read.

As an empirical foundation for the book there is a structured selection of material along with examples of a more anecdotal character. Yet it deserves to be pointed out—clearly and emphatically—that what I have studied is texts and pictures that tell of sustainable development and by extension reproduce the figuration of the eco-certified child. I have not observed any “real people” of flesh and blood. What happens when these texts and pictures land in classrooms, on kitchen tables, in people’s thoughts and actions I have not studied. The cultural theses of the eco-certified child is almost certainly renegotiated, adjusted to a person’s own everyday life and value system. Despite this, I think that the discourse is interesting because it costs to go against normality. We know that it steers how we can teach, learn, feel, act, and live in an environmentally friendly way.

In the research project “The Eco-certified Child” we examined teaching material and policy documents aimed at preschool and school. Policy documents include, for example, Swedish curricula and syllabuses (from 1962, 1969, 1980, 1994, and 2011).6 In all of them, teaching about the environment has been emphasized and steered in some form, depending on the spirit of the time. In the 1960s it was above all about nature conservancy in the local community, but since the 1980 curriculum there has been a global perspective, and since 1994 there has been a clear link to Agenda 21 and sustainable development. During the last few decades there has also been a culturally elevated focus on the individual’s personal consumption choices (Hillbur et al., 2016). One of the four fundamental perspectives in the curriculum for Swedish compulsory school is the environment, and the presentation of that is a good illustration of how personal and global perspectives interact:

An environmental perspective provides opportunities not only to take responsibility for the environment in areas where they themselves can exercise direct influence, but also to form a personal position with respect to overarching and global environmental issues. Teaching should illuminate how the functions of society and our ways of living and working can best be adapted to create sustainable development. (National Agency for Education, 2011, p. 12)

The category of policy documents also includes international documents such as the UN Agenda 21 (UN, 1992) and Our Common Future (UN, 1987), and the Stockholm Declaration (UN, 1972). Also belonging to this category are the websites of the different UN agencies, UNESCO and UNEP, on the theme of education for sustainable development, and the policy of environmental organizations and corporations for education in environment and sustainability. In short, the policy material describes what should be done in the project to “save the world.” The documents formulate what is considered a problem, and proposes solutions to it by pointing out the actions, knowledge, and abilities that are necessary for the purpose.

The most important empirical foundation for the book is the teaching material that has been analyzed. To provide a bit of context here: textbooks in Swedish schools are not published or controlled by the state. These are instead published by commercial companies, and it is up to each school to decide whether the teaching material helps to achieve the goals stated in the curriculum and the syllabus. This means that different schools work with different types of material which can come from commercial publishers but also from interest organizations and businesses. At present the Swedish National Agency for Education is working to produce modules for teaching about environment and sustainability, which can best be described as guidance for teachers in their teaching and assessment.

In other words, the teaching material studied varies somewhat in character. I would nevertheless claim that the discourse (re)produced in it is very much the same as regards content, but there are great differences in the design. Some material is geared to conveying knowledge, some seeks to engage and activate pupils. First of all, there are the classical textbooks produced by commercial publishers for the different levels of compulsory school. It is chiefly books for the upper level (7–9th grade) that have more detailed texts about sustainability and environment. The school subjects that deal with issues of sustainability are science subjects (biology, physics, chemistry) and social science subjects (especially geography and civics), and home economics with consumer education. The approach obviously differs from subject to subject, although there are similarities. All subjects have the goal that the pupil will learn how to make everyday decisions to promote sustainable development. Broadly speaking the science subjects underline the importance of using subject knowledge when making personal and political decisions, while the social science subjects emphasize a societal perspective and home economics focuses more on the individual’s consumption and good housekeeping.7

School teaching material about sustainable development goes far beyond traditional textbooks. Many feel called upon to help, which also confirms the thesis that it is through education that the world can be changed. Keep Sweden Clean (Håll Sverige Rent), the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (Naturskyddsföreningen), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) are three major players on the market. They work with certification of schools and preschools and build up model schools for sustainable development. Their material has been analyzed by the project, the WWF material from a historical angle as well. Alongside the environmental organizations, the business NGO Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) has published educational material, as have companies with a desire to help schools to save the world. Another place where the figure of the eco-certified child appears is in educational games (digital and analog), apps, children’s books, and puzzles. These too have been analyzed.

Having noted this, I want to make it clear that the research project on which I have worked for a number of years has not made any distinction between different teaching materials. There was no ambition, nor even any wish, to investigate whether the material is correct or can help to achieve the goals. Policy texts, commercially published books, the material from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, the games, and even research articles have all been analyzed in the same way, as places where the discourse about sustainable life and the eco-certified child is (re)produced and the figuration of the eco-certified child is made. One consequence of this is that, in this book, I have not stated the names of the authors of the texts; instead I refer to them by the title or by the name of the organization behind them. This might seem as if I do not ascribe sufficient significance to the authors, but I want to shift the focus from individual persons and texts to the discourse—possible ways of thinking and talking about sustainability, the environment, and eco-certified children. I am thus interested in discursive effects rather than individual senders and their motives.8 What do the texts do with the notion of the good life and the dangerous life, desirable and problematic people? How are the eco-certified child and the Other formulated in these texts?

So much concerning the material aimed at school. In the work on this book I have also tried to look outside the educational system, in search of the eco-certified person who is not necessarily a child or a pupil. This search is far from being structured or all-embracing; instead it follows the idea of trying to track a question through different contexts rather than conducting a comprehensive study of a limited area. Inspired by George Marcus’s (1995) notion of multi-sited ethnography, conceptualizing how the researcher follows a question rather than a specific, delimited place and time, this study can therefore best be described as a multi-sited desk study. It aims to put pieces together, to understand and deconstruct the figuration of the eco-certified child. Hereby, I also draw on Richardson and St Pierre’s (2008) work on “writing” as a method of inquiry. That means that I try to “to find something out” through reading and writing, to draw lines between different sources from both inside and outside the context of education.

My theoretical point of departure, as described above, is that the truth about desirable and problematic people is made by defining what is reason and a reasonable way of life, “the reason of reason” (Popkewitz, 2009). A truth like this tends not to be confined to school, being rather a discourse organizing society as a whole. This search, however, has mainly been intended to give a deeper understanding of the school discourse constructing the figuration of the eco-certified child, rather than to survey alternative fields. This means that I have, above all, gone to “places” that (re)produce the same figuration, for example, advertising and movies. As a result—for better or worse—the eco-certified child sketched in the book is relatively unambiguous. Of course there are alternative discourses and figures, at other “places” in society, which no doubt find their way into school as well, in other ways than via the teaching material. Environmental engagement is strong and multifaceted. Within the environmental movement we find veganism, barter economies, political activism, and so on. What is interesting from my perspective is that these are seldom visible in the school material that I have studied. On the contrary, they can be excluded by being defined as ideological, fundamentalist, irresponsible, unreliable, or greedy—outside of and a threat to “the truth” (Foucault, 1971). For instance, the political activist can be portrayed in the school material as the Other instead of the environmentally friendly person. I shall return later to how this is done.

Outline of the Book

This introduction is followed by chapters outlining a cultural protocol for the eco-certified child, and how this (re)produces taken-for-granted understandings of race, nationalities, and social class. Chapter  2, analyzes and problematizes how a neoliberal ideology organizes the ESE discourse and the figuration of the eco-certified child, that is to say, how the individual choice is elevated, and how individuals become accountable for solving environmental problems through consumer power. The responsibility for the survival of the world is internalized in children since everyday choices are attached to global issues. Besides the problem with the fact that small children are made accountable for political issues, this discourse requires us to do sustainability work individually—I would claim at the cost of overall political reforms. By applying Foucault’s notion of pastoral power I point out how ESE operates as a governing technology by constructing humankind as in need of salvation and reaching this through sacrifices. This is done through pointing out the individual as responsible not only for him/herself, but also for the flock now and in the future.

Chapter  3, explores how the figuration of the eco-certified child is (re)produced inside a cultural politics of emotions. Also the former chapter discusses emotions in relation to individualism, but this chapter focuses on how emotions are seen as connected to knowledge; how the “right” knowledge and skills contribute to the “right emotions.” The chapter also deconstructs how an “optimization of emotions” in and through ESE is supposed to happen, and how “doing” things has become a way to push away “bad feelings” such as anxiety and anger over an unjust and unsustainable world. Through a kind of activation of the eco-certified child, s/he is supposed to engage in the world with a good mood—which makes ESE into a “nice” practice avoiding complex problems as well as anger, despair, or apathy. Hence, the analysis also examines how the enlightened person is represented through whiteness; how coloniality, in terms of Western enlightenment organizes the ESE discourse and the figuration of the child.

Chapter  4, deepens the analysis of how Us and Them are constructed through a colonial understanding of the world, and how this is embedded in the field of ESE. A running theme is to analyze how sustainability engagement has a nationalistic touch, and how the different positioning of humans living in different parts of the world constructs an enlightened, organized Us in the Global North and a miserable, corrupt, under-developed Them in the Global South (McClintock, 1995). Besides this (re)production of the eco-certified child and its Other in terms of nationality and geography, the issue of race is in focus. In the Swedish discourse the enlightened, helping environmental hero is always represented by a white person, while those who are in need of help are represented by a person of color. An often-silenced theme is the fact that the countries described as exceptional at sustainability actually have huge ecological footprints (e.g. Sweden, Denmark). Yet these countries are described as “world champions in sustainability.” The chapter discusses how this can be possible, and how environmental engagement has become culturally attached to whiteness and a Western lifestyle. The work for a common future has, ironically, become an excluding practice dividing the world in Us and Them.

Chapter  5, continues to examine how the environmentally friendly person becomes culturally attached to a place—in the former chapter it was a certain nation or part of the globe, in this nature as a welcoming or excluding place is discussed. It focuses on the figuration of the eco-certified child as a nature-loving person—the one who likes being outdoors in all weather, discovering and caring for nature. Nature becomes a metaphorical place organizing desirable and undesirable ways of living, and it is attached to a certain subjectivity entangled in cultural norms for race and class. For instance, the “use” of nature in the Swedish ESE discourse is (re)produces a middle-class way of living as desirable, with weekend excursions out into the field. But another “use” is that nature is a place for learning—which contributes to the construction of the modern, reasonable, child. With help from Nirmal Puwar’s book Space Invaders (2004), I discuss how different places—the sacral nature and the urban ghetto—are culturally attached to a specific kind of people, and how the ones crossing the borders become “space invaders,” disturbing the community.

The final Chapter  6, studies the consequences of individualization and nationalistic approaches to sustainability and how these rationalities organize what is seen as reason as well as the reasonable, desirable children who engage in environment and sustainability in a proper way. Furthermore, this chapter focuses on how the child is constructed in and through this discourse; how the child becomes the representative of the pure, untouched soul—still not destroyed by the cynicism of the adult world. The figuration of the eco-certified child as an agent of change and the hope for the future is analyzed and problematized. Here I also discuss alternative ways of talking about environment and sustainability, and how other perspectives can redistribute the responsibility for the future from childhood into the political arena.


  1. 1.

    For a history of EE, ESD, and ESE see e.g. Gough (2006), Palmer (1998).

  2. 2.

    Swedish title: “Det KRAV-märkta barnet: Om subjektskonstruktioner i lärande för hållbar utveckling.” The research project was financed by the Swedish Research Council 2012–2015, reg. no. 2011-5907. PI was Malin Ideland, co-researchers were Per Hillbur and Claes Malmberg.

  3. 3.

    There is criticism against the pluralistic approach, precisely because the issue of environmental degradation and the problems of other species are excluded from the discussion when individual opinion, rather than the effect, is important (Kopnina, 2012; Kopnina & Cherniak, 2016).

  4. 4.

    There is a body of literature discussing green governmentality for the environmental area. I will not go into that, but may mention, e.g. Lloro-Bidart (2017), Luke (1999), Soneryd and Uggla (2015).

  5. 5.

    Hursh et al. (2015) have conducted a broad (although, as they point out, too short) survey and analysis of neoliberalism in society and in environmental education. McKenzie, Bieler, and McNeil (2015) likewise provide an overview of the neoliberal turn in ESE.

  6. 6.

    See Kungliga Skolöverstyrelsen (1962), Skolöverstyrelsen (1969, 1980), Skolverket (1994, 2011).

  7. 7.

    Read more about the Swedish policy documents in Hillbur et al. (2016).

  8. 8.

    Their names are however to be found in the reference list.


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Copyright information

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Malin Ideland
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Education and SocietyMalmö UniversityMalmöSweden

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