Introduction: Reimagined Agency in the Anthropocene

The question of what it means to be human, and associated concerns about human agency and subjectivity, are central to critical social scientific debates concerning the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have become the dominant force behind extensive planetary destruction, including climate change, air and water pollution, collapse of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, etc. (Chakrabarty, 2021; Crutzen & Stormer, 2000; Latour, 2017; Steffen et al., 2007). Mirroring wider calls to reconfigure the category of “the human” in its relation to nature and more-than-humans (i.e., nonhumans), early childhood education (ECE), and childhood studies scholars concerned with the Anthropocene (hereafter ECE research(ers) of the Anthropocene) have embarked upon a reimagining of children’s agency (Hadfield-Hill & Zara, 2020; Kouppanou, 2020; Silova, 2021; Sjögren, 2020; Taylor, 2017; Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2020; Wolff et al., 2020). Previous research has shown that a majority of ECE researchers of the Anthropocene apply posthumanist and new materialist approaches and understandings (Sjögren, 2020; Wolff et al., 2020; see also Somerville & Powell, 2019a). These scholars advocate for a reconfiguration of human agency in educational theorizing and practice to reflect complex entanglements with nonhumans in the Anthropocene (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020; Taylor, 2017).

While posthumanism and new materialism each have their own distinguishing characteristics, they share several overlapping concerns, especially with regard to how they contest and reimagine traditionally accepted binaries such as human/nonhuman, culture/nature, discursive/material, and subject/object (Bennet, 2010; Braidotti, 2019a, b; Coole & Frost, 2010; Haraway, 2016; Latour, 2017; Tsing, 2015). Simultaneously, they aim to challenge traditional understandings of human subjectivity and agency, i.e., the individual’s sense of self and their capacity to act in the world. From this perspective, humans are inseparable from nonhumans, as they are deeply entangled in their ontological existence and future survivability. New materialist and posthumanist approaches do not understand forms of agency as exclusively human attributes; rather, they emphasize the transformative and productive potentials of nonhuman agency and vitality (Braidotti, 2019b). This blurring of boundaries between humans and nonhumans aims to open up new possibilities for a more harmonious co-existence of species. At the same time, it raises several ethical and political questions, especially in relation to the political agency of children. Braidotti (2019b), p. 34, 58) suggests that the novelty of critical posthumanist inquiry is its focus on both what “we” are ceasing to be and what “we” are in the process of becoming. Our aim in this chapter is to critically scrutinize the limits and possibilities of political agency afforded to children in ECE research of the Anthropocene by analyzing both problematized and idealized forms of agency articulated in this literature. In other words, following Braidotti above, we consider what children are supposed to cease to be and what they are suggested to be in the process of becoming.

Political Agency in ECE Research of the Anthropocene

In what follows, we define political agency as the capacity and potential of individuals and collectives to resist and contest forces and power structures and therefore to make partial transformations in the world (Foucault, 1990; Brunila, 2014). Political agency is not confined to large-scale social revolutions or indeed smaller-scale or more local forms of political resistance or activism which are often perceived to be more possible for adults than children. Adopting a Foucauldian lens, there is no single source of power (such as the state or any particular elite group) and there is no sole great refusal or source of all resistances (Foucault, 1990, p. 96). Rather, there are many unique resistances, which can be possible, necessary, improbable, spontaneous, savage, violent, solitary, partially transformative, taking place everywhere, any time, locally and globally, including those engaged in by children in their daily life (Foucault, 1990, p. 96).

A reimagining of the subject, agency, or subjectivity invariably involves enabling what is considered to be the ideal agentic subject, while limiting more problematic kinds of agency and subjectivity (Foucault, 1991). As with any other form of scholarly knowledge, educational researchers do this in order to “answer” or find “solutions” to particular kinds of “problems” (whether they acknowledge this or not) (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010; Foucault, 1992, 1994). If there were no “problems” or problematic forms of agency to begin with, there simply would be no need to reimagine agency. These “problems,” “solutions,” and problematic and ideal forms of agency and subjectivity are all discursively produced, meaning that they are based on complex circulative historical, social, and cultural understandings shaped by power and knowledge (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010; Brunila, 2014; Foucault, 1990). More concretely, if the aim is to challenge the problems of the Anthropocene, such as human-induced climate change, logically ideal forms of political agency would problematize the “problems” considered to be responsible for producing climate change in the first instance.

In what follows, we outline two main ways that agency has been conceptualized in educational scholarship, highlighting contributions, tensions, and debates about reimagining ECE as a mode through which to address the problems of the Anthropocene, such as climate change. We critically scrutinize forms of political agency produced in ECE research of the Anthropocene which attempts to reconfigure children’s agency in relation to wider historical, cultural, and social discourses in the social sciences. We contend that critical scrutiny of the forms of children’s agency that have been variously problematized and celebrated has the potential to make some of the hidden cultural and social discourses visible. From a Foucauldian perspective, subjects (including their agency and subjectivity) are produced in complex power and knowledge relations in a particular historical, social, and cultural context (Foucault, 1991). These power–knowledge relations become visible in discourses – the forms of collectively, culturally, and socially shared understandings, commonly accepted as “truth” (Foucault, 1991; Bacchi & Eveline, 2010). Discourses limit and enable what is possible to say, think, write, and act in a certain time and place. Individuals and collectives adopt these historical, cultural, and social discourses as part of their own subjectivity and agency. Individuals tend to internalize these discourses as part of their sense of themselves and their opportunities to act in the world (see Brunila, 2012, 2014). Thus, cultural and social discourses both enable and limit the possible forms of subjectivity and agency which individuals and collectives can adopt or resist (Foucault, 1990; Bacchi & Eveline, 2010).

Political agency could be described as the point of resistance to these limiting and enabling historical, social, and cultural discourses, including the point at which individuals or collectives resist dominating discourses by using their own political power to refuse, contest, disagree, and conflict with or criticize them (Foucault, 1990). In other words, political agency can be used to contest existing power relations and the status quo. Therefore, political agency refers to subjects’ capacity to act in the world to transform it to fulfill their individual or collective wills, desires, and needs (for security and autonomy, for example, Chandler & Reid, 2016). In this way, political agency can be considered as a unique and spontaneous counterforce harnessed to contest the inequalities and power-knowledge relations (Foucault, 1990). Furthermore, political agency (just like “democracy”) cannot be planned, governed, or designed by any social theory or institution such as education, even in the interests of securing a better future and common good “for all,” because the very act of planning would make agency part of the social and cultural discourses, that is, integral to the public consensus on the status quo (see also Friedrich et al., 2010, p. 579). Following Friedrich et al. (2010, p. 578), political agency can be understood as emerging as “fugitive instants,” in which what is possible to see, think, do, hope and be is, at least momentarily, forced to shift, and as “a disagreement” or “a dissensus” to consensus of the status quo, through which social and cultural discourses and inequalities can be challenged and the power-knowledge relations can be made visible.

Methods

This chapter presents insights into the political agency of young children gained from a critical review of ECE research of the Anthropocene. The analysis was limited to peer-reviewed articles published between the years 2015–2022, based on literature that met the search terms “early childhood education” or “childhood studies” and “the Anthropocene” across several databases including University library OULA, ERIC, ProQuest Central, EBSCOhost, and Google scholar (Prior to 2015, ECE research tended to focus on “sustainability” rather than the Anthropocene and is excluded from the analysis.). Articles that did not focus in depth on the Anthropocene were excluded, whereas those that did not specify an emphasis on early childhood but were concerned with childhood or children more generally were included, resulting in a corpus of 29 articles.

We devised several methodological questions to guide our analysis in response to the primary research question, which asked:

Which kinds of political agency of children are produced in ECE research of the Anthropocene?

These methodological questions included:

  1. 1.

    Which problematic and ideal forms of agency and subjectivity are produced in ECE research of the Anthropocene?

  2. 2.

    Which problems are these forms constituted to problematize and contest politically?

Our methodology was inspired by Michel Foucault’s (1992, 1994) forms of problematization and Carol Bacchi’s What is the Problem Represented to be? (WPR) analysis, derived from the former (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010). By forms of problematization, we mean the methodology Foucault employed in most of his work (Foucault, 1992, 1994). Its aim is to question the positions, reasons, and representations given to problems in politics, including policies and scholarly knowledge such as educational research (Foucault, 1994). Bacchi’s WPR analysis was developed specifically to analyze policy texts by working backward to see how the “problem” was represented within these texts, including the meaning given to it or how it is discursively constituted (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010; see also in education Mertanen et al., 2022).

Problematic and Ideal Forms of Children’s Agency in the Anthropocene

With the exception of three articles (Kouppanou, 2020; Sjögren, 2020; Wolff et al., 2020), all 29 articles reviewed applied posthumanist/new materialist lenses, confirming earlier observations that posthumanist and new materialist approaches currently provide the dominant theoretical frame within which ECE research of the Anthropocene is situated (Sjögren, 2020; Wolff et al., 2020). The work of scholars including Donna Haraway (2016), Bruno Latour (2017), Karen Barad (2007), Anna Tsing (2015), Rosi Braidotti (2019a, b), Jane Bennet (2010) – along with contributions from the field of ECE by Hillevi Lenz Taguchi (Lenz Taguchi, 2010; Karin Murris, 2016), and the Common Worlds Research Collective (2020) – featured prominently in the corpus of ECE research of the Anthropocene. Our review aims to scrutinize the work of these scholars in terms of what insights or understandings about children’s agency they provide or suggest.

As is the case with any form of knowledge, educational research discursively produces particular kinds of problem representations requiring particular kinds of ideal political agency as a “solution” to those problems (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010; Foucault, 1992, 1994). Simultaneously, these problem representations both propose and enable problematic forms of agency to be politically contested by ideal forms of agency. In other words, problems are always discursively produced and do not simply exist “out there” waiting to be acted upon or resolved by particular forms of knowledge, politics, policies, or practices (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010; Foucault, 1990; see also Mertanen et al., 2022). Stated another way, how a particular problem is represented influences what is perceived as problematic in the first place, what is silenced or ignored, and how people conduct themselves as agents and subjects (Bacchi & Eveline, 2010; Foucault, 1991). Critical inquiry into the problematization of agency makes hidden historical, cultural, and social discourses visible, thereby enabling us to think differently or otherwise about the nature of the problem, possible subject positions, and forms of agency.

Human Agency of the Anthropos

Our analysis revealed that an individual, intentional, rational, autonomous, and exclusively human agency is the form of agency which ECE research of the Anthropocene seeks to problematize. We call this problematic subject the Anthropos, which depends on “an enlightenment ontology of an autonomous rational human being in control of his or her world” (Somerville, 2017, p. 399). The Anthropos is founded on the belief that “humans have exceptional capacities, not only to alter, damage or destroy, but also to manage, protect and save an exteriorized (non-social) environment” (Taylor, 2017, p. 1453). The Anthropos also “thinks about and acts upon the world from transcendent heights” (Taylor, 2020, p. 344). These “transcendent heights” include psychic capabilities of the human mind or subjectivity, meaning human capacities to think intentionally, willingly, and rationally and to act politically to make changes in the world according to the subjective will and intention – such as saving the environment. Figuratively in ECE research of the Anthropocene, the hubristic “wings” of the exceptional, rational, and transcendent human are cut, bringing humans “back down to earth” to rethink our place and agency and to learn humility as “earth-bounds” who are like any other earthly creature (Taylor, 2017, 2020, p. 344; Latour, 2017). Essentially what is being problematized is the positioning of humans as subjects of agentic powers, and nonhumans as non-agentic objects who are variously viewed as resources or as being in need of (human) protection for example (Taylor, 2017, p. 1453).

Within ECE research of the Anthropocene, problems such as environmental disasters are attributed to human exceptionalism, which is connected to modern/Western and Enlightenment humanist worldviews (Taylor, 2017). Human exceptionalism is traced back to Cartesian dualism, which set humans apart from nature with binaries such as culture/nature and human/nonhuman, with humans instrumentally and hierarchically exploiting the nonhuman (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020; Silova, 2021; Taylor, 2017). Humanist education, inevitably resting upon Cartesian dualism which has structured modern/Western thought and intellectual endeavors and in service to maintain and produce human exceptionalism, is hence viewed as part of the problem rather than as a solution to environmental problems (see also Brunila, 2014). According to ECE research of the Anthropocene, this problematic form of education positions both children and teachers as having agency, rationality, knowledge, voice, reason, and subjectivity. At the same time, the nonhuman is represented as a non-agentic, mute, inert, and blind instrumental object, which can be studied, acted upon, exploited, cared for, protected, or managed (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020; Merewether, 2019; Mycock, 2020; Silova, 2021; Somerville, 2017; Taylor, 2017).

From this vantage point, mainstream education in its current form is problematic when the teacher – as an agentic subject – teaches what the child as an agentic subject needs to know about the world or nature as a passive, instrumental object – the instrumentalized other (Silova, 2021; Taylor, 2017). Curriculum and pedagogy underpinned by a logic of child- or student-centeredness are deemed problematic because they are seen to continue to justify human exceptionalism and a hierarchical “man over nature” relationship, reducing nature to exploitative resource for human (economic) growth and development (Silova, 2021, p. 593; see also Rappleye et al. this volume). Child- and student-centered pedagogies, it is argued, fail to embrace more nuanced understandings of how children are complexly positioned in relation to the Anthropocene and embedded within multiple unequal human and more-than-human and discursive-material relations (Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018; Nxumalo et al., 2018; Silova, 2021; Taylor, 2017). From this vantagepoint, the privileging of children’s interests and “free play,” and the romanticization of children’s “natural” connection with nature characteristic of humanistically oriented forms of ECE, leaves little room for more contentious curricular engagements which can be all too easily dismissed as “uninteresting” or indeed too political for children (Nxumalo et al., 2018, p. 443; Taylor, 2017, p. 1452).

And yet, political forms of agency in particular are problematized in ECE research of the Anthropocene. For example, political activism promoted by education for sustainability is deemed to be problematic even if the agency it implies acknowledges the complex entanglements between social and ecological worlds (Taylor, 2017, p. 1452). Thus, ECE research of the Anthropocene contests prevailing forms of political agency in the field of ECE, including loving and caring for the Other (human or nonhuman) or acting to save or protect the planet. Love, care, or protecting the nonhuman are problematized, not least because they position the human as an agent of change, a caretaker, a steward of the earth, and a savior of the nonhuman other (Mycock, 2020; Taylor and Pacini-Ketchabaw 2015; Taylor, 2017; Pacini-Ketchabaw & Kummen, 2016).

ECE research of the Anthropocene repeatedly problematizes representations of the agentic child or child as a potential political agent of social change advanced in poststructuralism, social constructivism, children’s rights, and child development discourses and environmental education (Taylor, 2017; Sherfinski et al., 2022; Somerville, 2017). The emancipatory intentions of approaches advocating child/play-centered pedagogies, critical inquiry into power structures, children’s participation, political agency, and voice, for example, are seen as outdated, not least because they are rooted in humanist ideas about children as potential or actual change agents (Somerville, 2017; Taylor, 2017, 2020). As Taylor (2017), p. 1458) puts it:

The business-as-usual of environmental stewardship pedagogies, framed by twentieth century humanist change-agency educational discourses, is no longer enough to address the complex imbroglio of twenty-first century human-environmental challenges.

Human-centric pedagogical approaches are critiqued for their perpetuation of romanticized “Rousseau beliefs” about childhood innocence (Taylor, 2017, p. 1452) which reinforce extractivist, individualist, anthropocentric, and colonial ways of knowing and instrumentalist relationships with the more-than-human world (Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018; Nxumalo et al., 2018; Taylor, 2017). This, it is argued, has the effect of failing to adequately address children’s role as drivers and agents of environmental-related harms (Hadfield-Hill & Zara, 2020; see also Gallagher, 2020). Furthermore, ECE research of the Anthropocene maintains that human-centric approaches fail to equip children with the knowledge they need to come to terms with their own vulnerability to environmental disasters in the Anthropocene, which is deeply entangled with the vulnerability and precarity of more-than-human lifeforms and the planet itself (Taylor, 2017).

The act of contesting dominant social and cultural discourses (and human-made categories) – such as humanist, child, and student-centered pedagogies, as well as the binaries between individual and collective and human and nonhuman – can itself be acknowledged as a form of activism and material and social transformation (Murris et al., 2018; Nxumalo, 2017, 2018; Sherfinski et al., 2022; Termein & Vaishnava, 2019). ECE research of the Anthropocene is political in the sense that it problematizes the agency and subjectivity which it sees as dominant, part of power structures of the status quo and related to the problems of the Anthropocene, including the positioning of the child as humanist and individualist agent of change. ECE researchers of the Anthropocene reimagine alternative entangled forms of agency of children which are already situated in the more-than-human world and which can open new ethico-political possibilities for more related forms of agency (see for example Nxumalo, 2017, pp. 566–567; Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018; Hyunsun, 2022; Niblett et. al., 2020; Nxumalo et al., 2018; Ritchie, 2015; Silova, 2021; Wals, 2017).

(More-Than-) Human Agency of Early Childhood Education of the Anthropocene

distributed, relational, already more-than-human agency is held up as the ideal form of agency produced via ECE research of the Anthropocene. The ideal subjectivities described as possessing this agency are enmeshed subjectivities. These ideal subjectivities have been variously characterized as assemblages (Bennet, 2010), naturecultures or sympoietic systems (Haraway, 2016), earth-bounds or networks (Latour, 2017), or material-discursive entanglements (Barad, 2007), and they are tied back down to Earth (Taylor, 2017; see also Latour, 2017), just as any other earthly creatures destined to share interconnected survival and mutual vulnerability in the already damaged worlds (Haraway, 2016; Tsing, 2015; see also Hyunsun, 2022). These subjectivities contest the notion of the Anthropos which separates itself exclusively and hubristically from the rest of the world (Latour, 2017). The ideal forms of agency in ECE research of the Anthropocene do not separate their agency from the other entities (human or nonhuman, subject or object), but share distributed, relational, and already more-than-human agency. As Mycock (2020) puts it:

When agency is understood relationally, across phenomena and not as something that only humans “have,” this calls into question humanism’s premise that agency is an individual, autonomous, intentional and exclusively human capability.

According to ECE research of the Anthropocene, this distributed, relational, more-than-human agency can be understood as a capacity or relation distributed between different actants (Bennet, 2010; Latour, 2017), whereby agency is not something that an entity, body, or individual being possesses, but rather is a relation. An actant (or operator) is neither a subject nor an object, but an “intervener” which makes a difference and makes things happen by “being in the right place at the right time” (Bennet, 2010, p. 9). Therefore, the human↔more-than-human subject↔object does not pre-exist but only emerges in intra-active relations (Somerville, 2017; Mycock, 2020; Lenz Taguchi, 2010). (The arrows here denote a lack of separation.). Murris (2016, p. 12) argues that this “intra-action” differs from “inter-action” because the presupposition of the individual subject or object is rejected. It is not only a relationship that is important, but instead things and subjects are because they are in relation to each other. Therefore, it is impossible to draw boundaries between individual children, teachers, furniture, technologies, or species, such as insects, from the epistemological and ontological point of view (Murris, 2016, p. 12). Somerville (2017, p. 402) puts it like this:

In this understanding based on intra-action, there is no prior existence for the individual subject; subjects emerge only through their intrarelating.

Within this conceptualization, the child does not pre-exist as an individual subject, but is emerging only in relation to everything else, such as with ants, bees, or mud (Somerville, 2017; Somerville & Powell, 2019a, b; Mycock, 2020; Lenz Taguchi, 2010). This also implies that any kind of individual and intentional agency such as caring or actively taking responsibility for the environment (for example) is impossible. Instead, the enmeshed subjectivities of children and nonhumans lead to different kinds of affective and ethical engagements rather than “simplistic and anthropocentric relationships to loving, caring and learning about animals” or other nonhumans (Weldemariam, 2020; see also Nxumalo & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2017). In Weldemariam’s (2020) rethinking of ECE, two notions put forward by Haraway are key to understanding this reconfigured agency: one is the concept of “becoming-with” which highlights the relationality and interdependence between humans and nonhumans which share agency, and the other is the concept of “response-ability” which means “one’s ethical sensitivity and the ability to respond accordingly” (p. 397). Children’s becoming-with insects such as bees, ants, and worms and other nonhumans can lead to the emergence of response-abilities in children (Weldemariam, 2020). Ideally in the Anthropocene, children become “response-able multispecies collaborators” who learn to “live (and die) on a damaged planet” (Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018, p. 32).

The notion of distributed agency and enmeshed subjectivity transforms understandings of education as inherently intra-active. A recognition of the intra-actions between children, nonhumans, and materials – not just those between children and teachers – changes the whole idea of pedagogy by challenging the binaries of discourse/matter, theory/practice, mind/body, and object/subject of “humanist” pedagogies (Mycock, 2020; see also Lenz Taguchi, 2010). In the practice of ECE, children are understood to be “intra-acting,” “becoming-with” or “worldling” with material and nonhuman worlds, such as drawings, pens, furniture, technologies, digital, and insects. Not only do children emerge in relation to the more-than-human, but also children’s learning and agency emerge in these intra-actions between the different actants (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015; Mycock, 2020). For Barad (2007, p. 178) “agency is ‘doing’ or ‘being’ in its intra-activity.” Therefore, agency is not something which someone has, but rather something that happens (Bargetz, 2019).

Neither agency nor learning are happening “in” the child, or “by” the child, but “in” the space “between” the child as an embodied organism and the material/nonhuman world, such as furniture, a pen, a book, species, or technology (Murris, 2016). For example, in pedagogical practice, children and more-than-humans, such as worms, are co-shaping learning, agency, and common worlding together: “The children are learning to respond to the worms, and the worms are learning to respond to close encounters with children” (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015, p. 518, see Todd’s account of worlding pedagogies, this volume). Thus, education becomes a space for coexisting and engaging between different human and nonhuman worlds; “connecting rather than differentiating” them (Silova, 2021, 608). For education, this means that “humanist” child-centered learning should shift to “nonhuman worldly relations” (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015). Therefore, ECE research of the Anthropocene contests the framing of child-centered and play-centered pedagogy and aims to shift the focus in education to more-than-human relations and multispecies pedagogies (Taylor, 2017; Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020). As Taylor and Pacini-Ketchabaw (2015) put it:

Multispecies pedagogies explore the conditions of possibility for interspecies learning, not autonomous individual human development and learning.

Limits and Possibilities of Children’s Political Agency in ECE Research of the Anthropocene

Reimagined children within ECE research of the Anthropocene are closer to the nonhuman and material and are defined by their kinship, relationality, affective openness, symbiotic relationship, sensitivity, and attentiveness to nonhuman agency and material vitality (e.g., Duhn & Galvez, 2020; Merewether, 2019; Weldemariam, 2020). As Weldemariam (2020, p. 405) argues:

In early years education - children are still open and able to see themselves as integral to this world, and capable of developing a symbiotic relationship of “becoming with” this world, whereas adults often will have lost this capacity, ironically, in part as a result of the education they received.

As outlined above, ECE research of the Anthropocene contests and problematizes individual, intentional, rational, autonomous, and exclusively human forms of agency within contemporary ECE. Our analysis suggests that the reformulations of childhood and agency evident in ECE research of the Anthropocene can limit children’s potential to individuate to the political subject and agent. We agree with Kouppanou (2020, p. 954) who argues that it is precisely because of the child’s “radical constitutive relationality and affectedness,” that their individuality and individuation must be protected. Kouppanou claims that an emphasis on an individual child’s learning is social, compensatory action and an important aspect of the child’s individuating and perhaps the defining aspect of the child’s agency. She reminds us that the individual child’s right to learn is not something that most children today enjoy.

Simultaneously when children are imagined as affective and symbiotic to the nonhuman, they are represented as lacking more “humanist” or “adult” transcendent capacities, linguistic skills, and political forms of agency (see also Kouppanou, 2020). This reimagining runs the risk of ignoring existing power imbalances between different subjects, including children, who have never been considered “fully” human or political in the first place. As Kouppanou (2020, p. 954) puts it:

When adults, especially privileged adults, experiment with alternative ways of being, they do challenge humanism. However, when what is uniquely human in children, that is, in beings traditionally thought not to be fully human, is distributed amongst children and nonhuman others, the situation is quite different. … When children’s humanity is challenged, a danger comes to the fore—that is, to forget to think what kind of humanity children can enact—what kind of humanism children’s post/humanism can be or already is, what kind of actions we might expect from them, and what kind of structures are still conditioning them.

For adults, especially “well-schooled” modern/Western intellectuals such as academics, these reimagined forms of subjectivity and agency could mean “unlearning” humanist thinking and “learning to be affected” with the more-than-human (Taylor, 2017, p. 1455). Or as Silova (2021, p. 606) puts it, “decolonization of knowledge requires scholars to also engage in decolonizing their subjectivity.” For young children, who are not “well-schooled in humanist thinking,” it means that they are emancipated from the harmful initiation into humanist thinking and political forms of agency (see also Murris, 2016). In other words, the child is kept at a distance from more humanist, discursive, and performative political forms of agency (see also Kouppanou, 2020). It follows that the ideal child within distributed, relational, more-than-human agency is “liberated” from being an individual subject, an autonomous being possessing unique wills, voices, desires, needs, and intentions. The ideal child of ECE research of the Anthropocene is also released from being a political agent, capable of making change in the world according to their individual wills, intentions, and needs, such as security.

Stated another way, when distributed agency is highlighted and the human subject radically questioned, there are risks associated with limiting children’s (and other humans’) potential for political and curative action in response to climate change and related anthropogenic problems. ECE research of the Anthropocene paradoxically reproduces a dualism between the very binaries of nonhuman/human and nature/culture which it condemns by accusing humans as the main agents of destruction in the nonhuman world. Simultaneously, it renounces the very same dualism and options for human political agency by affirming that this agency emerges only in “intra-action” and denying thinking, intentional, and willing subjects. If agency is not an attribute, intention, or will of subjects or humans, what happens to political agency, responsibility, and accountability? Or as Kouppanou (2020, p. 951) asks: “Can the responsibility of climate change be anything but human and political?” Not only does the distributed and relational conceptualization of agency make it difficult to sustain individual and collective political agency and responsibility for the problems of the Anthropocene, it might also make it “impossible to ascribe accountability, political or otherwise, to any being – human or nonhuman, since all beings are perceived as having the same capacity for agentic materiality” (Kouppanou, 2022, p. 775; see also Bargetz, 2019). Furthermore, it is problematic if children’s opportunities for political forms of agency are limited before they have been fully acknowledged as political subjects.

Any attempt to contest binaries between human/nonhuman, culture/nature, self/other, and adult/child – or to conceptualize children and nonhumans as equally “worlding” or co-creating worlds in a time of complex ecological crises – risks homogenizing the category of human by paradoxically emphasizing the human/nonhuman dichotomy, hiding existing power imbalances, and obscuring the responsibility of modern/Western adults, power regimes, and culture in bringing about the grave consequences of the Anthropocene. For example, Hadfield-Hill and Zara (2020, p. 413) argue:

[T]hinking of children and young people as geological agents means to acknowledge that, just as (and with) any other companion species, they are part of the ongoing production of the Anthropocene. They are participants in the goings-on of everyday life, they partake in the process of producing anthropogenic environmental change while simultaneously experiencing the effects of these changes on their own lives.

While it is true that some of the world’s children are implicated in the climate crisis, it is nevertheless important to highlight the unequal and asymmetrical power relations that lie beneath the problems of the Anthropocene. It might be quite soothing for modern/Western adults, power regimes, and cultures to imagine sharing the burden of ecological crises, not only with all children and young people (including non-Western children such as Indian children in the study by Hadfield-Hill and Zara (2020) quoted above), but also more elusively with “any other companion species” and more-than-human actants (plants, furniture, climates, insects, technologies, viruses). Not only does this hide asymmetrical power relations and responsibility of especially modern/Western power regimes and human adults for the problems of the Anthropocene, it also radically limits the curative potential of political agency, obscuring the notions of responsibility and accountability, as elaborated earlier.

Openness, affectedness, attentiveness, and symbiotic relation to “the other” such as materials, technologies, companion species, or other entities are reimagined in ECE research of the Anthropocene as celebrated qualities of children. This privileges capacities for adaptivity and resiliency. Simultaneously, blurring the boundaries between self and other and denying forms of intentional, autonomous, and independent political agentic capacities can render children continually “open” and affected by “other.” This makes the survival of children contingent primarily upon their capacities to be adaptive and resilient to their constantly changing “becomings” of precarious, vulnerable, and even catastrophic environments, worlds, and futures. Ontologically, all possible worlds and futures are conceptualized as already fundamentally, ontologically and mutually vulnerable, precarious, and damaged (see, for example, Mycock, 2020; Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015). Therefore, the interminable permanent change of all the possible worlds and futures are inevitable, but these changes seem to be no longer in the “hands” of human agency, whether the intention is to secure or destroy.

There is a risk that notions of becoming-with, intra-acting and common worlding, then, limit children’s options to merely surviving in continuously shifting and becoming precarious worlds by continually adapting to them as mutually vulnerable and affected enmeshed subjectivities. The radical enmeshing of subjectivities and agencies makes it difficult, if not impossible, for subjects to resist power imbalances or seek security for themselves from outside forces. Protecting oneself, or protecting anything, requires political agentic capacities to resist and contest “the Other,” at least momentarily. Transforming the self, through adaptation and resilience, for example, is primarily a psychological act, while transforming “the Other” (the conditions in the world) and contesting the social order is a political act. We do not seek to negate the transformative power of self-transformation or collective interconnection as mobilizing forces where political agency is concerned. However, we contend that some sort of even momentary boundary between “the self” and “the Other” – as well as possibilities for “differing” and not only “connecting” – are important for political action, transforming “outer reality” and altering the status quo. We see these as possibilities for “fugitive instants” of partial transformations (Foucault, 1990; Friedrich et al., 2010). At the same time, humans live in profoundly material-discursive relations with the world, and it is not possible to exist only by contesting, differing, and making boundaries, which are already discursively constituted and political. Connecting, interacting, and coming together in assemblages are also equally important for humans to live in this interconnected world.

For these reasons, we agree that we should not dismiss posthumanist and new materialist approaches too readily, as they aim to bring attention to the reality of ethico-political potentials and forms of agency which have never been possessed exclusively by (adult) humanity. ECE researchers of the Anthropocene force us to look not only at human agency but also agency of material and other species. Importantly, they invite us to rethink what it means to be human in the first place, from critical and relational perspectives (Hadfield-Hill & Zara, 2020, p. 411; Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015). These approaches seek to achieve a future that ultimately relates to commonality and novel modes and modalities of political agency (Bargetz, 2019, pp. 181–183). According to Bennet (2010), new materialism opens possibilities for a world “not predetermined but open, a land of opportunity for creativity, surprise, and choice” (p. 90). The new materialist ontology is based on the conceptualization of matter as “indeterminate, constantly forming and reforming in unexpected ways” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 10). Thus, the agency of nonhuman is active, becoming, self-creative, productive, and unpredictable (Bargetz, 2019, pp. 181–183; Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 10), as is human agency. From this ontological position, no binaries in terms of political action exist. Rather, a focus on intra-action between the flood, wild-fire, or other natural hazards and human bodies, for example, may well call forth preventative action from the confining territories or boundaries of non-action.

An always surprising and unforeseen “agency of assemblages” (Bennet, 2010, p. 20) which opens “a multiplicity of possibilities for shaping the future” as Barad and Bennet, according to Bargetz (2019, p. 185) understand it, could also mean “fugitive instants” of resistances and partial transformations of the status quo, as we have conceptualized political agency in this chapter. Yet, it is important to note the asymmetrical and unequal power relations that shape different assemblages, such as children’s relations with nonhuman technologies, economics, adult humans, and (so-called) natural forces and beings. The act of dissolving binaries celebrated by ECE researchers of the Anthropocene involves not only removing boundaries between children and ants, bees, or mud (see for example Somerville & Powell, 2019b; Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015; Weldemariam, 2020) but also between children and technology/AI, diseases, and exploitative power relations with adults or neoliberal power regimes, for example. Therefore, surprising and unforeseen dynamic processes of agency of assemblages and dissolving binaries may also include new pandemics, accelerate climate change, or agitate further the power of technologies and AI and techno-scientific governance, as well as the exploitation of children by adults or neoliberal power regimes (see also Coole & Frost, 2010, pp. 16–18; Sheldon, 2016). Therefore, asymmetrical and hierarchical power relations and inequalities which are already immanent parts of different material-discursive assemblages, as well as possibilities for ethico-political (intentional) subjective and collective decisions to act differently, must be taken in consideration when re-conceptualizing children’s agency. Furthermore, material/nonhuman agency should not be overemphasized, because agency is also a human attribute and human possibilities and responsibilities for political action are essential in an era of the human-caused environmental disasters and should therefore not be negated.

Adopting a feminist lens, Bargetz (2019, p. 181) argues that “new materialist approaches attempt to oppose the contemporary affective condition of political depression, despair and hopelessness” (which are also part of the public and scholarly discussion about problems of the Anthropocene, such as climate change) “by desiring and mobilizing to achieve a different political future, one that ultimately relates to care and commonality as well as to (new) modes and modalities of political agency (p. 181).” She continues that while the new materialist reimagination of agency can be understood as “an intervention into the contemporary crisis of imagination” (p. 183) and an attempt “to critically push further the possibilities for political agency,” it is important to pay attention to “the risk of depoliticization” inherent in new materialist and posthumanist rethinking of alternative modes of agency. Further, she argues that new materialism’s “optimistic theoretical endeavor should not lead us to turn away from critique but should entail both moments of affirmation and moments of dissonance” (Bargetz, 2019, p. 190).

ECE researchers of the Anthropocene justify the need to reimagine children’s agency by arguing that the Anthropocene poses precarious and catastrophically damaged futures for twenty-first-century children (for example, Taylor, 2020; Weldemariam, 2020). To open up possibilities for shaping alternative futures, the privileging of, and over-reliance on, human agency cannot be left unaddressed (Bennet, 2010, p. xvi). At the same time, we need to be cognizant of a more hidden rationality behind the increasing interest in reimagining the agency of young children. It is not only that the Anthropocene is the future for these young children, but also controversially, the future can be planned through constituting the child and its (political) agency (see also Popkewitz, 2006; Sheldon, 2016). As we elaborated earlier in this chapter, the very planning of political agency negates it. The child represents a tool or “solution” for (adult) humanity to constitute the future social order and an alternative form of post/human (see also Sheldon, 2016; Edelman, 2004; Kouppanou, 2020; Lindgren, 2020; Lindgren & Sjöstrand Öhrfelt, 2019). Educational research which makes representations of who the child is or should/should not be, is not only conceptualizing theoretical or practical understandings of children but is also fabricating children and having actual lived and embodied effects on their lives.

Children as becomings have been pictured throughout history as a cure and hope for humanity’s multiple troubles, which connects to depoliticization and instrumentalization of the concept of the child (Kouppanou, 2020). Through the figure of the child the future can be reimagined: the future of the alternative and more “sustainable” human subjectivity and agency (see also Lindgren, 2020; Lindgren & Sjöstrand Öhrfelt, 2019). These alternative forms of agency and subjectivity reimagined in ECE research of the Anthropocene are especially depoliticized and dehumanized subjects. Therefore, potentially, they are “tamed,” “harmless” subjects, who do not endanger the planet, environment, and life on Earth, but there is a risk that neither do they have the political, resistant, and curative potential to contest and transform the existing power imbalances and the status quo.

Conclusion

ECE research of the Anthropocene radically contests more traditional understandings of human subjectivity premised on individual, intentional, rational, autonomous, and exclusively human forms of agency in favor of an ideal form that is held to be distributed, relational, more-than-human agency of enmeshed subjectivities which share mutual vulnerability and survivability with other more-than-humans in the inevitably damaged and precarious worlds.

Yet, as we have shown in this chapter, this agency production problematizes political forms of agency, because it tends to limit the curative and resistant potential of children, both individually and collectively. This runs the risk of depoliticization, depriving children of capacities to make a difference in the world according to their individual or collective wills, intentions, voices, desires, and needs. The risk of depoliticization does not negate that ECE research of the Anthropocene does important work by reimagining agency as relational, affective, collective, interconnected, and more-than-human. Yet, the depoliticized child represents alternative forms of more “sustainable” (post)human subjectivity and agency which potentially does not bring harm to the planet and nonhumans. These “sustainable” subjectivities have both risks and possibilities for children’s political agency. On the one hand, when agency is distributed between different actants, and binaries blurred between humans and nonhumans, adults and children, subjects and objects, nature(s) and culture(s), it might open up possibilities for children to intra-act with things, people, species, and nature in mutually response-able ways which produce new more relational and interconnected forms of political agency. On the other hand, there is a risk that these alternative accounts of agency and subjectivity support, rather than challenge, the status quo, underplaying curative and resistant political potential. From a Foucauldian perspective, to challenge the status quo politically, one needs to be able to resist and contest it, not necessarily continuously but as “fugitive instants” of partial transformations (e.g., Foucault, 1990; Friedrich et al., 2010). This requires the subject to be able to separate itself from the “Other” (for example the social order, the environment, the world), at least momentarily, and to believe in its own powers to effect change. The more “sustainable” (post)human subjectivities make it difficult to sustain the responsibility and accountability of the problems of the Anthropocene, diverting our attention away from existing power imbalances that need to be challenged and from responsibilities especially of modern/Western culture, power regimes, adults, and wealthy people in bringing about the ecological crises.

ECE research of the Anthropocene sees reconfiguring human agency as a central part of education. While it is important to learn from, and reflect on, destructive human actions in the world, the recognition of the anthropogenic ecological crises should not lead to the categorical depoliticization of all human (or subjective and intentional) agency. Without subjective and collective political agency, it becomes impossible to transform the anthropogenic status quo. Political agency cannot be planned and governed by ECE institutions and pedagogies, but reimagining ECE for the Anthropocene requires addressing the risk of depoliticization on the one hand and critical understanding of the possibilities of (new) relational forms of political agency that can advance well-being for both humans and more-than-humans, on the other. This requires both moments of connection and repair as well as resistance, difference, and contestation. While it is important to recognize the complex entanglements between human and nonhuman actors in the Anthropocene, it is also important to notice the complex, unequal, and asymmetrical ways in which children’s lives are connected with the lives of other humans, nonhumans, materials, technologies, economics, ecologies, and broader systems of power that shape our shared world(s).