Updated: May 5, 2022
A blog article by Ruth Leak, Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham
How does that title make you feel? Possibly, ‘Oh no, there’s enough to think about already’, or maybe you’re an eco-warrior and already take the environment into consideration. Most of us are probably somewhere in between.
Why shouldn’t we apply environmental principles to our practice? We already think about individuals in relation to their environment, (Rambaree, 2020) and a key priority of the 2020 – 2030 Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development Framework is a commitment to co-designing and building ‘thriving communities…for people and the environment’ (IFSW, 2020). The framework acknowledges the philosophy of Ubuntu which sees all humanity as connected and that our individual actions impact on communities (Oviawe, 2016).
Research links climate change to environmental disasters and notes that such disasters affect marginalised people the most (Dominelli, 2014). For example, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka led to men losing livelihoods, roles and identity resulting in an increase in domestic violence towards women and children (Dominelli, 2014). Scientists predict an increase in extreme weather conditions such as heatwaves, droughts and floods, leading to higher numbers of deaths particularly among women, children and older people (Dominelli, 2013). Against this backdrop social work’s commitment to social justice and anti-oppressive practice must mean that we cannot practice in a way that contributes to this oppression. The difficulty arises when we think about how social work practice is structured.
In the UK social work is based on a neo-liberal model. Neo-liberalism is based on capitalist social structures which redistribute resources in favour of the rich, for example by favouring private industry (Garrett, 2009; Rambaree, 2020; Dominelli 2014). It prioritises seeing people as individuals rather than as members in a wider community as in Ubuntu. Speaking as someone who has previously championed Direct Payments as a way of ‘levelling up’ for those who do not have their own financial resources and thereby enabling them to take control of their care and support, this is hard to read.
Person centred approaches and support plans were and still are favoured by governments over a social welfare model. As a statutory social worker I understood I was an agent of the state but did not understand that by adopting this individualist model, my practice could be contributing to environmental degradation, climate disasters and oppressing the marginalised. Although this realisation was disempowering to the social work students in Rambaree’s (2020) research, Dominelli (2013) offers a more hopeful alternative. She argues that social workers are agents of change and should re-focus their political awareness to include climate justice. This could mean ‘lobbying and mobilising for changes that safeguard the environment and prevent future disasters’ (Dominelli, 2013 p. 437), advocating for the rights of marginalised people affected by climate emergencies, challenging systems that undermine people’s rights, educating, being a negotiator between communities and (local) governments…the list goes on.
But change must also come at a structural level. Garrett (2009) regrets that HEIs and statutory social services departments have embraced rather than challenged the neo-liberal agenda. Social Work qualifying programmes are based on a vocational model that produces social workers who do not ‘unduly destabilize, neoliberal nostrums’ (Garrett, 2009). This is largely in response to local authorities’ demands for social workers who are able to undertake statutory tasks or, to use the well work phrase, can ‘hit the ground running’. The increasing popularity of fast-track programmes, sponsored and favoured by governments to produce statutory social workers at the expense of traditional courses (Donovan, 2016), is another indication of the normalisation of neo-liberalism in social work. This does not have to be the case. Some HEIs have started to incorporate modules into their programmes modules based on environmental awareness (Rambaree, 2020), thereby equipping their students to think politically and work creatively to support rather than damage the environment.
Social Work is dealt a difficult hand. Forced to work in a way that challenges its underpinning values we have seen that it can increase environmental degradation and oppress the marginalised. But we are not powerless. By collectively and individually increasing our awareness of environmental issues and lobbying for change, we can become transformative - social workers and intellectuals (Rambaree, 2020).
Let’s give the last word to Greta Thunberg.
‘You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes [...] We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis [...] if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then [...] we should change the system itself (Thunberg, as quoted in Rambaree, 2020).
Dominelli, L., (2014) ‘Promoting environmental justice through green social work practice: A key challenge for practitioners and educators’, UK International Social Work Vol. 57(4) 338 –345
Dominelli, L., (2013) ‘Environmental justice at the heart of social work practice: Greening the profession’, International Journal of Social Welfare, 22 pp. 431 – 439
Donovan, T., (2016) ‘A fast track future? What condensed social work training may mean for traditional courses’ Community Care (Accessed 13th January, 2017).
Garrett, P.M. (2010) ‘Examining the Conservative Revolution: Neoliberalism and Social Work Education.’ Paul Michael Garrett. Social Work Education. vol 29, no. 4. June 2010. pp. 340-355
International Federation of Social Work (2020) 2020-2030 Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development Framework: ‘Co-building Inclusive Social Transformation’. Available at https://www.ifsw.org/2020-to-2030-global-agenda-for-social-work-and-social-development-framework-co-building-inclusive-social-transformation/#:~:text=Long%2Dtime%20partners%20and%20new,which%20all%20people%20are%20treated (Accessed 12 March 2022)
Oviawe, j. (2016) ‘How to rediscover the ubuntu paradigm in education’. Int Rev Educ 62, 1–10 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-016-9545-x
Rambaree, K (2020), ‘Environmental social work: Implications for accelerating the implementation of sustainable development in social work curricula’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 21 No. 3, pp. 557-574. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-09-2019-0270