Pseudonym: Vicky Michaels
For those who might have missed it, World Social Work Day 2017 celebrated the theme “Promoting Community and Environmental Sustainability”. With the natural environment now being an integral component of social work globally (due to the impact of climate change, natural disasters and greater understanding of environmental justice) this was indeed a timely and significant endorsement on behalf of the social work profession.
The obligation for social workers to take into account the natural environment is unmistakably outlined in the international guidelines. The International Federation of Social Workers identifies social change as a key element to incorporating and acknowledging the natural environment, along with embracing third generation rights.
However, when social workers hear the term ‘environment’ it is usually the ‘social’ rather than the ‘natural’ environment that they consider. As Ramsay and Boddy (2017) state, the use of the term ‘environmental social work’ and similar descriptions of this concept are “founded on ecological justice principles” (p. 68). As such, when I reflect on ‘environmental social work’ (ESW) I do not necessarily consider a role distinctively separate, instead more of an approach within any social work field.
Accordingly, the role of an ESW as such, is rather complicated to define. However, Ramsay and Boddy (2017) provide a helpful operational definition and interpretation of ESW practice along with a ‘concept analysis framework’ to assist with clarification.
In brief, the role, contribution and strengths of a social worker in this field may include several of the following aspects:
- The creative application of existing social work knowledge and skills (e.g. empowerment, community development, team building and anti-oppressive practice) to environmental concepts
- Being open to different values and ways of doing or being (e.g. acquiring knowledge and learning from the experiences of indigenous people; engaging with our natural environment and educating ourselves and those around us to be ecologically mindful
- Being active in social change facilitation (e.g. informing public debate, researching alternatives and lobbying)
- Working within multidisciplinary teams and local communities (e.g. sharing local knowledge to develop resilience and strength)
Challenges in this field include limited evidence of recognition of environmental issues within social work practice and education, along with the sluggish speed at which climate change and its impacts have been recognised by the profession (Ellis, 2017). The current absence of NZ social work literature relating to the environment is also noted by Pitt (2013), although he does not believe this necessarily reflects a disinterest or lack of concern in relation to environmental issues. Other major challenges in this field, according to Alston (2013) include providing for socially just, supportive and non-divisive solutions.
Accordingly, irrespective of the field of social work you are currently practicing in, as risks are generally higher for already vulnerable and disadvantaged people, we will be increasingly exposed to adverse effects of climate change. Therefore I urge you to take on board an understanding and openness to incorporate the natural environment into your practice now, as our skills and knowledge in this field will be of necessity rather than choice in the very near future. The more we can do now, the better prepared we will be for these eventualities.
Alston, M. (2013). Social work in the context of climate change and disasters. In M. Connolly & L. Harms (Eds.), Social work: Contexts and practice (3rd ed. pp. 315-326). South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, L. (2017, March 20). Educating for the future: Addressing the relevance of climate change impacts in New Zealand social work [Webinar]. Retrieved from http://anzasw.nz/environmental-social-work-webinar-series/
Pitt, L. (2016). What’s happening in Taranaki? Social workers and the environment. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 25(4), 52-61. read here
Ramsay, S., & Boddy, J. (2017). Environmental social work: A concept analysis. British Journal of Social Work, 47(1), 68-86. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/bjsw/article/47/1/68/2622336