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Environmental Efforts: The Next Challenge for Social Work


Annie Muldoon, MSW
Carleton University
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada



As the world continues to run out of clean air, water and spaces, it is the poor, women, people of colour, and people of the global South who first experience the consequences. The profession of social work is well poised to advocate preventive and prescriptive environmental measures in partnership with the communities in question. An analysis of power, along with an appreciation for the unique constraints of gender, race and geography, is instrumental for the articulation of environmental threats and eco-sustainable solutions. Ecological justice opens up an exciting space where social work has much to contribute, and much to gain.


A new domain is being added to social work’s more traditional considerations of structure, power and difference. As the profession continue to work towards safe, equal and ethical treatment of all people, the fate of the natural environment is becoming increasingly significant. John McNutt (1994) writes, “Social policy cannot be sustainable unless the society that supports it is sustainable” (p. 43). Attempts to improve social conditions may be lost if society itself lacks clean air, drinkable water and adequate food. It is quickly becoming evident that the groups who are most immediately and profoundly affected by environmental destruction are those who face multiple systems of oppression. These include women, the poor, people of colour and people who reside in nations of the global South. Regardless of their area of specialization, many theorists contend that “social workers will encounter the consequences of environmental contamination in their work with clients, whatever the field of practice” (Soine, 1987, p. 44). This may happen sooner than later.

Social work has a history of attempting to re-balance distributions of power, while articulating how race, gender and geography affect this allocation. This experience would be invaluable to communities that live in environments that are threatened or compromised. Social work also makes people the priority. There are few other professions capable of coping with fear and illness, while simultaneously possessing the ability to listen, empathize, analyze and organize. The burgeoning field of environmental justice requires the skills social work can offer in order to move towards sustainable, and socially conscious, change.

Looking Back to Move Forward – How Social Work Can Inform Environmental Action

Social work has sometimes been accused of supporting the status quo by providing tools by which people may cope with, but not question, oppressive circumstances. Roland Smith (1996) writes that social work “is a means through which [a capitalist] society, intending an unlimited free market, proselytizes its values, pacifies dissidents, treats victims, [and] helps converts” (p. 263). Some environmentalists have criticized the profession for its unwavering attention to the social realm, which they claim has helped to suppress awareness about the interconnections between people and environment (Hoff, 1994; Coates, 2003). Anne Weick (1987) writes that although this may have been the past, it does not need to be the future:
no matter what its historical role has been, social work does not have to support the existing paradigm. Because of its uniquely preserved wisdom about the radical potential of human beings to recreate themselves, social work can take a leading role in articulating a new view. (p. 228)
It is largely due to this “uniquely preserved wisdom” that social work is well poised to facilitate and support ecological change.

Mutual Aid – Social Work and Ecological Justice

Environmental destruction is irrefutably tied to Western constructs of individualism, consumerism and unmitigated growth: “[industrialized society has] quite naturally produced a dominant commercial culture that believes all resources and social inequities can be resolved through development, invention, high finance and growth – always growth” (Hawken, 1993, p. 5). This has led to pollution and the extraction of irreplaceable resources. It has also helped to create communities of isolated individuals and families who are led to believe that consumption is salvation. Mary Clark (1989) writes: “more and more are Western societies . . . becoming assemblages of unhappy, alienated individuals, proud of their freedom from dependence on others, unaware that it is the rejection of their mutual relatedness that creates their unhappiness” (p. 311). This tendency impairs community relationships and has undeniable environmental consequences, as consumption is viewed as a means by which to achieve fulfillment, and as a replacement for meaningful social interaction. Perhaps, then, it is through the acknowledgement of the interdependence of community and ecology that environmental change may occur: “because we now share one another’s fate, it is increasingly clear that promoting the well-being of others directly promotes our own” (Elgin, 2000, p. 115). The realization of the ways in which environment and community can strengthen each other also “enable[s] the social welfare sector of society to significantly influence the quality of . . . life experienced by all those who need and want social welfare services” (Hoff & McNutt, 1994, p. 6). This may happen as the classed nature of environmental exposure becomes apparent, and those working for social change begin to realize that their struggles have an ecological component. As environmentalists join with social activists, the movement towards equity gains momentum.

Environmental action can become a vital component in the pursuit of social justice. When this connection is made, these new methods for moving towards sustainability will emerge. Nowhere is this connection more necessary than when addressing the ecological and social realities of the poor, women and people of colour.

The Price of Protection - Poverty and Employment

Richard Bolan (1994) writes, “The threads linking environmental pollution and social welfare stand much more exposed under extreme conditions” (p. 146). People living in poverty not only lack material goods, but also lack the means by which to cope with impending environmental destruction. It is clear that the rich are able to insulate themselves against ecological damage for much longer than the poor (McNutt, 1994). Low-income individuals and families continue to live in contaminated neighbourhoods, suffer from dwindling resources, and work in unsafe and poisonous conditions. This is a human rights issue, and social work may wish to begin to mobilize around notions of appropriate distribution of resources and responsible management of waste. This may not be a popular endeavour because “the challenge here is complex as it calls on the rich to reduce consumption of resources (and thereby reduce pollution to levels which Earth can effectively absorb) so the poor can have equity” (Coates, 2003, p. 118). Social workers must also realize that people living in poverty have little incentive to join environmental efforts: “the poor, by virtue of their pressing short-term needs, have few incentives to manage resources for the long haul” (Lusk, 1994, p. xvi). When ecological issues surface, the life of the poor intrinsically depends on the lifestyle of the wealthy.

There has often been polarity between environmentalists and industrialists due to the supposed conflict between a healthy economy and a sustainable environment. Marie Hoff and John McNutt (1994) profess this argument to be irrelevant, as “human society can prosper only if we succeed in basing our socioeconomic development models on a physical environment capable of providing sustenance for human needs at renewable rates” (p. 2). Judy Bari recognizes the strain this will place on a struggling workforce and contends that “only when workers are in a position to refuse to engage in destructive practices or produce destructive goods (can) any realistic hope for lasting ecological change emerge” (Shantz, 2002, p. 119). Bari sensibly maintains that it is unrealistic to ask people to privilege environment over economy if this impairs their ability to meet basic needs (Shantz, 2002). Madeline Lovell and Douglas Johnson (1994) illustrate how this dilemma results in those with low incomes working in unsafe conditions and using Earth damaging products: “a migrant farm worker, who can neither directly perceive the toxin, nor forestall exposure, may find denial of risk the only tolerable response” (p. 206). Social workers may wish to familiarize themselves with the ways in which a local economy contributes to a polluted environment, and attempt to build relationships between the offenders and the victims.

Social and community work have generally been complicit in helping to maintain a dominant focus on economy and growth. Crescy Cannan (2000) notes, “Community development is closer to social democratic traditions which prioritize jobs and urban and economic development as a foundation for welfare” (p. 367). Community activists may find it beneficial to seek a balance between economy and environment, and begin to articulate the fact that one is inherently dependent on the other. Hoff and McNutt (1994) write of the role community organizers can play in advocating for the development of jobs in “environmental enhancement” in order to replace the jobs lost in “extraction industries” (p. 301). This unique challenge is not insurmountable, and can result in greater community cohesion. After months of organizing, Judi Bari facilitated a working group consisting of both environmentalists and loggers in an effort to save Northern California’s Redwood forests (Shantz, 2002). In doing so, she helped to bring a working-class, feminist perspective to an issue that had previously been divided by clear class distinctions (Shantz, 2002). This is the type of ingenuity necessary to bring people together around ecological issues. Community organizers can also communicate the importance of connecting with labour groups to environmentalists and other activists looking to create coalitions.

Damaged Divas – Woman as Environmental Victim and Innovator

Unfortunately, the effects of environmental destruction are not gender neutral. Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva (1993) write, “Many recent studies on the impact of ecological deterioration on women, particularly the poorest women in the South, have highlighted . . . the fact that women and children are the main victims in this war against nature” (p. 303). The environment, women and marginalized people have all suffered similar fates under patriarchy and capitalism, such as domination, displacement and exploitation. Ecofeminism calls for an examination of the “power politics” that surround decisions that affect the environment. It has also begun to question the notion of “natural” disasters (i.e. famine in Africa; fallout after Hurricane Katrina, etc.) which may actually be caused, and are definitely exacerbated, by the unequal distribution of resources (Hoff, 1994, p. 22).

Despite this reality, Mies and Shiva (1993) write that organized women’s groups are among “the most active, most creative, and most concerned and committed in movements for conservation and protection of nature and for healing the damage done to her” (p. 303). By their very participation, many women question the dominant ideology, as many of these movements “implicitly and explicitly criticize the prevailing capitalist, profit and growth-oriented, patriarchal development paradigm and . . . advocate a new alternative; a subsistence alternative” (Mies and Shiva, 1993, p. 303). Activities range from the creation of “alternative economies” (bartering, trade, etc.) to community efforts to prevent the dumping of waste in underprivileged neighbourhoods. By examining and taking part in these initiatives, social workers and community organizers can learn methods and techniques that help to create systems that can exist outside of the neo-liberal global economy.

Who Lives Where - People of Colour and Environmental Racism

Jan Shubert (1994), citing the report Toxic Waste and Race in the United States conducted by the Commission for Racial Justice in 1987, states that “race proved to be the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous facilities” (p. 248-249). This phenomenon is the physical representation of the notion that “disposable wastes can be dumped among disposable people to generate disposable income for wealthier segments of society” (Rogge, 1994, p. 53). Recent revelations about the unsafe drinking water on First Nations’ reserves in Ontario illustrates the uncomfortable fact that these practices are also endemic to Canada. The prevalence of these types of activity has led to the term “environmental racism”. In addition to the groups discussed in earlier sections, people of colour disproportionately suffer the effects of environmental damage, and often experience more consequences when clean-up efforts are identified and initiated (Rogge, 1994). This is yet another area where social and environmental justice intersect. As social workers concern themselves with issues of inequality and diversity, environmental racism is an area that requires attention. Social workers may find it useful to work in partnership with targeted communities in an attempt to ensure that their neighbourhood polluters are identified and encouraged to enter into conversation.

An Expanding Empire - North America and the Global South

Cannan (2000) comments on what she believes should be one of the primary focuses of community organizing: “community development needs to remind politicians, ‘stakeholders,’ and the general public in the north, that their lifestyles rely on damage being done, especially in the south” (p. 367). The waste that results from consumption in the North is not confined to its borders: “there is growing evidence that the impacts of global climate change will fall most heavily on the developing countries” (Hillman, 2002, p. 351). Capitalism is “based on the extraction of non-renewable resources and is oriented to the primary goal of profit-making” (Hoff, 1994, p. 14). For social workers and community developers in Canada, this necessitates activism around issues of consumerism and corporate control. David Korten states that “the ultimate goal . . . should be a flat prohibition on for-profit corporations’ involvement in any activity intended to influence the political process or to “educate” the public on issues of policy or the public interest” (1995, p. 309). In their efforts to incorporate environmental issues, social and community workers can attempt to unmask the ways in which a community’s buying power influences international affairs.

War and environmental destruction are also indisputably linked: “modern wars cause vast environmental and social destruction. But environmental depletion may also contribute to the continuing struggle for natural resources which, in a vicious cycle, may contribute to increasing conflict in the future” (Hoff, 1994, p. 29). As the North struggles to sate the desires of a throw-away culture, the South becomes even more valuable in terms of raw materials, cheap labour, and weak environmental policies. When these countries are invaded, exploited and criticized for unsafe environmental practices, it is important for social and community workers to articulate how these actions are generally facilitated and condoned by wealthier nations who reap material benefits while exporting waste.

Urban Sprawl – The Environment and Rural Communities

Community development has generally followed the global trend of focusing on urban growth, a trend that “prioritize[s] people over “nature” and, in general, the urban over the rural” (Cannan, 2000, p. 369). This has led to environmental damage in both sectors, as unmediated growth results in uncontainable waste: “ecological footprints of large urban areas extend many hundreds of miles into the surrounding countryside, affecting air and water quality and consuming scarce resources” (Hillman, 2002, p. 351). Rural communities are often left to cope with the waste of their urban neighbours.

Some social and environmental thinkers believe that it is the distance between production, consumption and waste that allows economically privileged centres to cause environmental damage. Mies and Shiva (1993) comment:
the exclusive concern of people as producers is maximizing the money output of their production and they will therefore continue to produce poisonous substances, nuclear power, weapons, more and more cars. But as consumers they want clean air, unpolluted food, and a safe place for their waste, far away from their home . . . It is this contradiction between production and consumption . . . which is ultimately responsible for the destruction of nature. (p. 299)
McNutt (1994) agrees that industrialization allows for the domination of “the natural world and the technological means to delay the immediate need to deal with limitations on the resource base” (p. 37). Many environmentalists believe that it is only through the construction and maintenance of small, localized, sustainable communities that environmental solutions will materialize. As facilitation and support of these kinds of communities is sometimes a focus for community organizers, incorporation of environmental issues is a logical next step.

Environmental Ethics – The Community Question

Regardless of context, it is important to note that the concept of “community” can be manipulated to suit whatever purpose the speaker deems fit. Environmentalists write of the “community of consumption,” but rarely recognize how society is stratified by power. Jeffrey Shantz (2002) writes:
the essentialist narratives of fundamentalist ecology . . . tend to construct “humanity” as a bloc, undifferentiated by power, in which a universalistic human species itself [is] held responsible for biospheric destruction, dangerously discounting politically constructed differences of race, gender and class. (p. 108)
The model of collective humanity fails to acknowledge the very characteristics that can impede an individual’s ability to make ecological choices. While there are advantages to thinking of the world as a cohesive unit, it is dangerous to negate the power differentials that separate those who “have,” from those who do not. This step is imperative as there is another adversary worthy of opposition: “the exploitation of the environment has its origins in the exploitation of humans by humans . . . It is corporate interests that we need to challenge and confront rather than seeing humankind as per se a blight on the planet” (Cannan, 2000, p. 368). It is the “powerholders” (Moyer, 2001) who need to be confronted and named as those who have the most to gain from environmental exploitation. Community organizers may contribute to this understanding by insisting that discussions of global or local community include recognition of privilege and difference.

Those who oppose environmental action because of perceived damage to the economy can also invoke different perceptions of community as concepts around which to organize. Shantz (2002) notes that this occurred when environmental groups began to protest deforestation in Northern California: “notions of community [were] often the very weapon wielded by timber companies against environmentalist ‘outsiders’”(p. 116). In this circumstance, “community” is used as a means to exert social control.

Samhat, Bradley and Owen (2000) write that the highly exclusive “political community,” responsible for many of the decisions surrounding environmental policy, must be reconfigured in order to include those who are marginalized. They state that developing environmental policy “is about insisting on the conditions in which all voices have the opportunity to be heard, [and] where dialogic engagement permits an expanding range of difference to be incorporated into discussions” (Samhat, Bradley & Owen, 2000, p. 605). This is another forum where social and community workers could become involved to advocate for political processes that reflect the needs and concerns of local communities.

What We’ve Got – The Inherent Skills of Social work

Many theorists believe that social work possesses many of the skills necessary to promote the preservation of the environment. Lovell and Johnson (1994) state,
A broadening of the practice paradigm – rather than a new technology – is needed. Much of the required knowledge and skill already exists in the practitioner’s repertoire . . . Social work has a . . . philosophy of equality and a history of surmounting diversity to create common bonds. Thus, the profession is well-positioned to bridge the gap between the natural and social environments. (p. 200-203)
Relevant social work skills include critical analysis, knowledge of community mobilization strategies, and an understanding of the complexities of relationship-building and conflict resolution.

The environmental movement must contain those who work in the social realm in order to prevent the reproduction of a dominant ideology that does not address social stratification. As Shantz (2002) notes, “[Social movements] have interesting intersections with class movements that are largely downplayed or overlooked” (p. 106). Community organizers can highlight these areas and attempt to ensure that those who do not have environmental power are still included in the development of policy and practice. Another way for ecological factions to gain support is to look to collaborate with other groups with whom they share common interests (Shubert, 1994; Kauffman, 1994). These include movements that focus on labour, peace, anti-globalization, ecofeminism, deep ecology, social injustice, voluntary simplicity, organic farming, and others.

Formal environmental movements are not the only place that the profession can facilitate environmental change. Social and community workers often build much of their practice from ideas surrounding citizen participation (Kauffman, 1994), the belief that “the personal is political,” the recognition of the importance of local and global social justice (Hoff & McNutt, 1994), and critical analysis regarding the construction of community. Community organizers have the ability to contribute to the recognition and articulation of a community’s rights. Social workers can practice environmental consciousness-raising with, and advocacy on behalf of, individuals, families and groups. These are all skills that are necessary as local and international communities begin to realize that their reorganization must involve an environmental focus.

Greening the Classroom – Environmental Education in Schools of Social Work

Stephen Kauffman (1994) suggests that along with their “inherent skills,” social and community workers must also have access to training if they wish to organize around specific environmental issues. These abilities would be complimented by the introduction of environmentally sustainable curricula in schools of social work. This would provide students with the technical knowledge necessary to assist communities looking to organize around particular ecological concerns. It would also alert prospective social workers to the ways in which global decisions affect local development.

The curriculum could contain instruction on how to conduct biopsychosocial and social impact assessments (Rogge, 1993), information about legal issues surrounding environmental suffering (Coates, 2003), how to prepare for and cope with environmental disaster (Rogge, 1993), current national and international environmental policy (Coates, 2003), and methods that promote effective organizing and social action. Mary Rogge (1994) says that schools of social work must begin to consider environmental field placements as an essential means of expanding notions of “person-in-environment” (p. 258). Coates (2003) writes that the most important goal of social work education is the development of a “global consciousness”:
the emphasis on global consciousness reflecting a connectedness to all things begins with individuals and groups, but develops and broadens through action to bring about personal and social change . . . The nature of global consciousness leads one to be active in the world, as it challenges not only how one sees the world but also how one is in the world. (p. 110)
Social work students will begin to develop a more holistic and ecological worldview if they are offered the opportunity to learn about the links between consumption, economic, gendered and racial inequality, and environmental damage (Coates, 2003). They will also gain knowledge of “alternative lifestyles and political and economic practices that will lead to equality and environmental integration” (Coates, 2003, p. 152). This is essential in order to prepare the profession for the work it will undertake.

A New Beginning

Duane Elgin (2000) writes, “The entire human population is confronted with a common predicament whose solution will require us to work together” (p. 11). Social workers possess many of the skills required to work for environmental preservation and recovery. This is an opportunity for the profession to engage with an issue that will eventually transcend class, race, geography and gender. Social work has the opportunity to be a leader in the development of environmental practice and policy, and has the abilities and interest necessary to do so. Community organizers have the responsibility to not only become involved with communities suffering from imminent or current environmental damage, but to begin to change the ways in which social work and other professions view ecology. This may take the form of political activism, advocating for change within and outside the realm of social work, and discussing how local community is the only way forward for a world that continues to devour itself. If social work wishes to continue to cite human protection and empowerment as a central principle, then the preservation of the environment must become a central priority.


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