The environmental crisis is the canary in the mineshaft of modern society. Miners, in previous generations, checked the quality of air in a mine by lowering a canary in a cage into a mineshaft. If the canary came back up alive the miners would go into the mine; if the canary came back dead the miners would not proceed as the mine was dangerous and unsafe. The environmental crisis is playing a similar role for people in modern society. For example, plants and animals are becoming extinct in unprecedented numbers, the oceans’ fisheries are in decline, water is increasingly polluted, and even the air we breathe - so called ‘fresh air’ - is frequently smog (air contaminated by industrial and agricultural pollutants). Further, industrial processes have released toxins upon Earth which have altered the environment so severely that the reproductive capabilities of animals (including the human) are affected (see for example Colborn, Dumanoski and Myers, 1999). These events are informing us in quite clear terms that the generativity of Earth and the social structures dependent upon it are in peril. Through the environmental crisis the Earth is reacting to human behaviour and is warning us - perhaps beseeching us - to respond.
The essential question raised by the environmental crisis is no longer whether climate change is happening; it is no longer whether the fisheries, forests and farmland can sustain current levels of exploitation; and it is no longer whether our air and water are polluted. The substantive question asks to what extent the Earth will remain capable of sustaining the modern world as we have come to know it.
If we explore the causes of the environmental crisis, we will likely discover that the root cause is not in overpopulation (Ehrlich, 1968/1997), nor is it in technology (see Borgmann, 1984); it is in modernity - the most fundamental assumptions, beliefs and values that inform ‘Western’ culture. The environmental crisis can be regarded as a crisis for humanity and modern civilization as the “bedrock assumptions of our civilization are increasingly at odds with the world we now inhabit” (Dumanoski, 2001). The environmental crisis has been referred to as a “spiritual crisis” (Gore, 1992) as it challenges us to explore what we hold to be of ultimate importance and value.
The profession of social work developed within modern society to meet the needs of this society. As a result, modernity’s assumptions and beliefs are heavily embedded in social work theory and practice. This embeddedness has influenced social work’s understanding of environment and the profession’s response to exploitation - both environmental and social. The environmental crisis challenges the profession and our society to critique their core assumptions, values and beliefs, and to develop a new consciousness based on an alternative set of assumptions, values and beliefs that can lead humanity to envision and work toward a society more capable of fostering ecological integrity and social justice.
Following a brief review of the environmental crisis, this paper will critique the core values and beliefs of modernity which are considered here to be the root causes of the exploitation which has led to both environmental destruction and social injustice. An alternative set of assumptions and values are proposed which can lead to a social order based on environmental and social justice. It is not the intent of this paper to debate of the relative merits of two world views but to present an alternative ideological foundation upon which “mutually enhancing human-earth relationships” (Berry, 1988, xiii) can evolve. The exploration of this alternative propels social work toward new tasks in modern society.
The environmental crisis is a long-term threat to Earth’s well-being. Human technology has done so well in exploiting the Earth’s ‘resources’ that we are rapidly using up both renewable and non-renewable resources. As well, the toxic by-products of our production processes and consumer lifestyles are being produced much more rapidly than Earth can absorb. The impact is so pervasive that there is not an ecosystem on the planet that is free from the consequences of human activity; for example, the toxic byproducts of industrial production have been found in ice samples taken from deep in the Arctic. Human activity has changed the “chemistry of the planet” (Berry, 1988, 206): for example, climate change, ozone depletion, desertification of soil, growth of deserts, and the proliferation of toxins (many of which lead to illness and birth defects; see for example, Bertell, 1998; Colborn, Dumanoski and Myers, 1997; Silver, 1994). In extreme scenarios, if climate change continues and permafrost leaves the northern tundras, the release of CO2 and methane will compound, quite dramatically, the process of global warming (Dauncey, 2001).
The exploitation and pollution of the planet has impacted the poor and people of colour disproportionately more due to such things as disabling poverty, low-income housing units being placed near old or existing industrial sites, or migrant works being exposed to agricultural chemicals (see Bullard, 1994; Commission on Racial Justice, 1987; UNDP 1998; Hinrichson and Robey, 2000; Pulido, 1996;). While poverty and destitution contribute to ecological destruction as, for example, forests are cut down in efforts to secure a livelihood, we need to remember that “the outcasts of the great banquet of consumerism” (Latouche, 1993, 42) have been excluded frequently as a consequence of policies designed to ensure a supply of raw materials and cheap products for the ‘Western’ world (see for example, The President’s Materials Policy Commission, 1952).
A major factor contributing to environmental devastation is the fact that our economy is an extractive economy and, as Thomas Berry stated, “an extractive economy is a terminal economy” (1997, 3). It is terminal because we are turning non-renewable minerals into waste, cutting down Earth’s forests and over fishing its oceans far beyond sustainable levels, and polluting the atmosphere, lakes and rivers to such an extent that the ‘clean, fresh air’ and ‘clear, clean, water’ are becoming exceptions. The scale of destruction and the volume of industrial, agricultural and domestic effluent being released are beyond the self-healing and self-regenerating capacities of Earth. One First Nation’s writer expresses the consequences dramatically; “the rivers bleed with contamination, the winds moan with the heavy weight of pollution in the air and the land vomits up the poisons which have been fed into it” (Culleton, 1992). Our economy is destructive and self-defeating because we are eliminating the resources and ecosystems upon which our social structures depend.
The industrial and agricultural practices that exploit people and the environment are supported by the values and beliefs which are central to modern society. These values and beliefs fuel the demand for increasing material and consumer resources and drive the cycle of exploitation and destruction. Charlene Spretnak in her book, Resurgence of the Real (1997, 219-220) draws attention to a number of these values and beliefs.
These four beliefs along with others such as rationalism, value-free efficiency, instrumental reasoning and anthropocentrism, to name a few, pervade our social norms. They reflect the deeper and more foundational assumptions of modernity - dualism, domination and determinism - which have fostered three hundred years of development and discovery and have spawned the current ecological demise.
These values and assumptions have led to an innate bias embedded in social relationships and in almost every citizen of modern society - the Earth is seen as an endless resource with which humans have the right to do whatever they wish. One can readily see how such beliefs promote the exploitation in the service of human ambition. There is little doubt that the extractive economy, embedded within the values and assumptions of modernity, has enabled ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and has resulted in a proliferation of material goods and consumer products, as well as medical breakthroughs and scientific discoveries. As a result, some people in modern society have more possessions, live longer, and live a life which is comparatively free of sickness and disease - a life that was literally beyond the imagination of people only 100 years ago.
However, the beliefs and values which informed such technological invention and mastery, are no longer able to resolve the problems they have caused. The material benefits described above are beyond possibility for 80% of Earth’s population and such a high level of consumption is beyond the productive capacity of the planet (Chossudovsky, 1997; Wackernagel and Rees,1995). As the layers of belief are peeled away it becomes evident how the beliefs of modernity inform exploitation and social injustice under the guise of progress. The values and assumptions of modernity contribute to everything and everyone being treated as a commodity. This bias which informs the exploitation of the Earth also leads to the exploitation of people and can be seen to inform racism, sexism, the abuse of women and children, and war. Social injustice results, for example, when people (usually local residents) suffer the consequences of exposure to the pollution of land, air and water from the externalization of the costs of production, and when people work for subsistence wages (often in dangerous working conditions) while producing products for the consumer markets, most of which are in ‘Western’ societies.
A resolution of this crisis can be found in an alternative set of foundational values and beliefs -- new bedrock assumptions – that challenge our assumed separateness and superiority over nature and recognize the interconnectedness of all things. Human well-being can only come about through the health and well-being of the Earth in its wholeness.
Social work developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s to meet the needs of a society in the throes of rapid urbanization and industrialization, and large-scale immigration. Humanitarian ideals and social justice expressed themselves in early social work efforts to assist the poor and improve living standards. While this activist tradition has remained an integral part of the profession, social work’s drive for professional status and the acceptance of psychodynamic theory, contributed to the emergence of a very narrow view of the environment. Social work practice found a niche in modern society and assumed an adjustment oriented focus. While later developments such as ecological and critical theory drew attention to larger social and political concerns, Besthorn (1997) notes that social work practice remained anthropocentric and preoccupied with psychological adjustment, social brokerage and social control. Even feminist, structural and anti-oppressive advances which critique domination in modern society, most often fail to question the growth oriented, acquisitive, human centred, deterministic and dualistic bias of modernism. As a result of this embeddedness the profession is unable to challenge the belief that poverty and social injustice will be eliminated by abundance. Abundance created by the exploitation of people and the Earth.
To understand and confront the root causes of this exploitation and inequality most 'modern' individuals are required to question their most fundamental beliefs about what it means to be human and what is the proper relationship of people to each other and the rest of nature. The challenge is substantial and transformative and an adequate response by the profession of social work, as identified by McNutt will entail a re-appraisal “and re-orientation of the most basic paradigms that guide the social welfare field” (1994a, 2). However, social work’s core humanitarian belief and its “uniquely preserved wisdom about the radical potential of human beings to recreate themselves” (Weick, 1987, 228) provide a solid foundation for breaking away from the old paradigm. Assisted by the notable, though limited, scholarship by social workers regarding the environmental crisis (for example, Berger & Kelly, 1993; Besthorn, 1997; Hoff & McNutt, 1994b), social work can play a leading role in the struggle to articulate and act upon an alternative perspective.
Achieving a sustainable and mutually beneficial human/Earth relationship requires people, especially those of us in the ‘developed’ world to put aside dualism and individualism and consider ourselves as intimately connected to Earth and to people everywhere. This is a challenge at the deepest level since many people, if not most, in ‘Western’ and economically advantaged societies, have come to regard humanity as distinct from and superior to other life forms (dualism); as having the ‘right’ to dominate nature and people of other cultures in the pursuit of progress and profit; and as having proper knowledge and technology which enable humans to bring nature under their control (determinism). Within modernity the Earth is not sacred, individual well-being is distinct from community, and consumption takes precedence over sustainability.
The author of this paper argues that an alternative value system would reflect an awareness of the essential embeddedness of humanity in nature, and the fact that human well-being is dependent upon the well-being of all (both people and the rest of nature). This requires a commitment from humans to “live harmoniously within the biosphere” (Berger & Kelly, 1993, 524). Such a commitment can arise when people come to regard themselves as integral parts of the ongoing unfolding of Earth’s creative process. One source for such a sense of connectedness can come from deep ecology (Naess, 1989) and an understanding of evolution which appreciates that the Earth’s evolutionary path is toward a higher level of complexity and consciousness. Others may come to this stance from spiritual commitments which arise from deep religious convictions as may be found among Budhism, Christianity and First Nations’ traditions. Canda (1986) argues that the process of striving for personal integrity and wholeness in the context of relationships between oneself and nature, society and ultimate meaning, is a spiritual quest. There are also similarities in ecofeminist critique of patriarchy, colonization and militarism (for example see Merchant, 1980; Plant, 1989; and Warren, 1997). The fundamental common thread is the sense of connectedness of all things, and the need for balance between the needs of the individual and community. The four assumptions listed below are adapted from Thomas Berry (1988) who identifies three core beliefs which can form the foundation for an alternative paradigm.
Within this perspective humans recognize their essential embeddedness in nature and that all life has intrinsic value. Such essential connectedness leads to relational thinking and sustainability. There is recognition that the well-being of each person, and of humans more generally, can only be achieved in the context of the well-being of all things, of Earth in abundant creativity. These core assumptions are consistent with First Nation’s traditional beliefs (Four Worlds Development Project, 1982; Hart, 2002) and with the Gaia Theory (Lovelock, 1979). Gaia theory recognizes the tendency of species in nature to organize into cooperative and participative communities. While some competition for survival among individual plants and animals remains, at the species level there is balance and mutual benefit in the interests of the whole community.
The new foundational assumptions lead humans toward “conscious responsibility” (Korten, 1999, 18), and a “conscious participation” (Earley, 1997) in the personal and communal struggle to live in the knowledge of our essential connectedness to all life. We are the only species (as far as we know) with a consciousness and the capacity to appreciate and celebrate the beauty and ongoing creativity of Earth, and the marvels of the Universe. Humanity can express the awareness and consciousness of Earth. 2 These new values and beliefs emerge to displace the economic determinism, unrestrained consumerism and individualism of modernity.
These beliefs lead to the conclusion that humans are not primarily isolated, self-serving beings caught-up in a competitive and materialistic world. We come to recognize that by virtue of being human our lives are involved in a long-term, creative process that is both communal and individual. On a communal level our task is to cooperate with nature to create the conditions so that all species can achieve their fullest potential. On an individual level our tasks are to nurture individual talents and gifts so that each progresses on a path toward self-actualization. Our individual self-fulfillment is seen to contribute to the evolution of the whole.
These beliefs touch the deeply held convictions of people and raise some of the most fundamental issues regarding human existence. Why do we exist? Why do I exist? What is the proper relationship between people? What is the right relationship between people and the rest of nature? The beliefs and assumptions presented here can be the foundation for the transformation of consciousness and the development of a new agenda for action based on interdependence and connectedness.
The implications for direct practice and social policy can include interventions that are consistent with social work’s humanitarian and egalitarian ideals but which are also more in line with the profession’s social justice and social reform traditions (see CASW Code of Ethics, 1994; NASW Code of Ethics, 1996). For example, there would be much more emphasis on poverty reduction and capacity building, community health and well-being, the integration and participation of individuals with their social and ‘natural’ communities, and economic policy makers would be pressured to include social and environmental well-being as essential elements. While much could be written on the implications which arise from these alternative assumptions, four tasks stand out in response to the urgency arising from the exploitation of nature and people. These tasks call on the social work profession to extend its roles and actions in society.
1. Bring to individual awareness and to public attention the severe destruction which the present organization and functioning of society bring about.
The need for this task is becoming more evident every day as articles about ecological destruction, poverty and war appear in the media. While we are becoming increasingly informed about international events, we are also learning that ecological destruction is increasingly ‘closer to home’ as news about such things as polluted drinking water, deforestation, climate change, and the lack of an effective government response, appear in the mainstream media. 3 Social workers and social work educators can play a significant role by providing students with the opportunity to become informed about ecological destruction, the social injustices related to them, and the relevance to social work practice (See Berger & Kelly, 1993; Besthorn, 2002; Hoff & McNutt, 1994b; Weick, 1981).
2. Bring into public discourse the acknowledgment that the root cause of social and ecological injustice, and the reasons for their perseverance, rest in the values and beliefs of modernity, and the economic and social structures that sustain them.
This task raises substantially the importance of exposing and critiquing the dominant assumptions and practices of major social institutions and organizations. For example, the wide-scale protests at international finance meetings such as those of the G8 and World Bank focus media attention on the inequalities created by the policies of these organizations (see also Chossudovsky, 1998; Ellwood, 2001; Korten, 1995, 1999; Latouche, 1993). It is essential to unmask the system of beliefs in which everything is a commodity (Polanyi, 1957) and which holds in highest regard, and seemingly without question, the primacy of economic value.
3. Nurture an understanding and appreciation of the connectedness of all things, and the hope and direction that can flow from this.
This step is perhaps the most essential as it will involve, for many, the emergence of a transformed consciousness - the acceptance of an alternative world view. This is particularly significant in today’s modern culture where politicians, transnational corporations and mainstream economists preach from the same modernist book - neo-liberalism and market forces. An unfolding world view moves away from an exclusively human-centred, materialistic, individualistic, and consumerist value system to one that is based on interdependence, community, the sacredness of all life, and sustainability (see Berry, 1999; Earley, 1997). Social workers can assist people to make connections between their situation and the forces of modernity which negatively impact their lives. Many traditional skills, such as reframing, teaching, consciousness raising, and advocacy, can be used effectively.
4. Develop and support individual, group, societal and global efforts that are more consistent with this alternative world view.
Informed by an alternative world view, the lives of people begin to reflect a different set of values and beliefs. We move toward becoming, to paraphrase Ghandi, the change we wish to see in the world, and act from a position of hope (see Suzuki & Dressel, 2002). Activities can include facilitating conditions which enable the empowerment of individuals and groups, and to this end, a great deal of social work practice can be adapted. It also involves efforts intended to resist the organizations and practices which support modernism. Resistance (Macy & Brown, 1998) includes supporting positive developments (such as the Kyoto Protocol), attending and supporting protests such as those in Seattle, Quebec City, and Kananaskis, as well as attention to lifestyle issues such as what we buy and where we shop. Actions can include, for example, buying Fair Trade products, supporting coops and credit unions, and supporting locally operated and locally owned businesses and agriculture. On a professional level it involves efforts at social change; examples include supporting and creating collectives of parents with young children who are concerned about threats to their childrens’ health which arise from the exposure to toxins found in pesticides and herbicides (See Rogge, 2000), and in current and past industrial emissions. It can involve social workers lending their skills to create and preserve community gardens, local parks and wildlife areas, or to boycott large retail outlets that undermine local economies or are known for their international exploitation of workers.
These tasks emerge from an understanding of the root causes of the environmental crisis and the acceptance of an alternative foundation of beliefs and values - an alternative paradigm - to guide theory and action. However, such an alternative requires, at both personal and professional levels, the exposure and rejection of our embeddedness in modernity. For many social workers such a change can only follow a transformation of consciousness. An effective response to the environmental crisis requires the profession to place the well-being of Earth and all its inhabitants as central to our values and practice.
An analysis of the roots of the current environmental crisis unmasks the exploitive and self-destructive tendencies of modernity, and enables a search for an alternative world view that promotes ecological sustainability and social justice. The alternative presented here is based on interdependence, the intrinsic value of all things, and the belief in the ongoing creative processes of Earth. Such a world view provides an opportunity for social work to break free of its embeddedness in modernity and to expand its theory and action to become more inclusive and wholistic in regards to our relationship with the ‘rest of nature’.
Several of the tasks and actions discussed can be located within the current repertoire of social work practice. However, the motivation for intervention is no longer limited to an individual’s social and material well-being, but flows from the belief that the well-being of any one member is dependent upon the well-being of all (both human and non-human). Every person is seen to possess innate talents that can contribute to community well-being and to have a role to play in the Earth’s creative unfolding. The challenge for social workers is to help people to understand the crisis, to acknowledge and celebrate each persons talents and skills, and to engage in social actions in support of changes required to bring about the emergence of a social structures and practices that nurture the well-being of all. Such awareness celebrates the interdependence of all things and has been referred to as a “global consciousness” (Earley, 1997) and “planetary consciousness” (Korten, 1999).
Global consciousness encourages us to make the changes necessary in our lives, so that we strive to live the way we think we should. However, it does not ask us to reject all of the qualities that accounted for modernity’s success. A sustainable future does not demand a return to the distant past, nor does it require a neo-Luddite revolution. What is required is balance. Many of the qualities valued in modernity such as initiative, ambition and drive, curiosity and structured investigation, logic and reason, produce benefits and need only be brought under the guidance of more instrinsically meaningful qualities - such as belonging, interdependence, equality, and connectedness to people and nature - all of which are based in mutuality. Balance and harmony occur when individual interest is tempered by compassion for the well-being of the whole. The goal is balance in the interest of the larger community and all of life.
Within this alternative world view social workers can find themselves supporting a host of different initiatives on both a local and global scale: for example, voluntary simplicity, economic equality, affordable housing, universal medical coverage, human rights, action against landmines, alternative energy, community agriculture, action to prohibit domestic use of lawn pesticides, social development, the Natural Step, 4 forming and joining co-ops, supporting “Fair Trade”, and boycotting companies that violate human rights. Such goals and actions strengthen not only individual self-image and empowerment but also the capacity of society to more effectively support the needs of all in a sustainable manner. Building on the work of Naess (1989), several other activities which support sustainability and social justice can be encouraged by social workers. They include:
The development of a global consciousness is the first step in the transformation to a socially just and sustainable society. It is presented as transformative because the basic values and beliefs of the alternative world view presented are substantially different than those of modernity and, as a result, those of conventional social work. The emphasis on a consciousness which reflects the connectedness of all things begins with individuals and groups, but develops and broadens through action to bring about personal and social change - actions with individuals, families, groups and governments. The nature of global consciousness leads one to be active in the world, as it challenges not only how we see the world but also how one is in the world. Through the journey toward personal fulfilment, action toward social change takes place.
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John Coates, PhD, can be contacted via e-mail at: