When in 2010 CSWE declared sustainability to be the social justice issue of the new century, it was clear that the social work field was ready to embrace the global issue of sustainability. Earlier this year, the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work were announced. They are tackling what eminent leaders in the field believe to be its 12 most critical issues, including one that is related to sustainability and the environment. (Case Western Reserve University faculty member, Dr. Claudia Coulton, is leading the challenge related to harnessing data for social good.)
The Social Work Today article Environmentalism & Social Work: The Ultimate Social Justice Issue by Claudia J. Dewane, DEd, LCSW, BCD asserts that social work, although governed by the “person-in-environment” principle, had for a long time neglected the “environment-in-person” aspect. This aspect includes social and economic contexts, as well as the natural world. Although social work uses an ecological and systematic approach to help people with their problems, Dewane adds that “ecology rarely takes into account the implications of the unhealthful and depleted ecology we all share.”
If social work accepts that a person’s environment is a principle determinant for their quality of life, then it stands to reason that ecology must become part of their concern. As social work continues to explore environmental issues, there is a growing recognition of the importance of the natural world as part of an overall wellness plan.
Another area of exploration is the intersection of environmentalism and racism, where minority groups are excluded, either intentionally or not, from groups that influence the policies affecting their immediate environment.
But perhaps most profound is the potential impact of social workers on the ground in the aftermath of environmental disasters. Social workers doing emergency management and providing aid can also address poverty and other structural inequalities while working to enhance the quality of life of the residents without negatively impacting the Earth.
In Environmental Efforts: The Next Challenge for Social Work, author Annie Muldoon, MSW, notes that “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.”
Muldoon’s article also addresses the fact that environmental damage is associated with the Western ideas she refers to as “individualism, consumerism, and unmitigated growth,” their economic and social structures, and the satisfaction of consumption. And so, with social work’s history of attempting to mitigate power imbalances, social workers’ experience could prove invaluable to post-crisis communities who live in threatened environments as they attempt to embrace sustainable and socially-conscious change.
If you are considering expanding your career into the field of social work, an Online Master’s in Social Work from the Case Western Reserve University can be helpful in achieving your goal.
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