5 Reasons Why Environmental Justice Work is Social Work
Updated: Jan 15, 2021
Happy December! With a tumultuous 2020 coming to a close, we hope this month finds you well. We want to keep sharing about the ISWEJ, and this month we will be exploring why we believe social workers have a vital role to play in environmental justice and climate action.
But what is Environmental Justice?
It is becoming more evident each passing year that environmental crises (like biodiversity loss, pollution, extreme weather, and climate change more broadly) affect everything and everyone (Environmental Justice Canada, n.d.). However, an important distinction here is that the burden of these effects is not distributed equally. Different factors such as age, race, ability, financial status, and where you live (both physical structure and geographical location) affect the severity of the experience of these crises, as well as the ability to cope with or recover from them. Crises also have the power to reproduce further inequity, widening the divide between those with increased privilege and resources and those without.
In Lena Dominelli’s (2012) book “Green Social Work: From Environmental Crises to Environmental Justice”, she highlights Schlosberg’s (2007) approach to environmental justice which includes facilitating equitable community participation and decision-making, and ensuring environmental risks and benefits are shared by the whole community. Environmental justice interventions then “aim to promote a safe, clean environment and meaningfully involve all people in policy and development decisions that affect their environment” (Teixeira & Krings, 2015).
For some, recognizing the place for social workers in this realm may be evident. Here are our top 5 reasons why environmental justice work is social work:
1. Ecosystems are at the heart of social work
Social workers are well-known for their ability to consider the wider systems that affect their clients, providing a context and framework from which to address problems or barriers to receiving support (Mattaini, 2008). It is no secret that our world is interconnected in many ways. However, when we do not consider the influential systems at play around us, we risk “artificially amputating the client” from these interconnected sources of support or interference (Mattaini, 2008). Whether practicing in micro, mezzo, or macro levels, social workers have an instinctual consideration for the wider systems at play. Karen Macgruder illustrates this in her YouTube video as she links this systems thinking to environmental or green social work.
At the same time, perhaps surprisingly, much social work theory and practice has largely ignored considering our living physical environment (Zapf, 2010). Despite having a “declared focus on person-in-environment”, many social workers do not view the natural world as within our scope of practice (Zapf, 2010). However, with larger environmental forces like climate change and extreme weather affecting the world’s populations, we can no longer afford to ignore their influence. Dr. Elizabeth Sawin from Climate Interactive illustrates the interconnectivity of different systems (so many of which social workers are actively involved in) and their relation to the climate crisis clearly in the following Tweet:
It should also be noted that more and more social workers are waking up to this responsibility, evident in the growing interest in courses and certificates about environmental justice (like the Post-Graduate Certificate in Environmental Justice and Social Work by Dr. Kelly Smith at the ISWEJ). When Social workers expand the view of their practice to encompass the wider systemic challenges their clients face (or may face in the future), there is no question that environmental justice falls squarely within our purview.
2. Environmental justice is a social justice issue
Named “social work’s organizing value”, social justice refers to the “fair or just distribution of social primary goods in society” (Marsh, 2005; Kam, 2012). In other words, social injustice occurs when opportunities and resources in social realms are not able to be accessed equitably by all members of a community. Social workers consider tackling social injustice to be a foundational part of their profession, with no shortage of issues to address at all levels of practice. With clear parallels between the definitions of social and environmental justice, at the heart of both is people and their ability to live and function in ways that are fair and equitable. Social work’s historical ties to these values, as well as to the practice of supporting clients and communities to build resilience despite systemic challenges, are well-founded.
Knowing that environmental crises are more devastating for communities that already experience marginalization due to the inequitable systems we live in, the role for social work here is clear (Beltrán et al., 2016). The New York Times article titled “The Great Climate Migration” tells stories about the horrible consequences of climate change and failed crops, illustrating this intersection between social and environmental justice in our changing world (Lustgarten, 2020). Another tragic example is the story of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debra who “died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution” from traffic emissions in South London, UK (Laville, 2020). Until social work education and practice acknowledge the “absolute interconnectedness of all things, which includes the physical and natural environment”, we are missing a fundamental aspect of social justice (Beltrán et al., 2016).
3. Advocacy is social work’s bread and butter
Advocacy is another key element of social work practice, helping “people become more aware of their own rights, to exercise those rights and be involved in and influence decisions that are being made about their future” (Lee, 2007; Dalrymple & Boylan, 2013). Social workers consider this to be an integral part of their work as they contribute to the empowerment and skill development of clients, allowing them to develop independence from service providers and enact changes within their community (Dalrymple & Boylan, 2013). Social workers also mobilize resources and people around goals and action, an integral part of the advocacy process (Dominelli, 2013).
Bringing this definition into the context of environmental justice, advocacy work on behalf of people and communities in the context of environmental crises fits seamlessly. Although elements of the natural world may not neatly fit into this human-centred perspective of advocacy, principles of “ecological citizenship” evoke obligations for humans to advocate for its protection and rights like personhood (Smith, 1998; Rinkel & Powers, 2017). An example of this is the growing number of legal cases recognizing the natural world’s rights to be free of pollution and other human interference (Westerman, 2019). In addition to these perspectives, Billiot et al. (2019) call for social workers to recognize “culturally centred solutions” to climate change, integrating Indigenous-led knowledge of “socio-cultural earth-based ethics and values” that recognize our interconnectedness. Allowing these perspectives to shape practice and behaviour will help address environmental crises and advocate for a socially and environmentally just world on behalf of all living beings (Billiot et al., 2019).
4. Social workers bridge gaps and facilitate collaboration
Although we are learning that the world is more connected than ever before, communication challenges persist. Ideological divides continue to widen with the ease and accessibility of online information, resulting in a plethora of different perspectives and priorities. As we see evidence-based crises like climate change dismissed by some groups, a “complex network of factors” threatens to separate our communities and prevent us from developing unifying solutions that work for everyone (Hare, 2004).
We see social workers as an important part of this solution given our natural leadership abilities and a knack for solution-focused collaboration. As many have already established, social workers are excellent facilitators and engage in bringing people together to achieve goals. More than this, social workers also find themselves acting as an “interdisciplinary translator” or mediator in important negotiations amongst community stakeholder groups (Dominelli, 2013). Especially in contexts as daunting as tackling climate change, we will need social workers to support the development of local solutions that promote resilience, all the while ensuring community members experiencing environmental injustice and marginalization have a seat at the table.
5. Social workers understand the emotional toll
In addition to the physical repercussions of environmental injustices, the emotional impact of anticipating and experiencing extreme weather, climate change, and environmental degradation is real for many people. Taking the example of climate change, Hayes et al. (2018) outline the direct, indirect, and overarching psychosocial consequences of exposure to devastating events or anticipating looming threats, demonstrating the range of different reactions people may experience (Hayes et al., 2018). More awareness is being raised as experiences of ecoanxiety or ecogrief are discussed by people of all ages, but especially younger generations who are unsure of how to plan for a future wrought with environmental disaster (Cuttler, 2019).
Social workers intervene on an emotional level with their clients already, many having the skills needed to provide counseling and psychotherapy. Social workers are on the frontlines of the most challenging situations imaginable, helping people cope through traumatic circumstances in resourceful and creative ways. Even taking our current COVID-19 crisis as an example, social workers have been among the many helping professionals that mobilized to support communities through the fear and uncertainty of this pandemic (Abrams, 2020). Applying these practices to the mental health consequences of climate change and environmental justice should be no different, and many are already doing so with their clients.
Armed with a diverse toolbox of skills and knowledge, social workers are adaptable and resilient in the face of systemic challenges. For these reasons and more, it is vital that social workers have a seat at the table to lead in the development of effective and environmentally just solutions. We want to acknowledge those social workers already dedicating their energy to this important work, and we look forward to connecting with and supporting those who are interested in getting started.
Thank you for reading! We wish you and your loved ones a safe holiday season and new year.
If you can spare a few minutes, we would love your feedback on how you might like to get more engaged with the ISWEJ through this form.
Abrams, L. S., & Dettlaff, A. J. (2020). Voices from the Frontlines: Social Workers Confront the COVID-19 Pandemic. Social Work, 65(3), 302-305.
Beltrán, R., Hacker, A., & Begun, S. (2016). Environmental justice is a social justice issue: Incorporating environmental justice into social work practice curricula. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(4), 493-502.
Billiot, S., Beltrán, R., Brown, D., Mitchell, F. M., & Fernandez, A. (2019). Indigenous perspectives for strengthening social responses to global environmental changes: A response to the social work grand challenge on environmental change. Journal of Community Practice, 27(3-4), 296-316.
Cuttler, M. (2019, September 21). Eco-anxiety spurs youth to take action on climate change. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/eco-anxiety-1.5291500
Dalrymple, J., & Boylan, J. (2013). Effective advocacy in social work. Sage.
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Laville, S. (2020, December 16). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/16/girls-death-contributed-to-by-air-pollution-coroner-rules-in-landmark-case.
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Smith, M. J. (1998). Ecologism: towards ecological citizenship. U of Minnesota Press.
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