“There’s no planet B”
Kelly Melekis, assistant professor from Skidmore College (USA), gave an inspiring lecture about connections between social work and sustainability in the International summer school in social work, 27th of May. In my view, social work needs to take a clear stance in environmental and economical agendas on a structural level and I hope Melekis gave new thoughts to other Summer school attendants as well.
There are different estimates about the amount of climate refugees in the world. The United Nations estimates 25 million climate refugees exist today. By climate refugees we understand people forced to leave their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment. These are changes like draughts, desertification or floods which compromise peoples’ well-being or secure livelihood. These changes have connections to the climate change.
Seeking for a solution to restrict emissions and slow down the global warming has not been simple as there are contradicting views on the responsibility. The latest page in this book was turned by president Trump who declared the United States pulls out from the Paris agreement. USA is the second biggest producer of the greenhouse gases globally so their decision may well speed up the global warming. In the Arctic area the warming of the weather is in fact faster than in other parts of the world. Our winters are becoming warmer than what we have used to in the 1990’s with more rain and less sun due to cloudiness. As a result, our spring and autumn seasons will become longer. All this will have effects on our economy, for example the forest and paper industry may suffer from the changes in what grows in our forests.
Are we as social workers contributing enough to the discussions on climate change or restriction of the emissions? Melekis argues that we are long overdue for developing a vision of what our role will be in a society plagued by environmental crises. Social work is well situated to join this conversation and support a paradigm shift toward a just and sustainable world but our engagement with ‘environment’ has been focused on the sociocultural and psychosocial.
While social work schools and programs articulate a general commitment to social justice and human rights that is not always reflected in specific ways throughout curriculum and does not generally translate to attention to issues of environmental justice and sustainability. In a recent study of US social work students’ attitudes, interests in, and practices related to environment, it was found that majority view environmental justice as an important aspect of social justice and an area of concern for social workers. Melekis calls for more content on environment, sustainability and eco-social issues in social work studies and it is easy to agree with her from the Finnish student perspective.
Lena Dominelli defines green social work (2012): “That part of practice that intervenes to protect the environment and enhance peoples’ well-being by integrating the interdependencies between people and their socio-cultural, economic and physical environments, and among people within an egalitarian framework that addresses prevailing structural inequalities and unequal distribution of power and resources”. Green social work is built on the insights of radical and anti-oppressive social work.
There is no universal definition of sustainability. Many current conceptualizations are rooted in the United Nations Brundtland Report (1987) definition of sustainable development: “a form of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.“ Melekis reminded that language of sustainability carries a tension. Many argue that sustainability has been hijacked and twisted to suit government and business that really want to continue with business as usual. It is important to critically consider the use of various terms.
It is important for social work students to realize the concrete effects of the global warming on our lives. It is not only the nomads in the distant Africa who face difficulties practicing their livelihoods. In our professional life, we will all the time meet service users whose difficulties have connections to environmental and economic issues. We just need to be trained to see those connections.
The context in which social work operates has changed radically in the era of globalization and neoliberalism with significant consequences for the lives and the relationships of the people social workers serve. How will we respond to increasing environmental degradation and the intensification of impoverishment of disadvantaged nations and groups? Due to the centrality of human rights and social justice in the profession, social work must collectively take a stand on ecological degradation and the climate crisis. As Melekis put it: “There’s no planet B”.
What can we do when we see our clients living in areas where the environment is being neglected, housing conditions are poor and air is polluted? Melekis mentioned 10 million Americans live amongst such high levels of air pollution the federal government considers it to be harmful to their health. There is a concept connected to this and worth having a look at: environmental racism.
Social workers can, of course, support communities affected by natural disasters and many of us are already involved in this work. But what we can do as preventive work is for example raise questions about an equitable sharing of the planet’s resources, establish ‘green’ policies and serve on committees for policy change. Dominelli (2012) calls for community work. In Kelly Melekis’s words we can also engage in sustainable development when mobilizing local communities and ensure that locally relevant and culturally appropriate strategies are in place to respect people, living things sharing their habitats, and the physical environment.
Social work student, University of Lapland