TOWARD A DEEP-ECOLOGICAL SOCIAL WORK:

ITS ENVIRONMENTAL, SPIRITUAL AND POLITICAL DIMENSIONS

We are of Earth, and belong to You. Every step that we take upon You
should be done in a sacred manner; each step should be as a prayer.
-Black Elk, First Nations Spiritual Leader-

For years social work has claimed for itself an ecological awareness. Our person-in-environment, ecological, systems and eco-systems models of practice have consistently centered our collective attention on the link between the individual and their unique surroundings. They have been helpful guides to our intervention strategies and our understanding of the human condition. Indeed, few social workers would claim their professional orientation is not guided, if only peripherally, by some form of environmental or ecological consciousness. Yet, for all their descriptive and explanatory power, social work's conventional environmental models have shown a limited ability to articulate a comprehensive understanding of the connection between person and the natural environment and the way human beings derive individual and collective meaning from this association. For decades, social work did not recognize the connection between person and nature or place it in its computations of what's important to those the profession serves. Nature tended to become the benign backdrop for more fundamentally important personal or social interactions.

TOWARD A DEEP-ECOLOGICAL SOCIAL WORK

In the past fifteen years, however, social work has begun to discover the importance of being more deeply committed to environmental concerns. There is a growing body of literature by social workers developing language and descriptions to help the profession better depict and explain the relationship between human beings and the natural realm. It is coming to a wholistic realization of humankind's alliance with the natural world, the priority of preserving and protecting nature, ensuring ecological justice and envisioning sustainable societies. If it is true that the 21st century will be the global/environmental century then social work must position itself to respond to a new set of contingencies. Social work needs to go beyond its narrow ecological discourse to a Deep-Ecological Consciousness.

DIMENSIONS OF A DEEP-ECOLOGICAL SOCIAL WORK

Any appreciation for a Deep-Ecological Social Work is greatly advanced by a focused reflection upon specific dimensions of this orienting framework. While the current discussion cannot fully articulate a theory and praxis for a Deep-Ecological Social Work, it can act as a place to begin a dialogue. I see the contours of a Deep-Ecological Social Work as coalescing along three dimensions.

(1) ENVIRONMENTALLY AWARE

A Deep-Ecological Social Work is environmentally aware. That is, it recognizes that (1) nature is the irreplaceable source of humankind's absolute physical sustenance and imaginative capacities and thus the hinge point of our theoretical orientations and practice strategies, and (2) because global natural disasters and environmental calamity increasingly impact large numbers of people while having disproportionate repercussions for the poor and marginalized, the profession has a ethical and moral responsibility to be actively involved in addressing problems of environmental crisis.

Nature is not merely an abstraction debated by philosophers or cosmologists. Nature is the tangible core or ground of all our human experience and preoccupations. It becomes our great cosmic interrogative-a penultimate question of life or death of humankind and the whole planetary eco-system. Indeed, it is the question that makes relative all other questions and is the beginning of the wisdom of all wisdom. Nature is not the inherent concern of physical scientists, government officials, environmental groups or business interests. The earth is a universal concern for all individuals and professions. Its despoliation and lasting protection is not limited to the purview of experts, any given culture or any specific generation. We all have a stake in our one earth community.

(2) SPIRITUALLY SENSITIVE

A Deep-Ecological Social Work is acutely conscious of the complex relationship between spirituality and ecology. Indeed, we can comfortably say that spirituality is inherently ecological and ecology is inherently spiritual. That is, spirituality is frequently understood in terms profoundly related to the natural world. A Deep-Ecological spirituality impresses on our consciousness an awareness of the (1) interconnectedness and interdependence of all things and (2) the rightful place of humankind in the cosmic order.

Deep-Ecological spirituality recognizes that humans share a common destiny with the earth. It celebrates an ongoing cultivation of a deeper identification of self with the whole of the cosmic order. From this vantage point self-interest becomes identical with the interest of the whole. Humanity and nature cannot be separated--the sacred is in and of both. A Deep-Ecological spirituality acknowledges that we belong, from the very core of our physical bodies to the finest creations of our mind, to a constantly emerging cosmic/spiritual process. Humans emerge from, are dependent upon and shall return to an underlying energy or Divine presence pervading all reality. Nothing exists outside of this relationship cycle. Humans are embedded in a cosmic web that is shared with a host of mutually interdependent beings, human and nonhuman. This web confirms that everything that exists co-exists and pre-exists at one and the same time. The planetary ecosystem, of which humans are one part, is a whole: soil and water, atmosphere and land, plants and minerals, animals and plants, and human beings interacting in a dynamic, mutually supportive way.

Much of the dominant western worldview, both secular and religious, regard human beings as the pinnacle of the created order. We believe ourselves to be the focal point of everything. We regard all things and all other beings as existing for our purposes, our benefit, our convenience. Indeed, ubiquitous anthropocentrism understands all creatures as finding their meaning only through our benevolence. All beings are then at the mercy of the human enterprise and subject to our contrivances, exploitation and domination. Western conceptualizations of the human place in the cosmic scheme of things sanctioned and bolstered the spreading violence and aggression unleashed against nature since the beginning of the industrial era. This same model of superiority and pugnacity has been reproduced in aggression against women, weaker peoples and developing societies. Deep-Ecological spirituality requires that humankind advance beyond this anthropocentric or human centered orientation to reality.

(3) POLITICALLY INVOLVED

A Deep-Ecological Social Work necessitates that we study human economic/social/political systems in interaction with environmental systems. Human patterns of collective organization are inseparable from those of the natural world. Social injustices and ecological injustices are interwoven in a dynamic interplay of mutual involvement. Poverty is seen not only in the lack of financial assistance and social support infrastructure but also in polluted water supplies, poisoned air, and unhealthy living quarters. A politically involved Deep-Ecological Social Work is made manifest in at least two ways. First, in a willingness to question deeply and insistently the social, political, and economic structures of modern industrial society, and secondly the capacity to offer a vision of the kind of society and ecological sensibility necessary to sustain human and ecosystem viability.

The crisis of the modern world has been created, in large measure, by the Western industrial growth model of production and consumption. This model tends to appreciate only those entities and practices which have market value engaged in the unceasing flow of goods and services. Industrial economies create need for products even when needs for such things do not legitimately exist. Needs and wants become relatively indistinguishable and the illusion created implicitly suggests that consumption and human happiness are essentially equivalent. The controlling logic of growth and progress uses up enormous social and natural capital and decimates non-renewable natural resources. It promotes ruthless competition and isolating individualism--the struggle of all against all. The inevitable consequence of this pattern of development is growing economic, social and political imbalances between diverse sectors of the world's societies and callous exploitation of nature and fellow beings for the benefit of the dominant classes. Human potential for compassion, tenderheartedness and unhesitating cooperation are put aside for wanton proclivities toward exclusion and personal advantage. Indeed, despite promises and flashy marketing campaigns to the contrary, the truly enduring and most notable by-products of this system has been garbage, toxic waste, atmospheric contamination, acid rain, ozone depletion, global warming and human hunger, dislocation, disease and exploitation in unparalleled proportion.

While questioning this deeply flawed system is an essential beginning for a politically involved Deep-Ecological Social Work; it must not end there. A Deep-Ecological Social Work must also contribute to a alternative vision of the good life. This vision must be compatible with a natural environment that can support the continuation of human life and well being. Without this necessary intuition of the mind it will not be possible to bring about a revolution in relationship between humankind and nature. This alternative vision must reflect a long-term commitment to identifying sources of human satisfaction that can intergenerationally flourish in harmony with nature. The focus of human satisfaction changes from quantity of life's possessions to quality of life. Modest activities such a simple work, ordinary conversation, spiritual and celebratory ritual, artistic endeavors, and family leisure are just a few of the ways of being that are not based on consumptive materialism. They are ways of being which can endure through countless generations and, in the end, are the kinds of activities and associations that most of us would agree are the main determinants of our happiness.

A Call to Solidarity

As environmental crises grow, as economic and political stratification on a global scale continues to be ever more imbalanced and as the world progresses toward a different model of collective understanding and social organization social work must also adjust. Our current ecological models are not enough. It is not enough to think of a human ecology that is preoccupied exclusively with human reactions relative to family, friends, agency, community or social relationships. It is not enough to think of a shallow environmentalism whose twin cornerstones of conservationism and preservationism simply favor sequestered natural reserves or least damage scenarios while the wholesale plundering of the earth's carrying capacity goes on unabated. It is not enough to think of an earth ecology which is misanthropic to the human presence, as if humans are only capable of devastation and pillage and are not to be considered in the ecological equation. Our first task, as social workers deeply concerned for both people and nature, is to join hands to seek solidarity with other concerned social workers. We must create a new partnership in dialogue to begin redefining social work's existing ecological awareness. I know and have been in contact with many social workers around the world who, like myself, share a deepening ecological consciousness, but who feel isolated in their devotion to the earth community and find it difficult incorporating their ecological commitments into professional discourse and practice.

Let us make common cause together, recognizing the global scope of the dilemmas, the international reach of the concern and the combined strength we can gain from each other.

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