John Coates, PhD.
St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

"Social Work and The Environment:
A Progressive Step Forward"

For the past several years I have been concerned with the absence of mainstream social work from discussions on the impact of environmental change. This has been a 'tough sell' as the large majority of social workers, like our society more generally, take 'nature' for granted and have not been sensitive to the relevance of environmental issues. For example, at the 1998 national conference of schools of social work in Canada not a single person showed up for the presentation on the implications of environmental crisis for social work. However, I remain convinced that the changes in the physical environment of Earth (such as global warming, soil, air and water pollution, loss of topsoil, loss of habitat and extinction of plants and animals, drought and mud slides, to name a few), most of which are brought about by the way of life of the richest 20% of humans, will have great impact on our health, lifestyles and relationships. As a result, social work will be called upon to respond.

Environmental change will impact social work practice in many ways. For example, an increasing proportion of our work will concern individuals and families who suffer from various illnesses caused or exacerbated by environmental pollution, people who are poor and unemployed whose local industries have been shut down due to a decline in resources (such as the collapse of the ocean fisheries and the closing of mines), and international relief efforts to assist people affected by floods and famine caused by overpopulation and detrimental environmental practices. Despite these realizations and the fact that the environmental movement is, according to Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, the "largest, most densely organized political cause in human history" mainstream social work is largely absent from environmental discourse. While there are a few notable exceptions within social work, the practice of social work is largely silent when it comes to environmental action.

The environmental crisis will get worse as the industrial practices and consumerist lifestyles of the privileged minority (which includes Canada, United States, Australia and Europe) have not shifted. They remain committed to a growth dominated ideology and have failed to substantially modify technology and human activities to lessen our impact on the Earth (what Rees calls our "ecological footprint"). The western economy is an extractive economy and, as Thomas Berry has pointed out, an extractive economy is a terminal economy. It is terminal because we are turning non-renewable minerals into waste, cutting down Earth's forests and over-fishing its oceans beyond sustainable levels, and polluting beyond the self-healing capacities of Earth to absorb and recycle. It is terminal because we are eliminating the resources upon which our social structures depend.

One of the major reasons for mainstream social work's absence from environmental discourse rests, in my opinion, with the origins of our profession and the values of the society it supports. The profession of social work in North America began by helping society to cope with the changes brought about by industrial growth and development, and despite critiques of this role, the profession has retained its reactive and ameliorative emphasis. For most of the past 100 years the profession of social work has failed to question not only its support of, but also the beliefs and processes which are the foundation of, unrelenting economic expansion and the exploitation of Earth's 'resources' - both human and non-human. While there have been glimmers of inspiration, such as feminist and structural critiques, social work has failed to challenge the inherent connection between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of people. If mainstream social work is to secure a voice in the movement to bring about a sustainable and socially just society, the profession must move away from the narrowness of individualistic and anthropocentric thinking, critique its reactive and supportive role in modern society, and become proactive in introducing and advocating new values, practices and lifestyles which are supportive of a sustainable and socially just society.

At national and international conferences I have attended over the past two years, there has been a very small but growing number of presentations which acknowledge the importance of environmental change or which advocate for social work to be more active in incorporating environmental realities into social work practice. Many of us felt as if we were isolate voices hoping for even a small audience to hear our concerns. I think that the Global Alliance for Deep Ecological Social Work can be an important vehicle to break through this solitary struggle by being a forum dedicated to sharing and disseminating ideas about social work and the environment. Additionally, such an organization has the potential, through advocacy and coalition building, to help make the social work profession more progressive by encouraging the professions involvement in the transformation to a social order which is sustainable and socially just.

John Coates, Ph.D.