Juergen Dankwort, Ph.D., M.S.W.
University of Houston

"Putting The Environment Back Into Social Work"

Our profession must take stock of our changing climate! Over recent decades, our most progressive colleagues have persuasively beseeched us to restore the "social" back into social work. We know and accept that fallen angels mistakenly attempt to individualize, moralize, or "pathologize" problems embedded in our socio-political arrangements and rooted within our institutions. We have seen how such limited approaches to helping are only self-serving and always risk re-victimizing or colonizing our clients even further. Thus, our theoretical thinking has shifted from singular, micro paradigms to more holistic, ecological, life-model conceptualizations on how to effectively engage with our clients.

Paradoxically, however, in spite of this evolution influenced by organicism, it is my feeling that social work practitioners and educators are not adequately addressing that crucial dimension of the environment which actually permits life to exist. If we appear to have wings, we are nevertheless mortal angels, and it is the air, water, soil and the world of plants and animals which allow us to live on planet earth. The physical must be restored to the environment in social work. Human behavior can neither be fully understood nor oppression fully countered unless the social environment is continually interwoven with the physical environment.

The United States is presently spewing about a quarter of all green house gasses into our atmosphere, yet has only a very small fraction of the earth's population. We know there are serious climatic changes underway and with every new study, we have confirmation that predictions are as --or more-- serious than we thought.

Globalization has accelerated the pace of environmental destruction. Regulations for industry which had finally gained legitimacy in some regions are now facing renewed challenges from trans-national corporations, their bought political mandarins, and through secretive, unaccountable international encoders such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The massive, recent demonstrations in Seattle and elsewhere bear witness to a rising awareness by persons from all walks of life about the primacy and interrelatedness of our social and physical existence. We are seeing an historical popular alliance of labor, anti-war, anti-racist, religious, and human rights activists in concert with environmentalists non-violently resisting the erosion of all that sustains our moral, ethical, spiritual, and physical being. Even in the face of police brutality and the systematic curtailment of first amendment rights, young people in North America and overseas are courageously challenging this road towards destruction.

It seems fitting to once again call on social work and social workers to be amongst the most visible and determined activists to make the connections and walk the talk! We must, for example, bring environmental racism into our curricula and explore the complexities and impact of globalization/corporatization with our students and clients. We must expose the narrowing spectrum of hegemony, produced and maintained by a two-party duopoly in the United States, and legitimated through an increasingly corporate-owned media. We must be there on the front lines helping those who are brutalized by chemical sprays and police batons. Supporting those demonstrators, advocating for our clients, or educating students and the public must be as much a part of our calling as doing case work, clinical practice, or working with trauma patients in a hospital. Any advancement in our profession should be assessed by our exemplary participation in such progressive work. No practice or scholarship should be rewarded more highly than the commitment and courage to act in such humanitarian ways. These are the challenges, the linkages, and they are compelling because our existence depends on comprehending them so that we may transform the road from certain annihilation to one of justice and sustainable existence. I welcome all efforts to raise our awareness about these issues through endeavors such as this web page and urge us to make ours the most visible of all professions in this struggle for life.

Juergen Dankwort, Ph.D., MSW