Whenever something is called ‘green’ many of us tend toward skepticism. Let’s be real, when something touts itself as environmentally friendly, so often it’s just trying to hide a toxic underbelly.
So, green social work … is it just hype?
Hardly. It’s the real deal. It’s a reframing of how we talk about social issues, the planet, and the intersection between the two. It’s as green as they come.
In 2010 the Council on Social Work Education declared sustainability the number one social justice issue of the new century. Since then, the area of green social work has evolved and come into its own.
Green social work is a branch of social work that deals with the impact of the faltering environmental stability upon human populations. It is essentially a broadening of the definition of environment, sociologically speaking, from referring exclusively to someone’s immediate surroundings to referring to the planet that we all share.
After the CSWEs 2010 announcement, it became quite clear that social workers globally were eager to enter a realistic conversation about how climate change affects people, impoverished groups in particular, and that they were ready to take action.
There was no more denying that the extreme flooding, hurricane damage, or broken levees of the age impacted people beyond reason.
Annie Muldoon, MSW, of Carleton University has very poignant reasoning behind her belief in the need for green social work: “Attempts to improve social conditions may be lost,” she said, “if society itself lacks clear air, drinkable water, and adequate food.”
This newfound awareness in the social work field was met with an air of embarrassment. Experts began acknowledging that social work had always had an ambivalent understanding of its relationship to the natural world. And that while their work had always been based upon a “person-in-environment” principle, it had long neglected the “environment-in-person” aspect. There was a certain level of rose-tinted metaphor to the whole thing: the flaws of the field of social work were represented within the flaws of the human condition. In short, we all waited too long to see the inevitable truth about global warming and it was our collective responsibility to do something about it, fast.
Soon the conversation shifted from revelation to action.
In the Aftermath
Arguably the most profound impact of the new green edge to the field of social work comes in the form of professionals on the ground in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They flood to the South after devastating hurricanes; they establish shelters for people who are forced to evacuate their homes; they provide aid plain and simple. Social workers fill the need for emergency management that focuses on people instead of their insurance policies.
According to Case Western Reserve University, another benefit of having social workers on the ground during the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster is that they are able to address poverty and other structural inequalities at the same time as they’re working to enhance the quality of life of the residents. A social worker stationed in a region prone to hurricanes, for example, will build relationships with local families and be better equipped to cater to their particular needs – like helping the parents of a child with disabilities prepare for the hurricane before it hits. The simple fact of the social workers’ proximity to affected peoples and issues makes them better advocates.
The best part is that all of this is just a matter of course. If social workers place themselves at the scene to help, their training just kicks in.
Another beneficial outcome of the advent of green social work is Environmental Justice.
It is defined by the EPA as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Once social workers started examining the real-world participation and understanding of environmental programs in their communities, it became clear that many barriers still exist.
Dawn Philip and Michael Reisch outline some of these barriers in “Rethinking Social Work‘s Interpretation of ‘Environmental Justice’: From Local to Global.” The issues range from not having the resources to access vital health and environmental data to not being able to afford the technical supplies that help social leaders communicate environmental concerns to the community.
Before the introduction and focus of green social work, these issues would just get lumped into the broad category of general organizational dysfunction. It’s quite clear though that health concerns of this magnitude are something entirely different. Think Flint, Michigan.
In this era of environmental catastrophes that knock out entire regions, entirely new social issues have become a reality. For example, the 1951 Geneva Convention defined “refugees” as people who are outside their home-state due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. But, as noted by Melahat Demirbiek in his paper “Environment, Environmental Refugees and Green Social Work,” high-level environmental degradation – aka sea level rise, flood, drought, desertification, and deforestation – has created another kind of refugee. The environmental refugee.
There is no proper technical classification to aid this sort of person.
While political refugees are entitled to food and shelter, environmental refugees are not yet recognized by international law. It is the job of green social work to shed light on this problem and support the people caught in its crosshairs.
All in all, green social work is a movement that has been a long time coming. And I hate to say it, but we were a little late to the game. It’s time to be of help however we can. Someone needs to empower the communities most affected by climate change – because these environmental disasters are happening whether we’re ready for them or not – and social workers are some of the best equipped to do so.
Want more? Read Lena Dominelli’s book Green Social Work: From Environmental Crises to Environmental Justice.
Have you seen green social work in action firsthand? Please, share it in the comments!
How The Cannabis Industry Illuminates Changing Political Dynamics Between Private And Public Interests
According to the “Bootleggers and Baptists” theory of politics, coalitions of groups whose interests are usually at odds are more likely to be successful than one-sided coalitions. The theory is named after a classic instance in which bootleggers engaged in illegally producing and selling alcohol teamed up with Baptists to pass laws requiring liquor stores close on Sundays. Bootleggers got reduced competition for one day each week, while Baptists were happy that alcohol would not be sold on Sabbath. Thanks to the partnership, bootleggers had no need to press for new legislation, because Baptists lobbied state house members on their behalf.
The “Bootlegger and “Baptist” label now describe a large range of coalitions, although “bootlegger” no longer refers to groups engaged in illegal activity, but instead connotes groups taking political action in support of narrow economic gains. Similarly, “Baptists” now refers to groups that are not necessarily religiously motivated but espouse a greater moral purpose or advocate for the public interest. According to this theory, to achieve mutually beneficial policy victories, public interest groups are wise to team up with self-interested, usually profit-seeking lobby groups. The “bootleggers” make financial gains and sometimes share their takings with politicians while the “Baptists” allow politicians to offer moral rationales and gain the public’s trust.
This coalitional theory makes logical sense. However, in my research I utilize data from the legal cannabis industry in the United States to demonstrate that such partnerships may no longer be necessary. Today’s profit-driven, lobbying groups – like those in the burgeoning cannabis industry – may not need to partner with morally oriented organizations to achieve victories, and this shift will likely have major policy implications.
Public Interests and Private Enterprise
Historically, the Bootlegger-Baptist dynamic explained how public interest rationales could justify advantages to certain private enterprises. Of course, the private pursuit of regulatory benefits is unsurprising – even Adam Smith, the famed 18th-century economist and author, warned that early industrialists might seek to influence the law to increase profit. And mixed Bootlegger-Baptist coalitions helped such interests achieve their political goals, because private interests seeking a benefit from the government – a subsidy, a contract, or a tax break – could work with other groups that would assert a greater moral purpose.
Such mixed-purpose coalitions have taken many forms. Profit-driven groups may stealthily advance moral arguments, or sometimes, there may be many independent, socially oriented groups. Cooperative partnerships have formed to bolster support, in which profit-driven, lobbying groups fund the morally and socially oriented groups. More complex cases also exist, where political actors coordinate a mix of interest groups to accomplish many goals, including their own.
The New Dynamic
However, significant shifts in today’s regulatory and political landscape may be making Bootlegger-Baptist coalitions less necessary. My research suggests that it is becoming much easier for profit-seeking enterprises to influence policy without working with moral or social partners who give them cover. U.S. policymaking about legal cannabis (that is, marijuana) provides a useful window into these changing dynamics. This industry has grown rapidly, faces complex regulatory hurdles – such as federal illegality and a maze of varied state laws. In addition, the industry includes multiple “Bootlegger” parties interested in profiting from the shifting policy landscape, while at the same time having to contend with multiple “Baptist” groups interested in the social implications of legalization.
According to my research, profit-driven firms in the cannabis space have managed to circumvent the Bootlegger-Baptist dynamic by using two techniques.
- Pro-legalization groups have worked around strict regulation to achieve national presence, even in states where cannabis products do not have medical or recreational approval. For example, firms can invest in products and equipment that do not directly touch cannabis plants yet further the development of the product market. Groups lobbying on behalf of such investors free themselves from the need to work with moral and social allies to advance political goals.
- Profit-driven groups have learned to adopt the practices of orthodox businesses to downplay negative associations with the cannabis industry. Such groups build an agreeable corporate image by emphasizing profitability and coordinating diversity initiatives. When cannabis firms are viewed by the public as just another high-growth, socially inclusive industry, they may no longer need public-interest partners to achieve legalization. By aligning their businesses with mainstream corporate practices, cannabis firms (and other firms acting in this arena) may also find it easier to raise capital and gain trust from traditional investors.
New Laws and Regulatory Directions
Profit-driven “bootleggers” may push for rapid increases in cannabis sales in states with legal or medical cannabis. Given that states with legalized medical cannabis have higher rates of adolescent use, such increases in sales may well lead to much more adolescent use of cannabis, which is associated with mental illnesses.
State-level regulators may need to respond by tweaking new laws to deal with cannabis sales and use rising at higher rates than originally envisaged. This, in turn, may give new openings to morally and socially oriented advocacy and non-profit groups, who will press for larger roles in state regulation of the now-legal cannabis industry. Such advocates and non-profits will jump at the chance to ensure they are not left out of the discussion entirely, since profit-driven groups may have so far been able to advance their own ends without support, input, or even connection to public interest or citizens’ groups.
In sum, as many current cannabis legalization battles suggest, for-profit “bootlegger” groups can now win major legislative victories without allying with public-interest Baptists to give them moral cover. Nevertheless, struggles and, at times, surprising coalitions, between Bootleggers and Baptists are unlikely to disappear altogether – and they can re-emerge in ongoing regulatory arenas even when they did not shape original legislative steps. Forward-thinking legislators will take this into account and structure both laws and implementing processes to ensure that public interest groups are not cut out of the discussion altogether.
Read more in Navin Kumar, “The Changing Bootlegger/Baptist Dynamic: Evidence from the Legal Cannabis Space” (forthcoming).
Climate Change Increases Potential for Conflict and Violence
Images of extensive flooding or fire-ravaged communities help us see how climate change is accelerating the severity of natural disasters. The devastation is obvious, but what is not as clear is the indirect effect of these disasters, or more generally of rapid climate change, on violence and aggression.
That is what Craig Anderson sees. The Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of psychology and Andreas Miles-Novelo, an ISU graduate student and lead author, identified three ways climate change will increase the likelihood of violence, based on established models of aggression and violence. Their research is published in the journal Current Climate Change Reports.
Anderson says the first route is the most direct: higher temperatures increase irritability and hostility, which can lead to violence. The other two are more indirect and stem from the effects of climate change on natural disasters, failing crops and economic instability. A natural disaster, such as a hurricane or wildfire, does not directly increase violence, but the economic disruption, displacement of families and strain on natural resources that result are what Anderson finds problematic.
One indirect way natural disasters increase violence is through the development of babies, children and adolescents into violence-prone adults, he said. For example, poor living conditions, disrupted families and inadequate prenatal and child nutrition are risk factors for creating violence-prone adults. Anderson and Miles-Novelo noted these risk factors will become more prevalent as a result of climate change-induced disasters, such as hurricanes, droughts, floods, water shortages and changing agricultural practices for efficient production of food.
Another indirect effect: Some natural disasters are so extensive and long term that large groups of people are forced to migrate from their homeland. Anderson says this “eco-migration” creates intergroup conflicts over resources, which may result in political violence, civil wars or wars between nations.
“This is a global issue with very serious consequences. We need to plan for ways to reduce the negative impacts,” Anderson said. “An inadequate food supply and economic disparity make it difficult to raise healthy and productive citizens, which is one way to reduce long-term violence. We also need to plan for and devote resources to aid eco-migrants in their relocation to new lands and countries.”
Which is worse?
There are no data and there is no method to estimate which of the three factors will be most damaging, Anderson said. The link between heat and aggression has the potential to affect the greatest number of people, and existing research, including Anderson’s, shows hotter regions have more violent crime, poverty, and unemployment.
However, Anderson fears the third effect he and Miles-Novelo identified – eco-migration and conflict – could be the most destructive. He says we are already seeing the migration of large groups in response to physical, economic or political instability resulting from ecological disasters. The conflict in Syria is one example.
Differences between migrants and the people living in areas where migrants are relocating can be a source of tension and violence, Anderson said. As the level of such conflicts escalates, combined with the availability of weapons of mass destruction, the results could be devastating.
“Although the most extreme events, such as all-out war, are relatively unlikely, the consequences are so severe that we cannot afford to ignore them,” Anderson said. “That is why the U.S. and other countries must make sure these regional conflicts and eco-migration problems don’t get out of hand. One way to do that is to provide appropriate aid to refugees and make it easier for them to migrate to regions where they can be productive, healthy and happy.”
Taking action now
Anderson and Miles-Novelo say the purpose of their research is to raise awareness among the scientific community to work on prevention efforts or ways to limit harmful consequences. The long-term goal is to educate the public on the potential for increased violence.
“From past experience with natural disasters, we should be able to prepare for future problems by setting aside emergency resources and funds,” Miles-Novelo said. “We should tear down negative stereotypes and prejudices about those who will need help and humanely assist refugees and others who are displaced. By doing all these things we can reduce conflict and hostility.”
Changing attitudes and policies about immigration also will lessen the potential for conflict, Anderson said. He points to the backlash against refugees in many European countries.
“The view that citizens of wealthy countries often have about refugees needs to change – from seeing them as a threat to a view that emphasizes humanitarian values and the benefits refugees bring when they are welcomed into the community,” Anderson said.
How Should Social Work Respond To The United States Leaving The Paris Agreement?
“Logic clearly dictates the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” – Dr. Spock (Star Trek)
This quote is at the heart of a complex political debate; Dr. Spock doesn’t think it’s that complex. Social justice is one of the tenants of social work practice. This often places social work on the wrong side of Dr. Spocks quote.
Frequently, social workers are providing for or advocating for the needs of the few. Dr. Spock had some help in posing this quote. The question originates from the philosophy of Utilitarianism. John Stewart Mill argued that society is a collection of individuals and that what was good for individuals would make society happy.
You can see this gets messy… and quick. This philosophy was recently put to the test with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. A 195 country agreement to reduce carbon emissions and offer assistance to developing nations to do so as well. Mr. Trump makes a case for economic justice that our involvement in the Paris Accord forces us to over-regulate businesses. He also argues it places an unfair burden on The United States contribution to developing nations. Trump asserts both factors create undue pressure on some of the most economically vulnerable areas in the country. Taking a strict stance stating he “Does not represent Paris…I represent Pittsburgh”. He believes the needs of local Americans outweigh the need to cost-share climate change with the globe.
Should the United States share in the cost of global warming at the cost of our local economies? The economic impact is up for significant debate. The best analysis of this complex issue is provided by FactCheck.org. I’ll let you read it but the economic rationale for leaving the Paris Accord seems questionable. The report he cited on the economic impact ignores many factors including the growth in the renewable sector.
From the social work perspective, this creates an interesting dilemma. The virtues of Globalism versus the “America First” Populism will remain a challenge. How do the local needs of the “Rust Belt” and “coal country” interact with the global energy economy impacted the Paris Accords?
The issue of Global Warming challenges social work to think about where our “systems thinking” begins and ends. Is our profession concerned for the global good or just the area’s they serve? In a recent speech, the UN Secretary-General argued the poor and vulnerable will be hit by climate change first.
Also, what is not in question is the economic impact in the Rust Belt and Coal Country of the United States. This also depends on where you are placing “The needs of the many”. The loss of manufacturing and energy jobs has had a significant impact on services in these areas. These voters were activated by a hope of a potential change in their economic future. These parts of the country who rely on manufacturing and energy have been economically depressed. There is fear further government regulation and lack of money in these areas will make this worse.
Even if the move out of the Paris Climate Accords does fix local economies, it creates another complex systemic problem. Again thinking about where does our “systems” thinking end? I touched on this in my post about Facebook’s global vision for the world. The debate on globalism is a complex one, but The United States leadership on climate change is not. Have we put ourselves at disadvantage by not being a leader willing to partner in climate change?
Are countries going to want to “make a deal” with us about innovation and technology in the energy sector? How will the impact on the global economy affect our local economy? Seems like this blog post has more questions than answers.
To attempt to answer this, I again consult the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. Section 6.04 in social action says…
(c) Social workers should promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people.
No easy answers when thinking about dedicating United States funds which may help globally but detract from the local action. This also brings about thoughts of our core value of competence. That whatever we do to help the most vulnerable citizens in the Rust Belt, I hope it based on sound evidence.
Those policies are based on science and evidence-based practices to try to help these local economies. Whatever we do globally it places the people we serve in the healthiest and most prosperous situation. It’s not just social workers who are thinking about the impact but physicians are weighing in as well …
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