How American Cities Can Promote Urban Agriculture

In his original plan for the city of Philadelphia, William Penn declared that every home should have ample space “for gardens or orchards or fields, that it may be a green country that will never be burnt and always be wholesome.” Before militiamen or throngs of protestors, the Boston Common nourished grazing cattle. Urban agriculture has cropped up again and again in cities throughout American history – from “relief gardens” for the poor in the 19th century, to “victory gardens” of World War II – and for good reason. If embraced and encouraged, urban agriculture can create economic, cultural, environmental and educational benefits. In recent years, various cities have developed good urban agriculture programs. By distilling their successes and struggles, my colleagues and I identify a series of best practices in this area.

Tailoring Programs for Varied Communities

“Urban agriculture” is an umbrella term encompassing a wide array of practices. Good programs take account from the start of community preferences that vary. Beekeeping or backyard chickens, for example, might be considered progress in Portland but backwardness in Baltimore. Controversies often arise, but they offer opportunities for dialogue. When disputes erupted about the 140-acre Hantz Farms proposal in Detroit, for example, officials convened public meetings to fashion a vision of urban agriculture. Cities like Portland and Vancouver have formed urban agriculture task forces composed of private citizens, government representatives, and organizational partners to advise the cities on planning and code issues.

In most cities, urban agriculture of some form is already practiced, whether regulations officially enable it or not. It is important to take stock of these existing operations and practices. Important elements to consider include: the number of gardens and gardeners, their demographics, the type and location of existing gardens, popular agricultural practices, and where space exists to expand urban agriculture. Numerous cities have benefited from conducting “urban agriculture land inventories,” in which mapping professionals use satellite imagery and public records to determine which publicly-owned plots are best suited to urban agriculture.

Communities should develop an independent agency or department to manage urban agricultureBecause urban agriculture is a multi-faceted process, many city agencies currently regulate its disparate aspects; Parks, Public Works, Environmental Protection, Sustainability, Health and Sanitation, Land Banks, and other departments all have their hand in working with growers. Centralizing this authority under one department can streamline regulation and simplify the process of establishing gardens and farms. Boston’s Grassroot program, Chicago’s Neighborspace program, and New York’s Green Thumb program are all excellent examples.

Municipalities should audit existing codes and laws. Although most relevant regulations will be found in local zoning ordinances, other codes might have unexpected effects on urban agriculture – including ordinances regulating produce sales, market stands, shade trees, and noise. In Los Angeles, a near-forgotten, yet narrowly-worded, 1946 “Truck Gardening Ordinance” threatened to limit agricultural sales exclusively to vegetables before it was amended by the city’s governing body. Municipalities should also be aware of state and federal regulations that might affect agriculture policy decisions. Right to Farm laws typically operate at the state level and may restrict localities. Notably, Detroit and other large cities in Michigan had to postpone regulation of urban agriculture until they were exempted from their state’s Right to Farm rules.

Ways to Facilitate Urban Agriculture

Although public sentiment should determine where urban agriculture is appropriate, there are opportunities to incorporate some form of agriculture or gardening in every land use zone. Cities from Seattle to Philadelphia have incorporated urban agriculture into existing land use codes. Small acreage projects unlikely to create nuisances include backyard gardens typical of single family homes and should be permitted virtually anywhere. Yet large acre, high nuisance projects – such as multi-acre urban farms relying on heavy machinery or animal husbandry – are better suited for the city edges or industrial zones.

While permitting urban agriculture outright in this fashion has proven successful, other creative ways that cities have enabled urban agriculture include:

  • Creating new zones for urban agriculture specifically, as in Boston and Cleveland.
  • Permitting urban agriculture as “conditional” or “accessory” rather than primary use. This allows local planning and zoning boards to maintain control over how such uses are developed, without restricting them. However, this approach can become too cumbersome and likely to disproportionately burden applicants with fewer resources.
  • Land can be directly supplied — through adopt-a-lot programs and leasing underused spaces to citizens or qualified urban farmers. Offering flexible, medium- to long-term leases is critical, as security of land is vital to the success of urban farms.

Good Management to Sustain Citizen Projects

Finally, municipalities must take steps to ensure that citizens practicing urban agriculture do so responsibly. Some of the most effective approaches include:

  • Passing or revising codes that limit the use of pesticides and fertilizers
  • Enforcing time restrictions on the use of noisy farm equipment (although this is not typically an issue on small plots where hand tools are most common)
  • Providing training opportunities through city departments or local cooperative extension services
  • Requiring preliminary testing of land and monitoring of soil toxicity, soil nutrition, and any utility lines running through a property
  • Offering  access to rain barrels or municipal water hookups
  • Including urban agriculture in all future urban planning efforts, including master plans.

How Environmental Policies Can Promote Economic Growth

The Trump administration had been working hard to roll back the nation’s environmental regulations on the grounds that they are an economic burden on business. But evidence from California tells a very different story. For the past half century, California has been the richest U.S. state – even as it has led the United States in coastal protection, restricting oil drilling, regulating automotive emissions, promoting energy efficiency and, most recently, curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

From 2013 to 2016, California grew more rapidly than any other state – to become the world’s sixth largest economy. Not only have rapid economic growth and stringent environmental regulations proved compatible, many of California’s environmental regulations have promoted economic growth and benefitted businesses.

A History of Innovative Environmental Policy

California was the first government in the United States to impose pollution controls on motor vehicles. The campaign to do so was strongly supported by the Los Angeles business community, most notably its powerful real estate developers. They feared that unless the city’s air quality measurably improved, it would become more difficult for the city to attract new residents and businesses.

Thanks to the steady strengthening of both state and federal automotive emissions controls, air quality in Los Angeles dramatically improved. During the 1970s Los Angeles averaged 125 Stage I smog alerts per year, but it has not had a single one since 1999. In 2015, the city recorded its lowest smog level since reporting began. It is hard to imagine that Los Angeles would have continued to grow so substantially or become the center of the world’s entertainment industry as well as the location of so many high income communities had its air remained so hazardous.

California’s pollution controls grew out of a long history of collaboration between policymakers and business firms. In fact, California’s businesspeople and policymakers have been working together since the 19th century. To promote tourism in the Golden State, steamship companies wanted to safeguard Yosemite and the Southern Pacific Railroad became advocate of protecting the sequoias of the Sierra.

Most recently, California businesses have backed the state’s wide-ranging initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. California’s historic 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act mandated a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. It was backed by more than 200 individual firms and business associations, including the state’s high-technology and venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. By 2006, nearly $2 billion in venture capital had been invested in clean technology. As one state policymaker noted, “The legislation . . . sends a signal to people that there is a market where people can invest. . . So what started as an environmental issue in 2001 or 2002 has garnered a lot of business support.”

Economic Benefits of Smart Environmental Policies

Promoters of economic growth in California rightly see that regulations have opened doors for innovative businesses and reduced costs for citizens and enterprises alike:

  • Thanks to the state’s promotion of renewable energy, 1,700 solar companies are based on California. The state accounts for half of the rooftop solar installations in the United States and a quarter of the nation’s solar energy jobs. Renewable energy mandates have been strongly supported by the state’s unions because of the jobs they create. All told, more than 500,000 people are employed in the state’s growing renewable energy sector.
  • The state’s Advanced Clean Cars Program and its zero-emission mandates have led Californians to buy or lease more than 200,000 pure electric vehicles. This represents roughly half of all such vehicles registered in the United States, and has made California, along with China, the world’s largest market for this new automotive technology. Thanks to Tesla, California has become the center of electric vehicle technology, with several other auto manufactures opening design facilities in the state.
  • Between 1974 and 2014, energy consumption per person in the United States increased by nearly 75 percent, while California’s per person energy consumption has remained nearly constant. The state’s energy-savings program, building codes, and appliance efficiency standards have reduced the energy bills of Californians by nearly $90 billion and have also saved the expense of constructing what could have been up to 50 new power plants.

In 2010, two Texas-based oil companies launched a California ballot initiative to roll back the state’s climate change commitments. Tellingly, this effort met with strong business opposition, especially from California’s clean technology sector, which by then had investments worth $6.6 billion. According to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group – whose participants reap worldwide revenues of more than $2 trillion – “our members believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels presents an opportunity to transform the economy from one based on coal, oil, and gas to one that runs on clean renewable energy.”

California as a Model

The experience of America’s most populated and currently rapidly growing state challenges the claim that environmental protection hurts the economy. Often jointly backed by businesses and citizens groups, California’s environmental policy leadership has nourished prosperity, truly laying the foundations for the making of a “Golden State.”

As Washington now tries to retreat in environmental policymaking, more states can learn from what California has accomplished. Policymakers, advocates, and others concerned about economic growth and competitiveness should work to strengthen regulations and create new opportunities for firms that stand to benefit from a “greener” growth trajectory. When a state protects its scenic beauty, improves its air quality, reduces its energy use, and promotes renewable energy, it not only protects its environment, but also becomes a more inviting place to live, work, visit, and invest.

Air Pollution Disproportionally Affects People of Color, Lower-Income Residents in DC

The rates of death and health burdens associated with air pollution are borne unequally and inequitably by people of color and those with lower household income and educational attainment in Washington, D.C., according to a new study.

Air pollution is considered the leading environmental risk factor to health, and recent efforts have successfully brought down levels of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, in the air in the D.C. region.

The new study found that while deaths and health burdens associated with PM2.5 halved between 2000 and 2018 in the D.C. area, disparities and geographical segregations in health effects persist.

Most impacted by PM2.5 air pollution are people living in wards five, seven and eight in the District’s east and southeast regions. Researchers found in southeast wards, baseline disease rates are five times higher for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and stroke, up to nine times higher for all-cause mortality and coronary heart disease, and over 30 times higher for asthma emergency department visits, compared to northwest neighborhoods.

In these most impacted neighborhoods, residents have 10% lower education and employment rates, 10% more residents are living in poverty, their median household income is $61,000 lower than households in the rest of the city, and residents have about 10 fewer years of life expectancy. The top 10 impacted neighborhoods have a 54% higher proportion of Black residents and a 44% lower proportion of white residents.

This study highlights the importance of detailed health and air quality data, and the researchers hope it can guide future policymaking to address environmental health disparities and serve as a model for addressing air pollution health assessments elsewhere. The research was published in GeoHealth, AGU’s journal investigating the intersection of human and planetary health for a sustainable future.

“We knew that concentrations were higher in the east [of D.C.], and we knew that people were getting sicker in the east, but I don’t know if we were able to tell before that they were getting sicker because of pollution,” said lead study-author Maria Castillo, a graduate student in City Planning at MIT. “Now that we apply all these calculations, all these concentration response functions, we’re able to tell people, ‘Air pollution is the cause of some of the morbidity outcomes that you are seeing in this area.’ Making that connection between pollution and health impact outcomes I think is very powerful.”

Unequal health outcomes can be attributed to two main drivers, according to study co-author Susan Anenberg, an environmental health expert at George Washington University. First, air pollution concentration differs by neighborhood. Infrastructure such as highways or bus depots can release significant pollution into a neighborhood, negatively affecting residents.

The second driver is an individual’s health status, independent of air pollution. Rates of underlying disease persistently differ by neighborhoods, with lower life expectancy and greater rates of asthma, health endpoints and emergency visits seen in D.C.’s southeastern neighborhoods. Those underlying health issues can make residents more vulnerable when exposed to pollutants and result in higher levels of poor air pollutant-related health outcomes.

“You can’t think about air pollution in isolation. When it comes to health risks and environmental justice, we have to think of the total lived experiences that people are having,” Anenberg said. “If folks don’t have adequate access to quality healthcare, that means when they are exposed and have health effects as a result of that air pollution exposure, they may have worse outcomes because they’re not getting the treatment that they need.”

Focusing on Fine-Resolution Data

Researchers worked with new exposure assessment tools to measure the impacts of air pollution in the nation’s capital. To evaluate air pollution, Castillo and her co-authors used pollution estimates that combined information from on-the-ground air monitors with satellite data to capture some of the spatial differences in pollution levels across the city.

For health outcome data, they looked at both Centers for Disease Control data as well as administrative disease rate data obtained from the D.C. Department of Health, which provided health data in greater detail on a local scale.

Researchers aim to take advantage of the unique position of D.C. as a city with thought leaders in environmental justice and policy, and with more granular health data than other states, to make scalable solutions applicable in other regions. They hope this study can be used as a model to not just bring down overall air pollution but create targeted policy.

“I think one of the strengths of the study is that it really laid out a road map that could be done other places,” said Jonathan Levy, an expert in Environmental Health at Boston University who was not involved in the study. “The air quality data they used, that’s universally available every place across the U.S. … there are real opportunities to take this kind of approach and do it much more widely.”

This study could also be used as a model help ensure policymaking is driven by health data that accurately reflects racial diversity and health outcome disparity in populations — something that was not historically the case, according to Kelly Crawford, study co-author and Associate Director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment.

“Doing further studies that at the very least acknowledge the disparity or lack of diversity in data sets… I think that is the role of government and research in addressing racism,” Crawford said.

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 …

Work Together to Prepare for the Next Big Storm

Year by year, hurricanes are growing stronger and more frequent. We are witness to these changes as we watch two catastrophic storms devastate the southeastern United States in as many weeks.

This month, Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas. The massive storm killed at least 16 people, flooded cities, highways, and rivers, and reduced much of the region to rubble.

Barely two weeks ago, Hurricane Florence killed at least 36 people in three states, forced thousands to evacuate their homes, dumped record floodwaters on North Carolina, created power outages for hundreds of thousands, and killed millions of farm animals. The most recent damage estimates put the economic toll at a staggering $100 billion, once accounting for property damage, medical costs, and lost wages.

Natural forces emboldened by climate change continue to overwhelm our outdated stormwater management practices and inadequate urban planning, putting us in a precarious position. Short-term economics have often driven development where considering long-term environmental impact was needed instead. When it comes to handling the effects of more storms, we’re not as prepared as we think.

As we assess the damage done by Michael, Florence, and other storms, the shrewdest move is to prepare for the next big storm — and the one after that. Municipalities, businesses, and individuals can brace for the next storms by focusing on the following areas:

Additional Pollution Prevention

Florence and Michael disrupted two of North Carolina’s biggest industries: coal power and hog farming. This created environmental trouble and the potential for health problems. Duke Energy officials in North Carolina said slope and landfill erosion caused stormwater with coal ash — containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury — to spill into Sutton Lake. Watchdog groups have expressed concern about the effect on water quality.

Floodwaters also breached multiple hog lagoons, designed to keep solid waste from polluting sources of drinking water, in at least two North Carolina counties, causing varying degrees of damage. The North Carolina Pork Council says the state’s other 3,000 hog lagoons are holding up, but the state’s Department of Environmental Quality will have to perform inspections.

The landfills, dams, and lagoons containing pollutants need to be stabilized and reinforced. Cities can reduce landfill washout by using gravel stabilizers, terracing, drainage diversions, and other measures to safeguard their slopes against erosion. To avert overflow of detention ponds like hog lagoons, companies can add pond depth, secure the perimeters, and place impervious barriers around the site.

Adjusted Damage Estimates

Because of climate change, we can count on heavier rain and shorter intervals between storms increasing flooding risk. Data is still being gathered for Michael, but we know that for Florence, greenhouse gas emissions and warmer weather made for more intense rainfall. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last year, the city matched its annual rainfall (typically 50 inches) in a matter of days.

Cities, businesses, and infrastructure planners need to set new damage expectations, as “500-year storms” arise with increasing regularity. Adequate planning and preparation may seem expensive overall, but it’s more expensive to deal with damage in the aftermath of flooding. It’s important to remember there’s no immediate fix or silver bullet. Instead, we need long-term solutions first acknowledging the problem and then planning for it.

Broader Public Education

Weathering the next storm requires a public education process that touches all sectors on the solutions available to help protect communities against floodwater. In my hometown of Houston, the community has come together with a discussion on the web, in public forums, and in community meetings.

The Houston Green Building Resource Center provides a public resource at the permitting building, providing engineers, architects, contractors, and homeowners with techniques on how to reduce flooding on the macro and micro levels, including information on building codes, permeable and sustainable materials, and engineering technologies to incorporate. Examples include elevated construction, or raising buildings above the rising floodplain, and permeable paving techniques that can reduce the extreme weather’s impact on the earth’s surface. Both are cost-effective improvements worthy of broader public education.

The intensity of storms like Michael and Florence raise the bar for planning and preparation. Governments, businesses, and communities must plan ahead and work together during the quiet times before the storm returns.

Plastic Might Be Convenient, But Is It Worth It?

Plastic is everywhere in our lives these days. Water bottles, microbead skin products, disposable razors, shopping bags, and red solo cups.  It’s amazing how much of this ends up in the water systems, my dear Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

When this debris ends up in the oceanic system, they all get pulled around by the currents–typically ending up in the same place, if not in an animal’s throat or around their neck first.  According to National Geographic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch “is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water.

This “patch” is more than twice the size of Texas. It’s not surprising considering a study released in 2015 estimates that 8.8 million tons of plastic waste ended up in the ocean in the year 2010. I keep having this nightmare that the garbage patch is going to grow until the whole Earth is one large garbage patch!

Before we get to that point, too many animals will die from plastic. In 2013 in Spain, scientists found a dead whale, whose cause of death was intestinal blockage. The digestive system contained 59 pieces of plastic waste totaling 37 pounds in weight. Sea turtles are now ingesting twice the plastic they were 25 years ago. In total, it is estimated that plastic ingestion kills 1 MILLION marine birds and 1 HUNDRED THOUSAND marine animals every single year!

Other than ingestion, plastic can also ruin an animal’s life by tangling them up; this can make movement and growth difficult or impossible. Some species happen to inhabit areas where plastic pollution is more of a problem, causing them to be more susceptible to entanglements and ingestion caused by plastic. This fact proves true for species like the Hawaiian monk seal, which swim and feed in areas close to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Not only can plastic hurt them in its full state, but also in later states. Although plastic does not biodegrade, it does break down and the chemicals that break down impact animals as well. The toxic chemicals really mess with the hormones of marine animals. In the long term, this can affect humans as well because many people are consuming the animals affecting by these pollutants.

So what can you do?

Of course, recycling can be a big help and not littering, but the only way to completely prevent these problems is by decreasing your plastic consumption. The best thing you can do is to completely eliminate plastic from your life! Convenience is not worth possibly living on a garbage planet.

In my single-handed fight I have collected 180,000 items – 50 pieces of litter a day for 10 years. If only the world didn’t find this weird – Andrew Mayer

Learn more about Andrew and his efforts to help pick up trash before it makes its way to the ocean in the article he wrote for the Guardian entitled I pick up plastic waste to save it from landfill. It’s lonely but worth it.

Environmental Social Work: A Call to Action

Photo Credit: United Church of Christ

What is environmental justice? Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the father of the environmental justice movement, in an interview with the Union of Concerned Scientists described it as environmental justice centers on fairness, equity, and particularly racial justice. For decades, the movement has worked to make sure that all communities—especially communities of color and low-income communities—are given equal protection. We have environmental laws on the books in the United States, but they’re often not applied and enforced equally.

It isn’t difficult to believe that the poorest get the worst – that the most vulnerable populations are exploited. But it is not as easy to identify ways that social workers can advance environmental justice and I have been asked several times how specifically social work can play a role in the environmental movement. This article attempts to clarify social work roles in addressing environmental injustice.

In 2011, I published a piece on Environmentalism & Social Work and the importance of social work adopting environmental priorities has only become clearer since that time. Many students have expressed an interest infusing environmental concerns into their work. Instead of viewing a person in the environment, they find it equally important to view the environment in the person.  Environmental social work sometimes referred to as ecosocial work is different from ‘regular’ social work in that it takes an ‘ecocentric’ instead of a people-centric view. The ecosystem is at the core of practice rather than the person.

The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare proposed 12 Grand Challenges for our profession. All of these challenges will become worse if we don’t give priority to this one:  “Create social responses to a changing environment”

The Academy goes on to illuminate this challenge: The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.

Historically, the profession of Social Work has been slow to embrace remediating environmental injustice as in the scope of our practice. Fortunately, there has been a burgeoning social work literature on the subject. A 2017 content analysis of the literature published in the British Journal of Social Work identified three themes for social workers to explore in ecosocial work:

Creatively apply existing skills to environmental concepts and openness to different values and ways of being or doing

Shift practice, theory and values to incorporate the natural environment: This shift implies a move to ecocentrism with the core value being that all beings have equal access to safe and clean environments. This aspect suggests using social work skills such as empowerment, team-building, community development, management, anti-oppressive practice, holistic interventions, and advocacy to address and mitigate environmental destruction. As first responders, social workers often respond to the community aftermath of natural disasters, but ecosocial work calls for us to be more proactive and preventative in our actions to prevent environmental deterioration and disaster.

Learn from spirituality and indigenous cultures: Appreciating cultural diversity is a given principle in social work practice and in ecocentric social work valuing and using the wisdom of native and tribal cultures is prioritized. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of all life is paramount. How can people live in harmony with the environment?  How can social workers ensure sustainable environments for the physical and emotional well-being of inhabitants? Concepts of transpersonal theory would be helpful in individual and group interventions.

Incorporate the natural environment in social work education: The increasing literature suggests that social workers have a base from which to study the subject. Some schools of social work have adopted concentrations in community sustainability and environmental justice.

Appreciate the instrumental and innate value of non-human life: The concept of biosphere and biofilia are emphasized in ecosocial work. Looking to the natural environment for restorative and transcendent experiences are emphasized.  The premise of adventure-based programs and animal-assisted therapy are certainly reflective of this concept.

Adopt a renewed stance to a change orientation

Change society: Social workers are charged with being “change agents” yet the change required to ensure environmental safety is too often neglected. Valuing environmental and ecological justice should be the driver for change. Advocacy and legislative initiatives that aim for ameliorating environmental injustice are necessary. For example, supporting fair districting and elimination of gerrymandering enables marginalized populations to have a vote that counts.

Critique hegemony: Challenging the social construction of dominance by a particular class calls for radical thinking and action. Anti-oppressive practice demands we examine the political architecture that maintains power and control over people and environment instead of protecting people and environment.  In the previous administration, the EPA asked for social work input on pending regulations. The current administration calls for less regulation and elimination of the agency that is charged with protecting the environment. Challenging the political structure to further progressive environmental causes is necessary.  The foundational core of the Green Party, popular in Europe, and increasingly so in the US, is environmental justice.

Work across boundaries and in multiples spaces

Expanding our usual scope of practice to educate, mobilize, and support community activism is at the core of this theme. Developing partnerships and coalitions demonstrates work across boundaries. Coalitions with public health organizations address toxic environments. Dual degrees such as the MSW/MPH exemplify such a coalition. The American Public Health Association has earmarked 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. Workshops have been hosted monthly to illustrate how public health professionals can help build resilience for the traumas and toxic stresses of climate change.

Social Work needs to have a presence at such workshops and establish similar priorities. An example occurred when members of the International Federation of Social Workers organized a workshop at the UN Headquarters in New York. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations. This workshop aimed to highlight social work’s role for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals on the local, subnational, national and international level.

Work with communities: This type of work is our profession’s biggest opportunity in the ecosocial work movement. Think Flint, Michigan where social workers were involved in going door to door, helping to mobilize groups to demand safe water. Social workers can identify food deserts and participate in, or organize food co-operatives, community supported agriculture and community gardens. The plight of migrant workers remains dire, particularly if undocumented. Studies have shown a significantly shorter lifespan among migrant workers due to pesticide exposure.

Family intervention, support groups, managing an environmental non-profit, providing education at the agency and community level are all ways in which social workers can use their skills. Rural communities affected by fracking or mountain-topping and the resultant loss of jobs, land, and health consequences beg for social work intervention. With the recent hurricanes and evacuation orders came reports of immigrants identified with DACA who resisted going to shelters for fear of being deported. Social work advocacy was needed to provide safety for such vulnerable populations.

Work with individuals: Most social workers provide service at this level. Borrowing from the afore-mentioned suggestions, micro interventions need to assess the environment in the person. How does the environment influence the presenting problem? Are there developmental residuals, is access to healthy nutrition an issue? What environmental barriers exist?  Is there a healthcare inequity?  Does the natural environment provide an opportunity for restorative or spiritual or transcendent experiences? Does it hinder or enhance our quality of life?

Identify the contextual environmental influences that your client may be experiencing. We are all aware of barriers to access, like lack of transportation that clients experience. But do we assess the pollution-laden community in which the client lives?

Of the three levels of social work intervention, micro, mezzo, and macro, several ways in which social workers can make an impact on environmental injustice have been identified.  It is imperative that social workers meet the grand challenge to create a social response to a changing environment. As global citizens, we have no choice.

For more information and resources please refer to my website:  https://sites.temple.edu/dewane/.

Can We Talk About Climate Change For A Moment?

Three Hurricanes Looming off the East Coast of the United States

It is becoming increasingly more difficult to deny the effects that human activity has had on the earth. Decades of research and technological advances have given humans the opportunity to develop more viable alternatives as transitioned from an agrarian society to a more industrious one. Industrialization has allowed us to streamline and improve manufacturing processes thereby improving productivity and growing the economy. But this hasn’t always been to the advantage of the planet and its volatile atmosphere.

One of the major downsides of industrialization is the resulting pollution that negatively impacts the earth’s atmosphere which has been linked to climate change. Today’s environment has been tortured and assaulted by humankind to put it lightly and measures protecting the planet, current and future generations is critical for ecological sustainability. Environmental issues resulting from industrialization include contaminated water, like the lead found in Flint, Michigan, damaged soil, and diminished air quality.

Over the last few years, there have been multiple bipartisan efforts to improve legislation and protections that speak to the ongoing research and scientific evidence backing climate change. And for a while, despite those dedicated critics of climate change, it appeared that Congress had struck the same chord as the evidence of global warming and climate change was undeniable. The previous administration undoubtedly made both climate change and environmental protection a top priority as it took steps to improve efforts to address the global impact and effects of climate change by joining the Paris Climate Agreement.

Climate change has always been one of those highly contested topics of contention. Either you believe or deny that climate change is real or that it is some strategic ploy by liberals to overstate the effects of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions in the environment in order to divert focus their real agenda. As crazy as the latter may sound, and it is quite far-fetched, there are many who believe that climate change is a fictitious liberal scheme.

Unfortunately, one of those believers of the latter currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and has rolled back both legislation and conservation efforts influenced by years of scientific predictions aimed at improving the environment and preventing the extinction of various species. The current administration’s dismissal of the scientific evidence and research supporting climate change as if it were a collection of alternative facts is reprehensible. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see and feel the change in the earth’s climate.

Despite the surmounting evidence and bipartisan efforts to address climate change, President Trump still persists and continues to ignore the severity of climate change. He recently issued an executive order revoking an Obama-Era Order requiring federally funded projects meet standard requirements for flood risks as a precaution to future risks or damage.

This one act seems to have emitted a direct response from Mother Earth herself. As if she was personally insulted, Mother Earth has taken it upon herself to show us just how extreme climate change can be. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katia.  All four of the category four and five hurricanes have been or will potentially be the cause of great harm and the unfortunate loss of life in the regions affected.  Parts of the west coast are on fire and Mexico just had its biggest earthquake to hit in over 100 years. Who says climate change is real?

Politically, there are plenty of reasons cited from both sides of the aisle as to whether or not claims of climate change or true or false, but perhaps Congress should take a moment to listen to Mother Earth herself to find the answer, because she seems to be speaking loud and clear.

6 Reasons to Start Recycling Today

Most scientific studies argue that the reduction of fossil fuel consumption is paramount to reduce the effects of climate change. We are no longer at the point where a single individual action can reduce the amount of pollution needed to make an impact. However, this should not diminish the importance of recycling, and if you don’t recycle, it’s time to start. Recycling is an easy way for people to feel like they are helping to save Mother Earth.

This is a good thing right? Well, maybe.

People use more plastic and paper when recycling was an option versus when they had to send it to the landfill. Researchers say people’s guilt for wasting is overridden by the good feelings for doing something good, but there is a reason reduce comes before recycle in the old “REDUCE. REUSE. RECYCLE.”  Reducing is the most important and most effective way to save the Earth!

I’m not saying recycling is bad!  It’s great!  Many people think that people who care about recycling also care about reducing, reusing, and other methods of reducing their footprint. It turns out there are different motivators at play.  People commonly feel guilty for using more than they need, but they feel even more positive emotion from doing the “right thing” and recycling.  This means the net feeling is good when people waste but recycle the excess.

Some of the excess that goes in the recycling may end up incinerated or sent to the landfill anyway.  This is due to contamination in the recycling process.  This is why it’s important that people don’t try to recycle things they shouldn’t.

I am definitely not telling you to stop recycling, but do think about the things you use, reduce/reuse where you can and keep recycling!

  1. CUT WASTE:  You can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and combustion facilities.  This allows for that area to be used for other reasons, ideally to be left in its natural state.  In 2013, recycling and composting kept 87.2 million tons of trash from landfills and incinerators in the United States.
  2. CONSERVE:  Recycling conserves natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals.  Now you are reducing the demand for new goods to be made from new material!
  3. PREVENT AIR POLLUTION:  Due to this decreased demand for new materials, there are more trees and plants able to reduce carbon dioxide and it will take less energy to recycle materials as opposed to create new products. This reduces greenhouse gases emissions.
  4. AND WATER POLLUTION:  With reduced manufacturing from raw material to consumer goods, there will be less waste going from the factories and into the watershed.  Recycling also prevents trash from going into bodies of water.
  5. PROTECT ANIMALS:  A world with more natural habitats and less pollution, native plants and animals will flourish!  You will also be preventing animals from eating recyclable materials that end up in their habitat.
  6. SAVE AND CREATE JOBS:  Your recycling efforts can create and sustain jobs in your community.  On a per ton basis, sorting and processing recyclable materials sustains more jobs than incineration or landfills.

If you’re not sure where to recycle in your area, check here.  This will tell you places in your area that take anything from paper to cell phones, hazardous materials to plastic!

If your school or workplace isn’t recycling, ask why!  And try to change it!  It is not too difficult to recycle and it’s definitely worth it.  Let me know if you have any questions and go recycle!!!

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Nature

Sometimes it is hard to continuously find motivation to reach your goals to conserve nature and work to help the environment.  Second thoughts may come up such as…Is it really worth carrying around all these reusable bags? or Can’t I just buy a plastic water bottle when I get to the gym? and even A Big-Mac sounds good right about now! 

Although everyone’s second thoughts are different, we all have them. And even if you haven’t asked yourself similar questions, I’m sure someone else has.

What can you do about this?

When you are hearing these thoughts, it is hard to snap out of it.  The only sure way to get back to where you want (and need) to be is to venture into nature!  Petting a few animals may remind you why you choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.  Swimming in a lake and seeing all the fish and animals could also remind you why you don’t use plastic.  Those animals don’t deserve to eat the plastic or have it stuck around their necks!  Seeing beautiful trees and greenery is a reminder that you don’t want to cause any harm to our dear Earth!

Another Example of nature’s inspiration:

 

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Black bear at the animal sanctuary on Grandfather Mountain

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina

5 ways to incorporate nature into your everyday life

1. Open the windows

Whether you’re cooking dinner or slaving over your computer at work, fresh sunlight from open blinds or fresh air from an open window can do wonders!

2. Have a plant

Taking care of a plant is a great way to see nature every day. You are actively caring for it, which creates a lot of motivation! To keep the plant alive and healthy, a routine must be established which leads to it being an everyday part of your life.

3. Add a pet to your family

It does not matter if you decide on the typical dog or take the easier way and get a fish or spring for a horse, each will provide you with a source of joy. Even more so than a plant, animals provide a routine and a sense of responsibility to animals and plants of the Earth.

4. Go for a walk

Some of the best ideas are thought of during a walk!  Why is that?  I think getting fresh air and your endorphins flowing keeps the human body and mind working the way it should.

5. Eat plants

It has been proven that a plant-based diet is best for the environment.  It can also help with your health and therefore your mind as well.  Jumping head first into a plant-based diet can be daunting, which is why it is recommended to start with Meatless Mondays.

Start today

No matter how you personally choose to do it, I ask you to meditate on the beauty of our Earth and how you treat our home and all those who inhabit it.

The Damage of Dairy: The Environmental Impact of a Massive Industry

Imagine yourself strolling beside a river in the woods near your home, only to have this idyllic scene interrupted by an unpleasant smell. You follow your nose in search of a source and discover a stream of sewage and manure flowing from the dairy farm nearby.

For Britain’s George Monbriot, this olfactory nightmare was his reality. The filamentous fungi churning out from the dairy farm was severely polluting the water, making it nearly impossible for anything there to grow.

So why hadn’t anyone done anything about this problem? If this were a chemical factory, people would be up in arms. But for some reason, a dairy farm isn’t viewed as the same sort of hazard or problem.

This pollution — the kind you can actually see and smell — is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you dig into the water use and greenhouse gas emissions that result from the dairy industry as a whole, you discover a more disastrous impact that can no longer be ignored.

What Goes In Must Come Out

The carbon footprint of dairy production is simply massive, and it all starts with how these cows are being fed.

It takes a lot of feed for a cow to produce milk, and those crops have to be grown somewhere. In the U.S. alone, livestock feed takes up 66 percent of all calories produced by crops, and the process of raising and fertilizing these crops creates a huge amount of greenhouse gases.

Once feed reaches the stomach of the cow, the digestive process creates “enteric fermentation” — cow farts. Worldwide, this accounts for 28 percent of all methane emissions related to human activity. That amounts to 80 million metric tons of methane every year.

There’s also the issue of what happens after digestion: manure. Dairies tend to collect manure and put it into a pond, where it sits and slowly digests itself. This stew of stinking manure releases all sorts of methane and nitrous oxide into the air, creating significant emissions as well.

But even with all this considered, the environmental damage of the dairy industry is far from complete.

More Than a Drop in the Bucket

Producing just a single gallon of milk takes 1,000 gallons of water, the vast majority of which is used to grow crops to feed the cows. Currently, 80 percent of all soy and 60 to 65 percent of all corn is grown solely to feed livestock.

And the expenditures of water and energy are growing by the day.

Over the next decade, we expect to need an additional 20 billion gallons of milk per year to serve the growing human population. This increase in milk production will create 200 million to 250 million tons of carbon emissions, which is equivalent to 50 million cars. And that’s just growth; that number doesn’t even consider current impact.

The production of an additional 20 billion gallons of milk per day will require 55 billion gallons of water every day. That’s about 50 percent more water than the entire state of California uses. Just think: In order to meet the growing demand for milk, we’ll have to add the equivalent of 50 million cars’ worth of carbon emissions and the entire West Coast’s share of water use to an already taxed planet. This is a significant problem.

What We Can Do?

There are people in the dairy industry who are deeply concerned about these environmental impacts and are working to do things right. Fair Oaks Farms, for example, is a dairy in Indiana that aspires to become carbon- and pollution-neutral. The owners have developed ways to turn urine and manure into bio-gas, which is used to power their plant and run their delivery trucks. Fair Oaks is a large dairy, and its size allows it to invest money into operating in a more environmentally friendly way. Unfortunately, many smaller dairies simply cannot afford to make these steps.

Changes in the dairy industry’s processes won’t be enough, however. We all have to take a long, hard look at what we’re eating. The way to combat the increase in demand for dairy products is simply to avoid increasing the demand for dairy products.

When it comes to feeding the planet, growing a plant and feeding it to a person is a much more efficient approach, cutting out the intermediary cow that converts plant into beef or into milk. Removing that middle step creates a way of eating that uses less land and saves the planet billions of gallons of water use.

We needn’t avoid dairy completely; a little decrease can make a difference. Even the smallest change, if enacted on a large scale, can make a massive impact on the health and wellness of our planet.

Environmental Justice for Indigenous Populations

Climate change has an inordinate effect on vulnerable populations.  The EPA has published multiple fact sheets outlining the effects of climate change on various vulnerable populations, all of which are populations that social workers encounter.

As just one example the health of indigenous peoples are affected by climate conditions because their culture relies on their local environment and natural resources for food, cultural practices, and income. Many live in isolated or low income communities such as rural areas with limited access to public services and healthcare, or they live in places most affected by climate change like communities along the coasts. The people of several Alaskan tribal villages are facing relocation due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

The EPA cites examples of food, water, air, land and infrastructure, and health risks to tribal populations. In the Upper Great Lakes Region, Ojibwe communities may be affected by the impacts of rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns on rice-growing conditions in lakes and rivers.

Indigenous people along the West and Gulf Coasts rely on fish and shellfish for food, livelihoods, and certain ceremonial or cultural practices. Higher sea surface temperatures increase the risk that certain fish and shellfish will become contaminated with mercury, harmful algal toxins, or naturally-occurring bacteria.

For Alaska Native communities, rising temperatures and permafrost thaw threaten traditional methods of safe food storage in ice houses, and increase risk of food contamination. Climate change may also affect the abundance and nutritional quality of local Alaskan berries that are an important source of traditional diets.

A prime example of environmental injustice is that American Indian/Alaska Native infants are more likely to be hospitalized with diarrhea than other infants in the U.S.  Many remote tribal households, primarily in western Alaska Native Villages and the Navajo Nation, do not have adequate drinking water or wastewater treatment infrastructure, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases like diarrhea.

Current revival of the Dakota Pipeline construction may pollute the water supply of several indigenous tribal communities. In addition, projected increases in large wildfires, as a result of changing weather patterns, threaten air quality for tribes in Alaska and the western United States.

Although the health and welfare of children, elders, indigenous peoples, and persons living in poverty are disproportionately affected by environmental negligence, we all will be struggling for survival if we don’t prioritize climate change and environmental collapse as the ultimate social justice issue.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recently published five social justice priorities outlined in a new initiative for 2017 which are:

  • Voting rights
  • Criminal justice
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Immigration reform
  • Economic justice/Equality

Although each of the priorities are important, they mean nothing if environmental justice is not achieved.  Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy, if basic needs, in this case, air, water and sustainable resources, are not protected, other priorities become less exigent.

There is a small faction of our profession dedicated to ecologically conscious social work, but the profession has been slow to jump on the environmentalist band wagon, as exemplified by NASW’s social justice priorities.  It’s urgently time to reconsider. If you are interested in the nexus of social work and environmentalism, check out the Facebook page Ecologically Conscious Social Workers. Learn more about the effect of climate damage on the populations you serve.

The health impact of environmental crises varies with age, life stage and location. And consider the environment as one of the filters you use to assess the person or situation you are facing.  Yes, we know all about person-in-environment…but let’s also focus on the environment-in-person!

Meeting the Middle: Why a Balanced Message Promotes Sustainability

earthday_soil

Its been 10 years since “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Al Gore film, first hit the big screen. Do yourself a favor; go back and rewatch it.

When it first hit theaters, I took my entire company to see it — a team of scientists and engineers working to solve problems with social and environmental impact. I was surprised when one of my engineers turned to me before the showing and asked, “Do you really believe in this climate change stuff?” By the time the showing was over, however, he was saying, “I don’t know why I ever doubted it.”

That’s the power of messaging. By driving home a well-researched message that was hard to refute, the film transformed conversations about climate change and effectively jump-started the sustainability movement we know today. It did so by moving the opinion of the masses rather than rallying the extremes.

Unfortunately, the majority of documentaries and campaigns that have come in the 10 years since have failed to sway the masses in the same way that this landmark film did.

Where have these campaigns gone wrong? By focusing on the most extreme — and most refutable — studies, important environmental issues are being kept on the fringe, never making the impact they truly deserve.

A Black-and-White Message in a Sea of Gray

Not all environmental problems have a clear-cut solution. Even for the most environmentally conscious consumer, it can be difficult to sort out the best approach to sustainable living.

As such, many environmental lobbies try to simplify the equation by taking a more extreme position — even if that position doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny.

Look at “Cowspiracy,” a recent documentary outlining the massive impact of industrial animal agriculture on the environment. With a wide-angle view, the message is spot-on — the meat and dairy industries carry a massive carbon footprint. But the documentarian continually cites one study stating that the byproducts of animal agriculture are responsible for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — a figure that isn’t corroborated by any other scientific study.

As a result, when people discuss the documentary, they tend to focus less on the issue and more on the data used to back it up. Environmental “haters” are quick to discard the entire premise because the data was cherry-picked to make an extreme argument. An otherwise important message is clouded by the veracity of a single statement. The result is rallying the fringe rather than imparting change by moving the masses.

The anti-GMO movement uses some of the same tactics. Too often, these campaigns tout the extremes — single, oft-refuted studies — rather than the wealth of data showing the safety and benefits of genetically modified foods.

Now, I’m not arguing that use of genetic modifications has always resulted in absolutely beneficial results. But to ignore the positives that have occurred is just as ignorant. Golden rice, for example, is a genetically modified alternative in the Philippines that contains important nutrients — ones that populations in Asia and Africa desperately need.

The GMO labeling effort could gain more support if the information given to the public about genetic modification wasn’t so one-sided and extreme. By painting all GMO foods with the same large brush, many life-saving crops are cast in a negative light — tainting the message behind the effort.

The setting aside of consensus isn’t a strictly partisan problem, either. Fringe environmentalists may tout far-fetched statistics, but the anti-vaccination movement has been guilty of the same. After falsely claiming a link between vaccinations and autism, the anti-vaxxer movement opened up the world to dangerous illnesses like measles or whooping cough that had once been nearly wiped off the map.

The most radical study will only convince the most radical minds, and the most conservative statistic will only satisfy the most conservative viewpoint. Undecideds are left untouched.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The ultimate goal of any campaign shouldn’t be a shocking headline — it should be a truly inclusive look at the issue.

This means looking beyond the catchiest, most clickable statistic and relying on the bulk of literature to drive home a message. Which message is better: saying that global temperatures will rise four degrees or saying that they will rise two degrees, with some studies suggesting they could rise as high as four? The latter may be more nuanced, but it’s also harder to refute, and the potential damage is just as significant.

Don’t set aside sound science for sound bites. It’s not about convincing those on the edges of the issue — it’s about swaying those in the middle. That’s what creates a true impact.

As long as environmental issues are viewed as fringe, they will never succeed. However, by taking a balanced and nuanced approach, campaigns can begin to sway the minds of the masses and cultivate real change.

What is Green Social Work?

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The Urban Renaissance Center of Civic Park Neighborhood in Flint is a new field placement area for social work students this Fall.

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.

Environmental Justice

Another beneficial outcome of the advent of green social work is Environmental Justice.

It is defined by the EPA asthe 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.

Environmental Refugees

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!

Flint Residents Can’t Catch A Break with New Trash Collection Dispute

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Long before the “Flint Water Crisis” brought national attention to the City of Flint generations of “Flintstones” at home and abroad worried about the path the city they love and call home has taken. Decades of governmental and societal neglect had already set in back in the 90’s, General Motors had long abandoned the city that helped make them a Fortune 500 company, and the state of Michigan seemed to have alternate plans for the second largest African American population in the state.

Lack of employment opportunities lead to a mass exodus from the city, according to the U.S. Census more than 20,000 citizens relocated between the years 2000-2010, causing two of the city’s Educational Institutions to shutter their doors Flint Northern and Flint Central.

As if the economic despair and toxic water were not enough for the citizenry to bare, City Council and the Mayor have decided to once again put their constituents in harms way with an act of civil negligence surrounding trash collection in the city.

Any reasonable person would believe, that the politicians who also live in the same environment would attempt to make sure the city would not have to suffer through any unnecessary hardships, but as usual, the elected officials are proving they do not hold the city in the same regard as those who put them in office.

According to MLive, the dispute stems from the city council’s decision to reject a new contract Mayor Karen Weaver hoped to sign with a company called Rizzo Environmental Services instead of the current trash collector, Republic Services. Members of the city council “questioned Rizzo’s ties to former Mayor Woodrow Stanley and potential ties the company may have in Canada,” as reported by MLive.

WJRT reports the City Council has issued a statement describing the decision to stop trash pickup as exclusively Weaver’s decision, but a legal battle is continuing over who will actually assume the contract.

Earlier, MLive reported City Council members requested more time to read through Rizzo’s $17.4 million contract offer, which undercuts Republic by $2 million. Read Full Article

In recent history, the only other American city that has been subjected to such bickering between Mayor and City Council was Gary, IN. In July of 2009 the Mayor and City Council of Gary, IN engaged in shenanigans, which created an 11-day halt in trash collection in the city. Similar to Flint, the issue that caused the stoppage was not financial despair because the city had the funds for trash collections, but the matter at hand was who would collect the trash.

The fact of the matter is I am sure that budgeting city services probably is not an easy task, however it seems that when these services become privatized contracts become somehow subjected to cronyism. Budgeting in general requires one major task which is to find quality services for the cheapest price, so the decision over who gets the contract should be cut and dry.

US Health and Human Service Awards $500,000 in funding to Flint Health Centers

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FLINT, Mich. – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell today announced $500,000 in funding to help two area health centers increase and expand activities in response to the lead contamination of Flint’s water.

Following a tour of the Hamilton Community Health Network, Inc. (HCHN), Burwell and HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dr. Nicole Lurie, who is leading the federal response and recovery effort in Flint, announced that HCHN and Genesee Health System (GHS) will each receive $250,000 in emergency supplemental funding to hire additional personnel and provide more lead testing, treatment, outreach, and education to meet the increased need for health services in the Flint community.

“We are focused on supporting the people of Flint by helping to ensure they have access to clean water and the health services they need to mitigate the effects of lead exposure,” said Burwell. “This additional funding will allow health centers in Flint to enhance their lead testing efforts and quickly hire more staff for community outreach and to better meet the needs of the people they serve.”

In addition to touring HCHN, Burwell met with community members and elected officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, about the federal government’s response and recovery effort. The focus of the federal response is to work at every level of government to support state and local officials in ensuring Flint has access to safe water, and there is a clear understanding of the impact of lead exposure on residents’ health in order to mitigate the damage.

“Primary care, which includes ongoing lead screening, follow up, and continued attention to a child’s development, is important for children in Flint,” Lurie added. “The funding we’re announcing today is one of many ways we are supporting health recovery for the community, and we will continue to look across federal programs, including in health, nutrition and education, to assist the people of Flint.”

Last week, during a meeting with members of House Democratic leadership and the Michigan delegation, Burwell and Lurie confirmed that HHS anticipates being able to quickly approve a number of requests, including a major Medicaid coverage expansion for children and pregnant women in Flint that would include blood-lead level monitoring, behavioral health services nutritional support, and comprehensive targeted case management, among other services.

More than 1,300 health centers, supported by Health Resources and Services Administration, operate approximately 9,000 service delivery sites in every U.S. state, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Pacific Basin. These health centers employ more than 170,000 staff who provide care for nearly 23 million patients. For millions of Americans, including some of the most vulnerable individuals and families, health centers are the essential medical home where they find services that promote health, diagnose and treat disease and disability, and help them cope with environmental challenges that put them at risk.

View more information on the Health Center Program: www.bphc.hrsa.gov

Find a Health Center in your area: www.findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov

Learn more on HHS’s response to the Flint Crisis:

Urban Planning Solutions for Food Deserts

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Grocery options are limited on the far South Side. (Image: Zol87 CC by/nc)

What is a ‘Food Desert’?

A generally accepted definition of a food desert is: an area where low-income people have restricted access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other nutritious food within a convenient traveling distance. When I think of food deserts, I also jump to include areas where culturally diverse foods are not available for those who would eat them. If there’s a large Chinese migrant population in a city and there are no Asian supermarkets- that seems to be a problem.

Areas that have restricted access to healthy food tend to have a higher change of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and other malnutrition-related diseases. Studies have also shown that children who eat a healthy diet have better performance in academic and social endeavors.

Opportunities for Change

This is an area of interesting debate. Many cities, Detroit for example, have rushed to small-scale urban agriculture and farmer’s markets to combat the ridiculous gaps in supermarket locations. Some claim that this is the best solution. Small scale, locally owned and operated, businesses may offer economical boosts outside of healthy living.

Others do not agree. Some recent studies have shown that Big Box stores like Walmart solve the food desert issue because people actually use those models of food distribution. It’s great to have a dozen farmer’s markets in the area, but if no one goes to them then the food still isn’t accessible.

Urban Planning Endeavors

The laws and principals that govern the way a city is constructed have a huge impact on where commercial and residential venues are located.

There are also often laws that govern the sale of alcohol and other non-desirable items within so many feet of schools and churches. These restrictions sometimes make it difficult to encourage or allow grocery stores to come into an area. A recent article on the city of Houston showed that simple changes in the city’s alcohol sale laws will allow for grocery stores to move in, while keeping bars and convenience stores out.

Transportation is a huge barrier to accessing healthy food. It’s built into the general understanding of what qualifies as a food desert. If you live 2 miles from the closest grocery store in a city that has poor public transportation and you have no other access to a vehicle- how are you going to get your food items home? Transportation infrastructure that supports people moving from densely populated, low-income areas to retail locations that offer healthy options have had success across the country. The CDC has a nice list of some examples.

Sometimes, local government does decide to step-in and offer incentives for retailers providing healthy foods to come into an area plagued by convenience stores and fast food chains. In LA, a measure was passed that placed a moratorium on new fast food restaurants. It successfully led to the opening of a new grocery store in the area.

Revitalizing blighted lands (abandoned buildings and lots, etc.)- again in LA and in Michigan- has had some success in turning these locations into thriving community gardens.  A Michigan Farm Bill (2013) exempts cities with populations over 200,000 (Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, etc.) from the previous restrictions on agriculture in city limits. This now legalizes the 355+ community gardens and farmer’s markets in Detroit alone and allows for regulations regarding noise complaints and other farm-related things.

Many cities across the country have taken some steps to improve food security in their most needy communities. To locate food deserts in your area, check out this map from the US government.

Keep in mind- this map may consider convenience stores as ‘grocery retailers’ and might not wholly reflect the need of the area.

5 Charities That Help Fight Global Climate Change

The fight to prevent climate change is a big part of the consciousness in modern society. The recent extreme cold weather conditions are causing more people to be concerned about the effects of global climate changes. As we all try to implement changes to make our society greener in smaller ways, there are few organisations doing real work towards improving the environment. Despite these worthwhile efforts, much of the fight against global climate change falls heavily on the charity and nonprofit sector. Getting involved in charity work is a great way to help fight against climate change and make a real difference to your children’s future. It can also help to improve your chances of finding environmental work in the commercial sector, and here are five charities to consider supporting.

Greenpeace

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Greenpeace.org

It’s just about impossible to talk about charity work in the climate change sector without talking about Greenpeace. Greenpeace is a huge international charity which works around the world to help protect and conserve the environment. If there is an environmental cause, Greenpeace are likely to be involved in finding a solution. The charity works to protect the worlds oceans and ancient forests, campaigns against toxic waste and works to promote green energy and sustainable agriculture.

Renewable Energy Foundation

It is hoped that renewable energy will be able to meet our energy needs and reduce the harm done to the environment by the use of fossil fuels. The Renewable Energy Foundation is a charitable organisation which works to promote green power as well as energy efficiency. It is privately funded, with no affiliations to any major commercial organisations. The charity works to provide accurate reports on environmental data as well as consultancy services on renewable energy.

The Global Cool Foundation

The Global Cool Foundation is another charity which works towards a greener and more sustainable future. The charity runs an online magazine which works with celebrities to promote green issues and green trends. The foundation also works with large organisations such as Vodafone and Eurostar to help promote a sustainable lifestyle around the world.

The Woodland Trust

Whilst some charities operate on a global scale, some focus on a particular region and issue. This can help them to have a bigger impact on a smaller scale. The Woodlands Trust is a UK based organisation which works to help preserve, restore and grow the ancient forests and woodland across the UK.

The Canal & River Trust

The Canal and River Trust is another UK based charity, but this is focused on preserving and protecting rivers and canals across the UK and the wildlife they support. The organisation takes on the responsibility of looking after 2,000 miles of waterways, maintaining bridges, aqueducts, reservoirs and more. There are a huge range of opportunities for volunteers all across the UK to get involved in the work they do.

Careers in Charity Work

Charity work is a great way to get involved in protecting our environment and fighting against climate change. It can be a hugely rewarding career and requires a wide variety of skills and talents. If you are interested in finding work in the environment and climate change sector, working with a charity is a great place to start.

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