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?
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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Examples of nature’s inspiration:
Canoeing the Mississippi River with Quapaw Canoe Company
Looking out at the lake and the mountains in the distance at Linville Land Harbor
Linville, North Carolina
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 everyday. 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.
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
It’s 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.
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