Updated: Mar 21
Prepared by Erick da Luz Scherf for the
Injustice International, Finland World Conference
March 28th, 2023.
Green Social Work (GSW) has emerged as a theoretical movement within the Social Work discipline to address the ‘environmental question’, by bridging the social and the ecological worlds and recognizing the intersection between ecological and socioeconomic injustices. GSW - otherwise referred to as Eco-social Work as well - denounces the consequences that environmental degradation and the exploitation of nature have on the biopsychosocial well-being of individuals and communities, especially those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. With the acceleration of climate change and the climate emergency, the questions posed by GSW seem to be of utmost importance for the future of the social work profession in a world of growing socio-environmental injustices. However, I would argue that, despite the essentially political character of GSW, it does not go far enough to recognize (and perhaps advocate against) the roots of climate change, which can be traced back to the nature of the global capitalist system itself and its (irrational) logic of economic self-interest, infinite accumulation of resources, and the commodification of the environment. With that said, the main goal of this conceptual research paper is to address the GSW debate through the theoretical and political lenses of ecosocialism, in order to provide a more critical and perhaps more politically engaged stance on socio-environmental questions faced by social work scholars and practitioners. We need not be convinced that 'green' capitalism will save the environment. We need to disassociate GSW from market-based solutions to the climate emergency.
Keywords: climate change, green social work, eco-social work, environmental justice, ecosocialism.
1. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
In 2010, the Council on Social Work Education declared sustainability to be the top social justice issue of the new century. Green Social Work has since developed and established itself as a new theoretical-practical trend within the social work profession.
In 2012, Lena Dominelli, one of the greatest Critical Social Work scholars of our time, published the volume GREEN SOCIAL WORK – FROM ENVIRONMENTAL CRISES TO ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE (Polity Press).
“Clearly the book positions the theme of environmental justice into the centre of the social work debate and shows the inseparable interconnection of social and ecological aspects of human development.” (Spatscheck, 2016).
Green Social Work (GSW) has emerged as a theoretical movement within the Social Work discipline to address the ‘environmental question’, by bridging the social and the ecological worlds and recognizing the intersection between ecological and socioeconomic injustices. It denounces the consequences that environmental degradation and the exploitation of nature have on the biopsychosocial well-being of individuals and communities, especially those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
However, I would argue that, despite the essentially political character of GSW, it does not go far enough to recognize (and perhaps advocate against) the roots of climate change, which can be traced back to the nature of the global capitalist system itself and its (irrational) logic of economic self-interest, infinite accumulation of resources, and the commodification of the environment.
Even though Dominelli, in her book, does mention the need for ‘alternative forms of production, distribution and consumption’ (Spatscheck, 2016), my point is that we might need to go even further than that to reimagine and redesign the structures of the global capitalist economy in search of socioenvironmental justice.
2. SOCIAL WORK, CLIMATE CHANGE, AND CLIMATE (IN)JUSTICE
If the social work profession is to be engaged with the ‘environmental question’, then it needs to recognize and advocate against the forces driving the acceleration of the climate emergency.
The Canadian Association of Social Workers recently released a statement in 2020 concerning Climate Change and Social Work, arguing that: “Social workers have a very important role in humanizing climate change by highlighting the ways that it is intricately tied to social inequities and how that impacts individuals and communities at the most fundamental level”.
Climate change is a relevant issue for social work as our profession is concerned with promoting well-being and social justice, and climate change pose a significant risk to these. Climate change
has several social implications that pose a disproportionate burden on populations already experiencing other vulnerabilities (Anderson, 2021).
Social work is essential in addressing climate change and climate injustice, as it is intricately tied to issues of social and environmental equity. Climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable and marginalized communities, and social workers play a critical role in advocating for and supporting these communities in adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change. By addressing the root causes of climate change and advocating for policy changes that prioritize environmental justice, social workers can help to create more equitable and sustainable communities for all.
3. GREEN(ING) SOCIAL WORK: GREEN(ING) CAPITALISM?
How can we make sure that by “greening” social work we are not engaging in the greening industry of capitalism?
Proposers of market solutions to the environment and climate crisis would say that mechanisms such as carbon capture and storage technologies and tradable energy quotas could lead us to a ‘green capitalism’, a win-win situation based on a green economy, green growth, and the market as a tool for tackling climate change and other major ecological crises (Kenis & Lievens, 2015). Therefore, capital accumulation could be made compatible with ecology and guarantee a healthy and balanced environment to present and future generations.
On the other side of the political spectrum, radical economists and ecosocialists might argue that efforts to mitigate climate change might require moving beyond capitalism altogether and its destructive logic of infinite growth and accumulation over matters of social and environmental nature (Huber, 2017; Tanuro, 2014).
I would disagree with the first and agree with the latter. I do not believe we can make capitalism green or clean, otherwise, we would have done it already. The IPCC says that we as humankind already have the technological tools necessary to stop or at least significantly mitigate the hastening of the climate emergency (Kahn, 2022). For instance, wind, water, and solar energy, all cheap, effective, and green technology available now could help us fix the climate (Jacobson, 2023). Yet, countries like the United States and even Norway are pushing for more production of fossil fuels. So what is the alternative? For me, the solution involves systems change to stop climate change.
4. ECO-SOCIAL WORK AND THE ECOSOCIALIST ETHOS: SYSTEMS CHANGE, NOT CLIMATE CHANGE
The Earth is literally burning. It is not even a metaphor anymore; it is the reality. “In July and August 2022 significant fire events took place across Europe, especially in France, Portugal and Spain.” (Sundström et al., 2022), killing hundreds of people, especially in the Iberian peninsula (The Associated Press, 2022). In other countries across the developing world, the effects of climate change have been even greater. In Pakistan, severe flooding has impacted more than 33 million people, with 1,400 people dead and damages amounting to USD 12.5 billion (International Rescue Committee, 2022).
As social workers with a duty to fight against social injustice, inequality, and oppression, we cannot stand silent in face of the acceleration of the climate emergency. However, to speak up and take action against climate change, we might need to take a step back and acknowledge the roots of the climate crisis. So-called “radical” environmentalists and economists argue that “mitigating climate change in the long term will require substantial transformation of the capitalist system, if not this system’s demise altogether” (Fletcher, 2021, p. 97).
Ultimately, “the fight against climate change is a fight against capitalism” (Hannah, 2019, para. 1). I share Hannah’s view that “Capitalism is simply incompatible with social justice […] so it has to be changed, and changed quickly. The clock is ticking” (Hannah, 2019, para. 12).
Why ecosocialism then? Ecosocialism is a “rebel doctrine” that attempts to revisit the political economy of Marx, and the socialist experience at some level, to insert environmental concerns into the heart of the Marxist political, economic, and sociological theory (Wall, 2010). Advocates of Ecosocialism would tell us that the capitalist system bears a great amount of responsibility regarding contemporary ecological problems and that the only alternative is to change the system entirely (Schwartzman, 2009), once and for all. With that said, I hereby argue that Green Social Work as a political movement and theory has a lot to learn from the ‘ecosocialist ethos’. Envisioning GSW from a revised Marxian-informed viewpoint, with a focus on social actions/struggles, can indeed help eco-social workers in their claim for radical changes in the contemporary global economy.
The social work profession is political in nature, therefore, it is my opinion that GSW needs to be politically engaged, with a focus on systems change.
As social workers, there are several ways in which we can advocate for changes in the global capitalist economy in favor of climate justice. Here are some suggestions:
A. Raise awareness: Educate yourself and others about the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations and advocate for the need for systemic change. Use your social work skills to raise awareness among your colleagues, clients, and policymakers.
B. Lobbying: As a social worker, you can work with your professional associations to lobby policymakers and influence public policy decisions in favor of climate justice. Use your advocacy skills to write letters, meet with legislators, and attend public hearings.
C. Collaborate with climate justice organizations: Partner with climate justice organizations to amplify your advocacy efforts. By joining forces, you can leverage each other's expertise and networks to bring about change.
D. Support climate-friendly policies and practices: Support policies and practices that promote environmental sustainability and reduce the carbon footprint of individuals and organizations. Use your position to advocate for ethical and sustainable practices among your colleagues and clients.
E. Incorporate climate justice into your practice: Integrate climate justice into your social work practice by working with clients and communities to build resilience to climate change and advocate for their rights to clean air, water, and land.
Overall, as social workers, we have a unique opportunity to promote climate justice by using our skills, knowledge, and networks to advocate for systemic change. By working together with other stakeholders, we can make a difference in creating a more just and sustainable world.
Anderson, R. (2021). Why is climate change a pertinent issue for social work and how can social workers contribute to efforts to address it? Social Work & Policy Studies: Social Justice, Practice and Theory, 4(1), 1–11. https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SWPS/article/view/15004.
Canadian Association of Social Workers (2020). CASW: Climate Change and Social Work. Canadian Association of Social Workers Position Statement 2020. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.casw-acts.ca/files/documents/SW_and_Climate_Change_Final_PDF.pdf
Dominelli, L. (2012). Green Social Work – From Environmental Crises to Environmental Justice. Polity.
Fletcher, R. (2012). Capitalizing on chaos: Climate change and disaster capitalism. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 12(1/2), 97–112. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/2022-01/12-1fletcher.pdf.
Hannah, S. (2019). The fight against climate change is a fight against capitalism. Open Democracy. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/fight-against-climate-change-fight-against-capitalism/
Huber, M. T. (2017). Petrocapitalism. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118786352.wbieg0265
International Rescue Committee (2022, August 30). Flooding in Pakistan: What you need to know. Rescue.org. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.rescue.org/article/flooding-pakistan-what-you-need-know
Jacobson, M. Z. (2023, February 7). We don’t need ‘miracle’ technologies to fix the climate. We have the tools now. The Guardian. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/07/climate-crisis-miracle-technology-wind-water-solar.
Kahn, B. (2022, April 4). The IPCC says we already have the tech tools to stop climate change. Protocol. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.protocol.com/climate/ipcc-renewable-technology-wind-solar.
Kapro, K. (2019). What is Green Social Work? Social Work Helper, PBC. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://swhelper.org/2016/10/13/green-social-work/
Kenis, A., & Lievens, M. (2015). The limits of the Green Economy: From re-inventing capitalism to re-politicising the present. Routledge.
Schwartzman, D. (2009). Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe? Capitalism Nature Socialism, 20(1), 6–33. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10455750902727154
Spatscheck, C. (2016). Book review: GREEN SOCIAL WORK – FROM ENVIRONMENTAL CRISES TO ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE. International Federation of Social Workers. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.ifsw.org/green-social-work/
Sundström, A.-M., Szeto, S., Wagemann, J., & Fierli, F. (2022, December 14). Summer 2022: exceptional wildfire season in Europe. EUMETSAT. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.eumetsat.int/summer-2022-exceptional-wildfire-season-europe
Tanuro, D. (2014). Green Capitalism: Why it Can’t Work. Fernwood Publishing.
The Associated Press (2022, July 18). Heat torches Southern Europe, killing hundreds. NPR News. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/2022/07/18/1111996473/france-wildfires-heat-wave-europe.
Wall, D. (2010). The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement. Pluto Press.