Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Responding to the Ecological Crisis: Transformative Pathways for Social Work Education

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Responding to the Ecological Crisis: Transformative Pathways for Social Work Education

Article excerpt

OVER THE LAST DECADE, and more dramatically in the last few years, increasing evidence of major problems in the earth's ecological balance, particularly relating to the issue of global warming, has resulted in a dramatic increase in concern about ecological issues. In the face of the overwhelming evidence of climate change, it is difficult to argue that humans are having no impact, or only a benign impact, on the natural world. It is widely and generally agreed that humans have reached population levels and technological capacities that mean we are capable of destroying the fragile ecosystem that sustains us.

The fundamental conclusion drawn by much of the emerging evidence is that there is a crisis and we are the cause. Many recent reports also make the point that environmental problems inequitably affect the world's poorest and operate to further prevent many people from moving from poverty into more sustainable lifestyles (United Nations Environment Programme, 2007). The prominence of environmental issues in recent domestic political debate in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia makes it increasingly clear that the issue of the environment will continue to move from the periphery of economic and social policy to being one of the core issues, if not the core issue. Such a conclusion recognizes the centrality of the environment and the ways in which all aspects of human life are related back to the state of the global ecosystem. This acknowledgment also clearly links issues of global social justice with issues of the environment.

Given this level of recognition, it is an interesting and important exercise to think about social work's role in understanding and responding to the global ecological crisis, and to assess the ways in which the profession might build on existing theoretical and practice foundations to make a contribution to facilitating the social, economic, and political transformations that will be required to move the planet toward a sustainable future. On a philosophical level, this will require a paradigmatic shift in the way social work as a profession understands its role and purpose as well as its conceptualization of the relationship between people and the nonhuman world.

On a practical level, this philosophical shift will need to be facilitated by a pedagogical approach to social work education that is capable of challenging existing paradigms, critically evaluating emerging alternatives, and encouraging action grounded in new ways of understanding the world. Transformative approaches to social work education may help us to move toward the necessary goal of equipping students with an expanded ecological consciousness and a clear sense of the interdependence of social and environmental issues.

In this way, the ecological crisis presents both a challenge and an opportunity for social work. The challenge is to respond to an emerging dynamic, when that response may very well involve a fundamental reassessment of the values that underpin the profession. The opportunity is to do exactly this, in a way that builds on social work's existing foundations, and in doing so place the profession in a position to make significant and meaningful contributions to the creation of an ecologically sustainable future.

Social Work, Modernity, and the Environment

Despite the increasing and urgent evidence of the ways in which the ecological crisis is impacting human well-being, and the obvious connections among the concerns of environmental, ecological, and social justice, social work has generally been reluctant to claim, or even explore, a role in the task of addressing this crisis and finding ways to move forward. A review of the major social work journals reveals a paucity of literature linking the profession and the natural environment, and although social work programs may include a consideration of environmentalism as an ideology or a social movement, there are few examples of courses devoted specifically to linking the social and ecological in theory and practice. …

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