Academic journal article Rural Society

CRITICAL ESSAY: Environmentalism and Social Work

Academic journal article Rural Society

CRITICAL ESSAY: Environmentalism and Social Work

Article excerpt

Environmental Social Work (Gray, Coates, & Hetherington, 2013) addresses a critical area - the environment and social work interface . It presents a theoretical and practical overview of how social work might respond to environmental factors that affect our societies at micro, meso and macro levels. It is refreshing to see the collection of authors in Environmental Social Work (Gray et al., 2013) significantly enhance the knowledge base between social work and environmental con- cerns. One of the key features of complex crisis work is that the needs of individuals, families and communities are contingent on context and cir- cumstances. From this perspective, social work claims to use an ecological and systems approach to help people with their problems, yet has a long tradition of ambivalent understanding of social work's interface and relationship to the natural world. Social work practitioners and writers have, over the last two decades, highlighted this neglect, with many authors advancing the argument that a more fully developed and expanded ecological orientation was needed in social work (Berger & Kelly, 1993; Besthorn, 2000; Coates, 2003; McKinnon, 2008). Considering the susceptibil- ity of rural communities to natural disasters it is appropriate that this special edition of Rural Society reviews this new text.

Environmental themes in social work practice and scholarship

There is simply no way to approach the 'facts' of environmental social work without the medi- ating presence of our social and cultural beliefs and our personal experiences (Doherty, 2013). An example I wish to cite relates to the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. This has resulted in my involvement, along with my students, in the aftermath of a major ecological disaster which left nearly 9000 dead and several thousand permanently blinded and disabled. We were catapulted into 'environmental social work' by taking responsibility for assessing the Bhopal community's immediate recovery needs in the aftermath of the gas tragedy. Following the Bhopal disaster there were a series of actions and reflec- tive conversations, which led to an urban citizens' movement in Hyderabad - my home city. This came about through an alliance of concerned citizens including journalists, social workers, affected citizens and scientists. Collectively, using the Bhopal experience, we decided to look at the city of Hyderabad for 'potential Bhopals'. The resulting report, City Report, Hyderabad: The State of Art of Physical Environment, A Citizens' Report (Pulla, Jafri, & Rao 1985), was the first of its kind in Asia. It articulated a framework for identifying potential environmental disasters in every city as well as a series of preventative strategies.

My involvement in the Bhopal aftermath and the Hyderabad report caused me to con- front the reality of a potential threat arising from poorly monitored industrial activities with the capacity to jeopardise the safety of whole com- munities and natural eco-systems. This has shaped my thinking and social work practice in the ensuing 30 years, regardless of practice con- texts. Post Bhopal, a social work colleague, Nisha Rao, took environmental education into schools and promoted environmental sensitisation pro- grammes at all levels. Her work has been widely recognised and funded across India and gained some international accolades and much valu- able funding from the Ministry of Environment, Government of India, recommended by the Indian Prime Minister's office. Similarly, another social work academic from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Medha Patkar took up the cause of involuntary displacement of Indigenous peo- ple in response to major water projects. She has, for the last 30 years, championed environmental causes, social justice, poverty issues and the rights of the Indigenous population - in the shaping of major development projects (Pawar & Pulla, 2012). Medha Patkar led the largest and most successful environmental campaigns in Indian? …

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