Social Work and the Physical Environment
Grave changes are occurring within the Earth’s physical environment. Attention has been growing within the profession that social workers need to increase their awareness of environmental issues and the impact they have on populations we serve. Despite social work’s focus on the “Person-in-Environment,” this has been defined primarily as person in the social environment, with little attention on the physical environment. Social workers have long been aware that disempowered communities bear the brunt of the downside of progress, such as locating toxic dumps in impoverished communities and receive little attention when disasters affect them, such as the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India. However, issues related to the physical environment have been given relatively little attention by the profession with the exception of a few scholars such as Mary Rogge and Fred Besthorn. With the increasing advent of climate change, and its disproportionate impact on the poor and disempowered, this can no longer be the case.
Recent publications seek to raise awareness in the profession regarding these issues, including Environmental Social Work (Gray, Coates, & Hetherington, 2013) and Green Social Work: From Environmental Crises to Environmental Justice (Dominelli, 2012). Gray et al. (2013) note the following environmental issues as important to social workers: destruction of natural resources; climate change; toxic materials production and disposal; pollution of air, soil, and water; the extinction of species;
natural disasters; and sustainable development. Therefore, the 2012 Global Agenda for social work developed jointly by the International Association of Schools of Social Work, the International Council on Social Welfare, and the International Federation of Social Workers places working toward environmental sustainability as one of the four priority areas.
While at first, it can be unclear how these issues relate to human rights and social work, a further examination of the impact these changes are having makes this clear. Due to the relatively recent awareness of these changes, this issue is not specifically named in the UDHR, but it can be regarded as being part of the collective rights, specifically Article 28, which states, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (as noted by Hawkins, 2010). The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2009) also notes that a healthy physical environment undergirds the achievement of a number of other rights, including the right to life, health, food, water, and housing. Recognizing these ties, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to those working on environmental issues in recent years. It was given to Wangari Maathai in 2004 for her work in sustainable development and reforestation through the Green Belt Movement. In 2007, it was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and former US Vice President Al Gore for their work in advancing knowledge of climate change. At the national level, the countries of Ecuador and Bolivia have passed legislation recognizing the rights of the natural world to exist and reproduce (Besthorn, 2013).
A growing threat to the sustainability of life on this planet is the overuse of its resources, including its forests, animals, and energy sources. Currently the wealthiest billion people (14% of the population) use 72% of the resources. Clearly, as we seek to raise up the bottom billion, who use 1% of the resources, this level of consumption is not sustainable (United Nations, 2013). Despite the fact that it is the Global North who uses a disproportionate amount of resources and is therefore disproportionately responsible for the decline in sustainable ecosystems, it is those in the Global South who bear the heaviest burden as a result of them. For example, although the continent of Africa contributes little to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is experiencing increasing desertification and drought.
The decreasing availability of resources is especially concerning in light of the increasing population. The United Nations estimates that Earth’s population will increase from the current 7 billion to 9 billion by 2040. By 2030, at least 50% more food, 45% more energy, and 30% more water will be required to sustain the population (United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, 2012). Clearly the current levels of consumption in the Global North cannot continue. However, these consumers typically seek to “go green” as opposed to reducing their consumption and look to develop the most economically efficient way to reduce emissions. In contrast, those in the Global South are more likely to focus on more inclusionary practices in decision-making, proportionate rights to emissions, and compensating for past injustices (Mearns & Norton, 2010). For example, Bolivia states that because the developed countries are primarily responsible for the negative impacts being suffered by the developing countries, there is a “climate debt” (People’s World Conference on Climate Change, 2010).
The expected impacts of resource over-use are widespread (Besthorn & Meyer, 2010). Forests are being lost as a result of climate change and human consumption. The deforestation of the planet for firewood as well as to clear land for agriculture and grazing, together with those forests lost to climate change, not only reduces these natural oxygenating environments but also creates a loss of habitat for the species that inhabit them and can lead to extinction. Further loss of the Amazon rain forest is anticipated as the climate changes it to savannah (resulting in the loss of associated plant and animal life) (Verner, 2010). Deforestation can also lead to further mudslides and floods due to a reduced ability to retain water in the land.
Access to potable water is a growing issue. Many people do not have ready access to potable water, necessitating long trips each day to gather water for cooking and drinking. Climate change will further reduce the availability. In Latin America and the Caribbean, drinking water will be affected by rising sea levels in nations such as the Bahamas and loss of glaciers in nations such as Bolivia (Verner, 2010). On the island of Bequia in the Grenadines, the rural poor rely on rainwater to drink; however, summer rainfall is expected to decline, forcing these people to purchase water (Rossing, 2010). Conversely, in the United States, marketing has convinced consumers not to drink tap water, even when the water is safe. Tap water companies must meet a high level of health standards, while federal law exempts many bottled water companies from these standards (Santa Clara Valley Water District, 2013).
This water must be bottled in a factory, transported to the store and then transported home. There is a large energy footprint involved with bottled water, adding to detrimental environmental impacts. Energy is required to make the plastic, shape it into a bottle, process the water, fill and seal the bottle, transport the product, and chill it (Gleick & Cooley, 2009). The amount of energy involved can vary markedly. For example, in transportation costs, some companies bottle near major US cities for US consumption, but Fiji Spring Water ships its product from the island of Fiji in the South Pacific and Evian ships from France (Gleick & Cooley, 2009).
Not only does the energy footprint to produce and transport the bottle to the consumer affect the planet, but this negative impact continues after the water is consumed as well. The plastic bottle in which it comes is then all too rarely recycled, helping to increase the plastic garbage dump in the Pacific. Thus, the simple act of choosing to consume bottled water can have large implications for the planet. This has helped to lead Concord, Massachusetts to ban the sale of small disposable water bottles (Locker, 2013).