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As a profession with a long standing declared focus on person in environment, social work might be expected to play a leadership role in interdisciplinary efforts to tackle environmental threats to human well being and continued existence, yet the profession has generally been silent or less than relevant. This paper explores past and present neglect of the natural environment within mainstream social work. The profession longstanding person in environment perspective is examined for constraints that inhibit understanding of environmental issues and the development of effective strategies. Alternative understandings of the environment from specializations within the profession and related disciplines are considered. Collectively, we may be facing a fundamental shift in values and approaches towards living on and with this planet. Governments are beginning to respond. There are suggestions that society could be in the initial stages of constructing an environmental state much as we created the welfare state in the last century (Meadowcroft, 2007). What relevance does social work have as humankind faces these serious challenges? As a profession with a long standing declared focus on person in environment, social work might be expected to play a leadership role in the planning stages of any new environmental state. Yet we have generally been silent on these serious threats to human well being and continued existence.How has the physical environment been perceived and conceptualized at the core and at the margins of the discipline of social work? To what extent have our foundational assessment and intervention strategies incorporated the physical environment? In what ways might our language, our assumptions, and our conventional knowledge building approaches be limiting our ability to perceive connections between people and the world we inhabit? This paper attempts to address these important questions, and concludes that it is time (or past time) for social work to move beyond our conventional metaphor of person in environment towards a new paradigm, a new understanding of the relationship between people and the physical environment.Morito (2002) clarified an important distinction between thinking about ecology and thinking ecologically. Ecological issues cannot be relegated to one separate discipline assigned exclusive responsibility for the physical environment. Ecological thinking is a process, a worldview, a set of principles, an awareness that must affect all approaches to enquiry and practice if we are to survive. Following Morito distinction, the following discussion is not about ecology from a social work perspective; rather, the emphasis is on the importance of our profession learning to think and act ecologically if we are to have relevance for addressing the serious environmental concerns now facing humankind.How the Environment became the Social EnvironmentLaying the conceptual foundations for the new profession of social work, Mary Richmond (1922) acknowledged the physical environment as an important contextual consideration for practice but perceived its importance in terms of only its social aspects, asserting that the physical environment part of the social environment to the extent that it has its social aspects (p. 99). From the outset, the profession of social work was more comfortable using social science lenses to view the environment rather than perspectives from the physical or natural sciences. What happened later when the profession adopted an ecological perspective from the natural sciences? This ecological perspective was distorted to re affirm the profession emphasis on the social environment. Consider Gordon (1969) work that called attention to social work newly declared dual focus on organism and environment (p. 6), a statement of the ecological perspective perhaps in its purest form. Gordon, however, immediately went on to declare his assumption that the organism would be by psychological theory while the environment could be by sociological and economic theory (p. 6). Similar to Richmond work, here was another clear direction to understand the environment exclusively in social terms. Gordon (1981) later asserted that ultimate goal of social work is to bring about a balance between the realities of a person capabilities and a person social situation (p. 136), with no mention of the physical environment at all.Developing this ecological perspective into a functional systems approach for social work, Pincus and Minahan (1973) proposed four basic systems for practice, all of which were social (the change agent system; the client system; the target system; and the action system). From this systems perspective, focus of social work practice is on the interactions between people and systems in the social environment (p. 3) with a goal of restoration of balance or equilibrium within immediate social systems where there had been some disruption. Considerations of the physical environment were beyond the scope of this approach. Building on these foundations, a pattern was established in the mainstream social work literature whereby the environment would be transformed into the social environment, with the physical environment disappearing altogether. No adequate rationale or explanation would be offered, and the switch was generally unnoticed or unacknowledged. Consider a few examples.Yelaja (1985) presented the ecological metaphor as a major influence on social work with its emphasis on reciprocal relationships between the individual and the environment and the continuous adaptation of both person and environment to each other (p. 29). Yet the very next sentence declared that growth and development constantly change in relation to the social environment and the social environment changes in response to human factors (p. 29). Notice the switch. Within two sentences, the became the environment. The physical environment had disappeared without explanation, effectively written out of the ecological equation.Miley, O and DuBois (2004) similarly set out a promising view of transactions between people and their environments, explaining how affect their environments and, likewise, the social and physical environment affects people (p. 34). On the very same page, however, they reaffirmed work focus on social functioning which they presented as the balance between coping efforts and the demands of the environment. Once again, the physical environment was dropped without explanation.Heinonen and Spearman (2006) explained that primary focus of social work should not be on psychological forces, the environment, or the social structure, but on the interface or relationship between the person and the social environment (p. 182). In a single sentence, the triad of person, environment, and social structure became the duality of person and social environment. While this was an interesting and relatively quick instance of the familiar switch, arguably the most efficient example comes from a generalist practice textbook by Hull, Jr. and Kirst Ashman (2004). Under the index entry for (p. 483), it simply says Social Environment. A minority declared the physical environment to be an integral component of their worldview and foundation for practice. Sadly, many of these pronouncements were quickly undercut by less than full support for the environment in subsequent applications. Ecological language is frequently used only as window dressing for conventional approaches that subsequently ignore the physical environment in their assessment tools and practice models. Once again, selected examples illustrate the pattern. Consider that Neugeboren (1996) book with the promising title Environmental Practice in the Human Services included only one paragraph (p. 251) that dealt directly with the physical environment, and this was completely focused on agency physical space (with mention made of lighting patterns, non skid surfaces, safety features, and corridor length).Even when the physical environment is presented conceptually as an important consideration for social work, it seldom makes the diagrammed practice model. Lehmann and Coady (2001) defined a client environment as aspect of the physical, social, and cultural environment, and what is most important will vary with individuals, time, and geography (p. 72). The physical environment here was an integral component of the overall environment for social work practice and a potential variable influencing human activity. For some unexplained reason, however, the accompanying diagram of this ecological perspective labeled social and cultural contexts while completely ignoring the physical environment. Sheafor and Horejsi (2006) similarly defined the environment broadly as surroundings that multitude of physical and social structures, forces, and processes that affect humans and all other life forms (p. 9) but then made a distinction between the environment defined in terms of social systems, and the environment which included features of air, drinkable water, shelter, and good soil to produce food (p. 9). For no apparent reason, nature was relegated to the distance as background. Three pages later, the illustrated model of practice featured a background labeled only as social environment (p. 12) with no mention whatsoever of the physical environment. From central to background to obscurity in three pages!If the physical environment is consistently dropped from the diagrammed models of practice, it comes as no surprise that the assessment tools offered in mainstream practice textbooks concentrate primarily on aspects of social functioning, social networks, and social roles. The instruments, worksheets, and interview schedules offered for conducting person in environment assessments generally do not include elements of the physical environment (Compton, Galaway, Cournoyer, 2005; Garvin Seabury, 1997; Gilgun, 2005; Poulin, 2005; Sheafor Horejsi, 2006). Organizing data for an assessment using genograms and eco maps limits the view to the social environment. There is little point declaring the natural world to be an integral part of a person environmental context if the assessment tools used are not capable of recognizing or incorporating these aspects.Zastrow (2004) presented threats to the natural world and the associated quality of human life as falling within the scope of environmentalism but not social work. Perhaps this is the logical consequence of perceiving the environment as a social environment: social workers are concerned with the social environment while environmentalists are left to tackle issues of the natural environment. Of course, some social workers could also be environmentalists, but not necessarily. Returning to Morito (2002) terminology, this is an example of thinking about ecology rather than thinking ecologically.Reclaiming the Environment in Social WorkAlthough relatively rare,
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there are instances in the literature of determined attempts to place environmental issues at the core of social work theory and practice. Nearly thirty years ago, Germain (1981) raised alarm that the profession was distorting the ecological perspective by leaving the physical environment unexplored a static setting in which human events and processes occur almost, if not entirely, independently of the qualities of their physical setting (p. 104). She argued for understanding the physical environment in terms of both the natural world and the built world, further textured by the rhythms of time and considerations of spatial location. Writing at the same time, Weick (1981) also decried social work focus on human behaviour to the neglect of the physical environment. He proposed a dynamic matrix of internal and external environments necessary to understand and influence human behaviour.Between 1992 and 1995, the NASW journal Social Work published four articles making a strong case for inclusion of the physical environment within the domain of social work. Describing the social work literature devoted to the physical environment as (p. 391), Gutheil (1992) was concerned that this oversight could result in social workers neglect of physical surroundings when conducting assessments. The next year, Hoff and Polack (1993) considered human/environment interaction from the other side. Rather than looking at how the environment influences human activity, they emphasized human threat to environmental viability (p. 208) which they argued had been ignored in the social work literature.Later that year, Berger and Kelly (1993) also called for social work ecological model to be extended a full awareness of human role in biological as well as social ecosystems (p. 524). Arguing that the foundation values of the profession would also need to be expanded to support this new direction, they developed a 12 point Ecological Credo for Social Workers (pp. 524 525). Two years later, Berger (1995) voiced the appeal once again in a provocative editorial that applied the label Destruction Syndrome to a global illness whereby human race is collectively engaged in practices that damage the environment and ensure our eventual self destruction (p. 441). The persuasive argument was that we have become desensitized to the threats to our environment and immobilized by a fear that the problem is too big for us to handle. Assuming that habitat destruction needs to be understood as the threat to our social welfare, Berger again asked why we do not environmental activism to social work list of social welfare concerns (p. 443).In 1994, Hoff and McNutt published a book called The Global Environmental Crisis: Implications for Social Welfare and Social Work. 2). Hoff and McNutt (1994) argued that social work and other professions will have to move beyond outdated goals of individual well being and social welfare to adopt new models geared more towards sustainability and protection of the environment. This position received strong support in a subsequent policy statement from the National Association of Social Workers (2000):Gamble and Weil (1997) and Gorobets (2006) sought to put this notion of sustainable development at the core of community development theory and local development practice. Similar work from Finland promoted a new approach for social work (Matthies, Nahri, Ward, 2001; Narhi, 2004). In his book Ecology and Social Work: Toward a New Paradigm, Coates (2003) argued that the Western focus on the individual and competition has made us blind and indifferent to our connectedness with the natural world. His new paradigm calls for social work to become a major player in the transformation of society towards global consciousness and environmental well being. Graham, Swift, and Delaney (2009) similarly placed the imperative clearly at the top of the list of essential issues that will shape social policy into the 21st Century, observing that the profession of social work missed the boat by applying ecological theory only to issues of people and their social contexts. Centrality of the physical environment to macro level practice is given another boost in a recent textbook entitled Human Behavior and the Social Environment: Macro Level Groups, Communities, and Organizations (vanWormer, Besthorn, Keefe, 2007) which includes an entire chapter devoted to Behavior and the Natural Environment: The Community of the Earth (pp. 222 262). Here, in a mainstream social work textbook, are discussions of biodiversity, global warming, war, and consumerism presented as challenges to the planet and our profession.Voices at the Margins of Social Work: Environment and PlaceWhile notions of stewardship, sustainability, and place may be new to the mainstream profession, they have some standing at the margins of social work. Central to rural and remote practice is an understanding of context, of locality, of place and its powerful implications for human identity, activity, and problem solving. In rural settings, a shared history and lifestyle leads to a rural identity rooted in a sense of belonging and a profound attachment to place (Collier, 2006; Ginsberg, 1998; Schmidt, 2005; Stuart, 2004; Zapf, 2002). How does this rural notion of affect the practice of social work? Social work is not something created elsewhere and then done or imposed on rural or remote areas. It is created or made in each place (Cheers, 2004).Much of the developing literature on spirituality and social work makes reference to Canda (1988) influential definition of spirituality as human quest for personal meaning and mutually fulfilling relationships among people, the non human environment, and, for some, God (p. 243). Canda original broad notion of spirituality has frequently been narrowed in the social work literature to simply an internal quality or characteristic of the individual, again without adequate explanation (Zapf, 2005). A decade after contributing the foundation definition, Canda (1998) called for social work to revisit the person in environment concept a dramatic way because the person is separable (p. 103) from the natural environment. Canda and Furman (1999) further challenged the profession to reconsider “what is the whole person and what is the whole environment?” (p. 194).Consistent with Canda (1988) broad definition of spirituality, deep ecology clearly rejects divisions between the human and nonhuman worlds, and suggests instead that human identity derives from an ecological consciousness. Rosenhek (2006) put it simply: a nutshell, the deep ecology movement reminds us that we are from the Earth, of the Earth and not separate from it (p. 91). Deep ecology promotes harmony and connection among all forms of being, a mutual dependence rather than human domination of the natural world for economic gain. Diverse ecosystems have intrinsic value beyond their economic utility for extractable resources. As explained by Ungar (2002), complexity, and symbiosis are in our own best interest (p. 486). From the perspective of deep ecology, work practice needs to address the problems that arise from excessive and destructive human interference with nature (van Wormer, Besthorn, Keefe, 2007, p. 249).In Western society, we tend to view the physical environment as separate from ourselves, as an objective thing, as a commodity to be developed or traded or wasted or exploited, as an economic unit, as property. The dominant Western worldview has been described as “hostile to nature” (Spretnak, 1991, p. 102) and antagonistic to any concept of personhood beyond individualism. In contrast, the foundation metaphor of Aboriginal traditional knowledge has been characterized in the literature as a perspective of am I and the Environment, (Ortega y Gasset, 1985). Suopajarvi (1998) explained it this way: not in the place but the place is in me (p. 3), similar to Cajete (2000) observation that are the universe and the universe is us (p. 60). When inhabitants of a region have been there for many generations, their identity incorporates the place and their relationship to it. Through this process, Aboriginal cultural identities become tied to the land and concepts of place” (McCormack, 1998, p. 28). Graveline (1998) talked about a direct link between “geographical space and worldview” (p. 19). Cajete (2000) called this link (p. 187) whereby people assume traits of a particular place they have occupied for a long time, and the place assumes human traits, in a continual process of co creation.From the field of international social work comes a global concept of environmental citizenship which is by principles of sustainability and sensitivity to the natural order (Drover, 2000, p. 33) and serves as a link between social justice and ecology (Latta, 2007). Because protection of the environment requires collective action at the global level, the notion of global environmental citizenship pushes beyond individualism, nationalism,
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and the rights of one generation. The Brundtland Repor