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Eco social work: where people and environment intersect

Published: 19 March 2018

The social work sector is changing. Demographic trends such as an ageing population are key drivers of this change, along with the integration of technology into service delivery.

One of the most contemporary areas in social work research and practice and one that is going to see a growth in opportunities for social workers in the future is eco social work.

Eco social work – also referred to as ‘green social work’ or ‘environmental social work’ – is concerned with how environmental issues, such as extreme weather events and climate change, affect people and communities.

This dynamic area of social work provides workers with opportunities from the macro to the micro level. Social workers operate at multiple levels within the practice, including working with individuals and families, organisations, communities and all levels of government. They work from the frontline of service provision to advocacy and public policy.

Social work in the age of climate change

Dr Heather Boetto, a lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at Charles Sturt University (CSU), specialises in this field. She explained how environmental instability can affect the lives of individuals and communities across a range of areas, from the financial to the social and mental health aspects.

“Social workers often work on the frontline with people who are affected by environmental issues. We have practitioners working with families who can’t pay rising electricity prices due to poverty; dealing with communities recovering from bushfire and drought; and supporting people who are homeless by trying to find suitable shelter during extreme weather events, such as a heatwave. So because practitioners have been finding themselves increasingly engaged with these issues on the frontline, then we’re finding that we need to transition the profession towards being able to better address these issues.”

Addressing the inequality of environmental impacts

The issues around climate change and severe weather do not impact everyone equally, as Dr Boetto explained.

“Our profession is underpinned by values of social justice and human rights, and now we are starting to understand the disproportionate impacts of climate change on disadvantaged people, whether in terms of disability, migration, refugees, homelessness. Any group that suffers disadvantage are often unable to prepare for an extreme weather event, less able to respond to an extreme weather event, and less able to recover. And quite often, people from a disadvantaged background are located in areas that are more environmentally at risk. So it is important for social workers to become more involved in this issue, as well as advocate and provide a voice for marginalised groups.”

Demand for social workers is growing

The social work profession as a whole is realising the importance of integrating environmental issues into the industry. The Australian Association of Social Workers, for example, now has environmental sustainability embedded within the professional code of ethics.

There is an acknowledgement that, at least in the short to medium term, the issues around eco social work are going to become more common. This means that there will be opportunities for people who want to enter the profession and really make a difference to bring innovative thinking and passionate advocacy to the table. And that starts with gaining a deep and nuanced understanding of the topic during your studies, as Dr Boetto explained.

“These issues are going to become more and more prevalent, and as a result, social work as a profession is going to be in high demand. So here at CSU, we want to prepare our students for this change. That’s why sustainability is being embedded across our courses, and why we are also now offering a core subject on eco social work and practice as part of our foundational Bachelor of Social Work. CSU is committed to understanding the human effects of environmental change, and giving future social workers the knowledge and skills to tackle the issues and improve people’s lives.”

This article was produced for Career FAQs by Charles Sturt University.

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers