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Conventional models of ecological social work have had profound staying power in the theoretical life of social work. They have become conventional wisdom for much of social work practice. In recent decades, however, a new ecological model has emerged. This new ecological model argues that the core values of social work and its conventional ecological models must be altered to support the new realities of the importance of the natural environment and the impending environmental crisis. This research paper traces the historical evolution of social work’s conventional ecological thinking and traces the contours of a new ecology of social work.
- A Conventional Perspective on Ecological Social Work
- An Alternative Ecological Paradigm of Nature
- Major Scholarly Themes
- Core Operational Values
- Future Prospects
Since the early 1960s, social work sought to establish a conceptual demarcation point between itself and other helping professions through reliance on ecological and environmental metaphors of practice. The language of person-in-environment, person-and-environment, or person/environment emerged as common representations in North America and in other parts of the Western world with respect to how the profession attempted to delineate the nature and focus of social work practice. In large measure, it was an attempt on the part of many social work theorists to summarize, with what appeared a simple and readily accessible vernacular, the unique niche and emphases constituting social work practice. Social work staked out its practice space at the interface of individuals in their unique environmental contexts.
This was not a particularly new development since the profession has, for the better part of its 100-year history, been characterized by alternating attempts to find common ground between personal responsibility and environmental circumstance. It can be seen from the very earliest years of the profession especially in the often stark dissimilarity between the individualistic and moralistic friendly visiting of Charity Organization Societies (COS) and the situational and contextualized in-place environmental change efforts of the Settlement House Movement. COS friendly visitors were tasked with investigating the circumstances surrounding the indigent person’s need and to instruct poor people in ways to better manage their personal lives (van Wormer and Besthorn, 2011). The belief that individuals were morally responsible for their own circumstances was unambiguous. Intervention began and ended with the individual. On the other hand, Settlement House efforts were not that of friendly visiting, but rather, were infused with a genuine desire to bridge class differences and develop a more contextualized and less patronizing form of charity. The environment, not the individual person, was the locus of change for these workers. Settlement Worker’s efforts to improve community sanitation systems, to alleviate the deplorable living conditions of tenement houses, and their efforts at developing park areas and green spaces for play and recreation were clearly focused on environmental conditions impinging on personal well-being.
A Conventional Perspective on Ecological Social Work
Throughout much of its recent history, social work has sought innovative ways to conceptualize the relationship between the individual and environmental contexts of human functioning and how professional practice engages with those dimensions. While the person-in-environment vernacular has proved a useful linguistic marker attempting to define the parameters of social work practice, not everyone has been convinced of its utility (Kemp et al., 1997). The problematic tension between operationalizing the interactive nature of person-and-environment intervention continued in US social work as an intermittent point of contention in much the same way as had been the case in the early decades of the twentieth century. In an attempt to clarify the perceived imprecision of person-and-environment metaphors and their lack of practical application for frontline social work practice, several North American social work theorists began to integrate ideas from the field of ecology into social work theory (Germain, 1968, 1973, 1978; Germain and Gitterman, 1980). What became popularly known as ecological social work gradually emerged out of a turbulent ideological legacy characterized by reoccurring struggles to realistically conceptualize a dual and balanced obligation to both person and environment. This incremental evolution toward an ecological social work was different in other parts of the social work world but may have followed a similar trajectory.
Ecological theories had been popular for some time in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and psychology prior to their introduction to social work. Carel Germain (1973) first introduced her ecological perspective to social work in part to acknowledge the growing trend to conceive of human development and deteriorating social and biophysical conditions in holistic and systemic terms. Germain understood that in order to fully enhance human wellbeing, the physical and social environments of persons must be assessed concurrently. Germain argued persuasively that ecological thinking helped social work conceptualize the world in organic terms. It was also more compatible with core social work values since it attempted to integrate broader ecological systems with the lived experience of human beings (Kemp et al., 1997).
Later, Carel Germain collaborated with colleague Alex Gitterman (Germain and Gitterman, 1980) to elaborate on her earlier ecological perspective. Their Life Model of Social Work Practice attempted explicitly to apply ecological principles to direct practice. The life model, while going through several iterations over past decades (Gitterman, 2011), recognized the importance of a goodness of fit between people and their environments, which allows both reciprocally to respond and adapt to one another. The life model relies heavily on ecological concepts and metaphors to emphasize the transactions between people and environments. Human development is characterized by complex processes that emerge, change, and evolve over time. Persons and environments never stand in static relationship to each other. The life model conceives of problems in living as a result of stress associated with inadequate fit between people and their environments. These problems revolve around stressful life transitions, maladaptive interpersonal processes, and environments that become or remain unresponsive despite human intervention to modify and improve them.
Carol Meyer (1979, 1983) introduced a variant of Carel Germain’s ecological perspective called the ecosystems perspective. Her work was an explicit attempt to find a unifying framework to guide practice, which combined elements of both systems and ecological theory. Carol Meyer conceived of her ecosystems perspective as a conceptual framework – a kind of metamodel – rather than a fully operationalized theoretical position. She suggested that the ecosystems perspective “offers social work practitioners/ clinicians a way of thinking about and assessing the relatedness of people and their impinging environments: it does not specify the what (problem-definition) or the how (methodology) of practice” (Meyer, 1983: p. 29). Similar to Carel Germain’s earlier ecological perspective, the ecosystem perspective drew the profession’s attention not only to persons-in-environments but to the dynamic interactions of persons and environments. These interactions are constant and nonlinear and, from an ecosystems perspective, no simple cause and effect explanation can ever serve to understand the complexities of the human condition.
Conventional models of ecological social work have had profound staying power in the theoretical life of social work. They have shaped the emergence of what many have commonly come to call ecological social work (Greene, 2009; Hutchinson, 2011; Rogers, 2011). These models have become conventional wisdom for much of social work practice. Over the last several decades, ecological perspectives have been widely utilized in social work education and practice. Many social work practice and human behavior textbooks are grounded in various dimensions of ecological theory (Hutchinson, 2011; Rogers, 2011). One would be hard pressed to find a significant number of social workers who do not, at some level, ascribe to at least the basic tenets of ecological social work theory. The purpose of social work practice from a conventional ecological perspective is, in the main, to enhance the goodness-of-fit between individuals and their environments and by so doing increase personal and social capacities either to find resonance with, influence, or change environmental factors (van Wormer and Besthorn, 2011; Payne, 2005). The influence of conventional notions of ecological social work, both in North America and around the world, cannot be underestimated. Ecological social work, as conventionally conceived, ushered in a new integrative paradigm for a profession that had struggled for decades to conceptualize its obligations to both person and environment (Dominelli, 2012). As Katherine van Wormer and Fred Besthorn (2011: p. 19) note with respect to conventional ecological models of social work practice in the United States, “no other conceptual frame of reference since the introduction of Freudian psychology has had as significant an impact on mainstream social work thinking as have the ecological and systems formulations.”
An Alternative Ecological Paradigm of Nature
The profession’s conventional ecological perspective has been relevant to social work in that it provided a comprehensive, multidisciplinary, and holistic framework within which the complex and interrelational elements of persons’ lives could be connected and understood. Conventional ecological social work ushered in the first meaningful attempt to integrate the psychological and sociological dimensions of social work practice and supported a conceptual “shift in social work practice from a static to a dynamic view of the environment” (Kemp et al., 1997: p. 41). In reality, social work had always, to a greater or lesser extent, been concerned with situational determinants of human functioning. But, until the evolution of the ecological perspective the profession found it easier, and often more expedient, to address personal functioning. The environment seemed just too amorphous and the task of changing it seemed too daunting.
While social work spoke the ecological and systems language of environments in interaction, in reality the focus was mainly on individual behavior in static environments. This severely limited the profession’s capacity to engage critically with those structural barriers marginalizing oppressed groups. Additionally, to a new generation of social workers, it hindered a response to deteriorating natural environments and their catastrophic impact on clients’ lives. Indeed, one of the persistent criticisms of social work’s conventional ecological perspective has been its rather narrow interpretation of the environmental construct. As early as the 1960s, some social work scholars had become critical of the profession’s conceptualization of environment (Stein, 1963). In particular, Richard Stein identified three major shortcomings associated with the concept. First, he noted the tendency to regard the environment as very narrowly related to immediate contexts such as housing, jobs, communities, families, social relationships, and face-to-face interactions. Second, he identified the inclination to view environment as external and only peripherally related to the individual who “stands alone, an isolated complex of intra-psychic processes” (Stein, 1963: p. 68). Third, Stein noted the tendency to view the environment as backdrop – static, unchanging, background clutter. Richard Stein argued that social work’s efforts with respect to and on behalf of the environment was truncated and merely a second-rate activity compared to the more important skill of psychosocial treatment. Thus, despite the rhetoric of persons and environment in dynamic interaction, the environment was still interpreted as a relatively benign, circumstantial space that persons either adapted to or learned to negotiate. Consequently, ecological social work in practice fell back upon the profession’s historic tendency to emphasize heavily individual function in an environment that was generally resistant to change and was likely to impinge upon optimal coping capacity.
Criticisms that social work’s conventional ecological perspectives and environmental definitions unnecessarily restricted the definition of the environmental construct were relatively new to social work’s scholarly discourse. Several social work scholars (Weick, 1981; Resnick and Jaffee, 1982; Soine, 1987; Gutheil, 1992; Saari, 1992; Berger and Kelly, 1993; Hoff and Polack, 1993; Rogge, 1993) began to argue that the core values of social work and its conventional ecological models must be altered to support the new realities of the importance of the natural environment and the impending environmental crisis. They reiterated what Richard Stein (1963) noted some 30 years earlier, that social work spoke the ecological language of environments in interaction but, in reality, the focus was mainly on individual behavior in static, narrowly construed environments. However, they also noted that conventional ecological models seriously inhibited conceiving the natural environment as anything more significant than data to be studied or resources to be procured or regulated. Social work’s uncritical adoption of the adaptive, static, and narrowly defined notions associated with conventional ecological thinking had unwittingly conspired in creating a state of collective consciousness suggesting that a person exists on a plane of deep division between oneself and one’s place in the larger natural world. Person-in-environment from a conventional ecological perspective had become a kind of euphemism for what was, in reality, persons living in an environment that was wholly separate and distinct from them. Deeper understandings of identity with nature is then excluded and becomes an abstraction that leads to concepts and actions that cannot be reconciled with either the health of persons or of nature. Living in nature, on the other hand, suggests a complex relationship melded together over time through patterns of value, memory, familiarity, love, and respect.
By suggesting that an alternative ecological model of social work must also consider the natural world, these scholars were also suggesting something quite new to social work. Their critique was not just about extending conventional environmental definitions to include the natural world but, in many ways, to advocate for a radical new approach in how social work conceived itself and how it went about its practice priorities. For a small but growing number of social work scholars, especially in the Western world, the recognition began to emerge that the natural environment shares a complex and evolutionary link to personal, social, cultural, and transpersonal developments. They began addressing the implications of nature’s degradation, especially on poor and vulnerable populations, while at the same time exploring the natural world’s ethical, aesthetic, mythic, and therapeutic influences and capacities to inform social work theory and practice. For these scholars, social work could no longer afford to view the natural environment as a backdrop to other matters but as the centerpiece for the core values, purposes, and functions of social work. Human social development and human suffering could not be fully understood or effectively addressed until the profession recognized that the human world was integrally related to, dependent upon, and emergent from the natural world.
Thus, in the last 15 years, a new generation of social work theorists and practitioners extended the original parameters of conventional ecological social work to include a broader definition and more profound understanding of the interaction between person and environment. Due in large measure to the emergence in the 1980s and 1990s of the worldwide environmental movement, a new form of ecological social work began to take shape. With the release of Maria Hoff and John McNutt’s (1994) edited anthology, social work had its first well-organized and thoroughly reasoned statement of principle, premised on the ideal that ecologically minded social work could not fully realize its stated commitment to person-in-environment until it seriously considered the inseparable link between human well-being and the wellbeing of the planet. Maria Hoff and John McNutt (1994) argued that earth’s ecological systems were not static but, rather, consisted of several interconnected layers including the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and noosphere. The first several of these refer to facets of the soil, water, air, and biological systems, which support or impinge on human well-being. The noosphere, on the other hand, represents a deeper, atavistic, and perhaps even a genetically predisposed connectedness with nature that lies beyond physical dependence but that is nonetheless absolutely indispensable for human development and survival (Besthorn and Saleebey, 2003). Shortly thereafter, another wave of social work scholars including John Coates and Marilyn McKay (1995), Mary Rogge (1996), and Fred Besthorn (1997) were among the first social workers in North America to begin a thorough critical analysis of the theoretical and practical linkages between planetary consciousness and social work.
Since then, there has been a flowering of published works on the interrelationship between the natural environment and the theory and practice of social work (Global Alliance for a Deep Ecological Social Work, 2012). A growing core of social workers from North America, Europe, and Australia began to speak compellingly concerning the importance of incorporating the natural environment into the profession’s theoretical formulations and practice modalities (Besthorn, 2001, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013; Besthorn and McMillen, 2002; Besthorn and Meyer, 2010; Borrell et al., 2010; Coates, 2003, 2005; Coates et al., 2006; Dominelli, 2012; Gray et al., 2012; Hawkins, 2010; Jones, 2006, 2010; Lysack, 2007, 2010; Mary, 2008; Matthies, 1987; Matthies et al., 2001; McKinnon, 2005, 2008; Molyneux, 2010; Muldoon, 2006; Narhi, 2004; Peeters, 2011, 2012; Power and Freedman, 2012; Rogge, 2008; Rogge and Combs-Orme, 2003; Rotabi, 2007; Ryan, 2011; Shaw, 2006, 2008; Ungar, 2002, 2003; West, 2007; Zapf, 2008, 2009). In an attempt to differentiate it from social work’s conventional ecological frameworks, this emerging alternative ecological perspective of social work has been referred to in several different ways (e.g., environmental social work, ecosocial work, deepecological social work, ecospiritual social work, and green social work). For its advocates, this alternative ecological perspective better positions a profession, often conspicuously absent, in the emerging international consensus that Earth’s ecosystems and its capacity to support life are in deep trouble. Until the profession began to take seriously the importance of the natural world in its understanding of social work, the profession could not fully realize its core commitment to person-and-environment.
Major Scholarly Themes
It would be difficult to fully catalog the many differing thematic areas of research interest that scholars and practitioners operating from a new paradigm of ecological social work have addressed over the last decade. It would also be beyond the scope of this research paper to describe in detail the key thematic areas that have contributed to the discourse of a new ecological social work. Social workers committed to incorporating nature and deeper ecological thinking into practice will likely have varied and unique interests. However, a cursory review of the recent new ecological social work literature does suggest a number of overarching themes. In general, these include discussions of
- the comparative importance of incorporating nature into the practice of social work
- social work’s historical attempts at integrating ecological theory into its theoretical and practice frames as well as critiquing social work’s conventional person-inenvironment perspective
- the ontological, axiological, and epistemological basis upon which a new ecological social work might be supported
- the interface between economic development, ecological sustainability, economic globalization and strengthening social capital as a catalyst for creating sustainable livelihoods and community security
- the importance of grassroots initiatives to spur involvement of communities in the creation of ecological awareness, sustainable development, and food security
- the interface of fossil fuel dependence and the carbonbased economy and its deleterious impact on energy conservation and sustainability, especially with lowincome and marginalized persons and communities
- how extractive mining practices and industrial damage carried out by transnational corporations impact small communities and dependent workforces
- the importance of crisis intervention in disaster and traumatic stress events including natural and humaninduced disasters
- social work interventive strategies and efforts in droughtstricken areas of the world
- the importance of social work’s involvement in grassroots activism especially with respect to climate change and the increasing severity of climatic events
- social work responses to toxic waste exposure in lowincome communities
- social work responses to the growing crisis of ‘environmentally displaced persons’ – sometimes inaccurately referred to as environmental refugees
- the application of deeper ecological thinking to therapeutic practice with individuals, groups, families, and communities
- the interface between social and ecological justice and the importance of shifting from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric basis for determining just priorities and actions
- the application of principles of a new ecological paradigm to social work education and curriculum development
- the importance of honoring indigenous ways of knowing relative to the natural world and how these might help inform the evolution of a new era of best practice in social work
- social worker’s involvement in the utilization of animalassisted activities to enhance the quality of life of individuals and groups
- social worker’s involvement in the utilization of natureassisted activities and programs such as Outward Bound, Plant-People Council, and Project Adventure to enhance life quality for individuals and groups
- the interrelationship between spirituality, religion, and deeper ecological consciousness and ways to incorporate transpersonal ecological ideas into social work theory and practice.
Core Operational Values
Social work has often been described as a value-laden profession. Many major social work institutional mission declarations describe core values that establish a framework for effective social work practice. For example, in the United States, the National Association of Social Work (NASW) identifies six core values that are thought critical to the practice of effective social work. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the emergence of a new ecological social work model. With the exception of a small number of general statements of principle by several national and international social work associations (e.g., NASW, International Federation of Social Workers, and International Association of Schools of Social Work); few, if any, explicit statements exist that attempt to create a compendium to core values that many, if not most, environmental social workers might identify with. Like the diversity that exists in the thematic areas of scholarly interest, the assortment of opinion of what constitutes the core values of a new ecological perspective is quite multifaceted. This is not to say that there are no statements of principle of core values that many social work scholars have propounded as important to the emergence of a new ecological perspective. The literature is replete with ample discourse addressing a multitude of values and principles thought by their respective authors to be critical to advancing and sustaining a new ecological perspective (Coates and Gray, 2012; Dominelli, 2012). The issue has always been in systematizing and categorizing these ideas into some accessible and reasonably clear framework. The following is a brief listing, from this author’s perspective, of those core values common to a new ecological model of social work. The shift toward the new ecological paradigm is a gradual process that has been occurring as more people begin to think systemically and, no doubt these are likely to change as new scholarly and practice agendas mature.
- The belief that it is impossible to fully comprehend the complexity of ecosystems and the human condition in conventional linear, atomistic, and mechanistic terms. Intuitive ways of knowing, nonlinear thinking, and emotional intelligence are seen as valid routes to knowledge along with rationality and experimentation
- an understanding that the conceptualizations of environment includes all beings and systems in the cosmos – human and nonhuman – as well as the idea that humans can be aware of, and connected to, all these levels of being; environment is far more than the social milieu
- the importance of affirming the need to live in harmony with nature, each other, and the entire planetary ecosystem
- the importance of seeing humankind as intimately connected (biologically, genetically, aesthetically, economically, and historically) with the natural world, as, indeed, natural beings themselves who are inseparable from the unity of all things and beings
- the importance of ascertaining and applying the wisdom of nature and with seeing nature as fecund source of intelligence that has guided and must still guide humanity’s understanding of itself and the interconnected nature of interactions among and between all organisms
- the importance of developing an ecocritical analysis of Western modernity’s deeply entrenched social, political, ideological, and economic assumptions that have led to a myopic preoccupation with unrelenting progress, unrestrained development, unending consumption, and unremitting despoliation of the earth’s carrying capacity
- the necessity of adhering to the idea of long-term sustainability that sees the earth as a balanced system, that requires humans to be intentional about preserving and maintaining the necessary conditions for sustaining quality life for both humans and the nonhuman world
- the belief that the shift to a new ecological paradigm requires nothing short of a radical and wholesale transformation of global human consciousness away from its anthropocentric bias toward an ecocentric orientation.
A new ecological model of social work is, in general terms, predicated on the assumption that there is much that can and must be done to address looming and potentially catastrophic environmental problems. Social work has opportunities to contribute to a transformed world. Some of those opportunities have already begun with the ideas, findings, and insights that social work researchers, scholars, and practitioners have obtained, which have been alluded to in the earlier sections of this research paper. But, the future of a new ecological model of social work depends on professionals overcoming the general social tendency to minimize the seriousness of environmental concerns while convincing oneself that social work professionals have a role to play in addressing these issues. Involving our professional lives in these concerns and crafting our theoretical and practice models in comprehensively earth-centered terms can be politically and professionally risky for social workers. The fear for some is that too close an identification with highly charged social causes runs the risk of social work losing its credibility as objective investigators and socially responsible change agents. And yet, when has this not been a risk for social work? As a profession, social work has routinely identified with risky, politically charged issues for the improvement of individual clients, marginalized groups, and the larger social order, generally. The difference is that which is currently marginalized is the very natural, planetary system that all depend upon for survival. Inattention and hoping for the best can no longer be justified. At the heart of the question for social work is how it participates in and encourages those transformations necessary to protect fragile environments, reverse ecosystem degradation, and once again live in unity with other living things. A new ecological model of social work holds great future promise to bring the profession closer in line with the emerging global momentum toward ecological and economic sustainability, full democratic participation, unadorned sufficiency, and a post-anthropocentric solidarity with the natural world.
A new ecological model of social work presents a thorough organicist worldview with respect to both people and environments as living systems in dynamic interaction with each other. The primary importance of this alternative ecological perspective is that it can be incorporated into many levels of practice. Whether at the level of assessment, individual, community, organizational, or political practice, a new ecological perspective provides an intelligible framework for viewing person and environment interaction as well as the prospect for better outcomes associated with comprehensive multidimensional interventions. Social workers could, if they wished, enter into this organic milieu and pursue interventive strategies that either help change or remove environmental obstacles to enhanced personal growth and adaptive capacity.
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