Now a buzz word we see everywhere, the concept of sustainability is often big in the news but what does it actually mean and what role does it play in social work practice?
“Making sure that everything we do, we can do forever”
Our favourite national treasure, Sir David Attenborough, defined sustainability as being “making sure that everything we do, we can do forever”. It is an umbrella term that is often broken down into three different categories: social, economic and environmental. Social work has always predominantly worked within the field of social sustainability, which can range from supporting an individual to overcome the challenges they face to safeguarding the rights of everyone. It is the stuff that we do that aims to preserve social capital as well as protecting and recognising the importance of relationships, our social networks and our communities. Economic sustainability refers to the importance of producing and transferring capital in order to improve standards of living and equality. It is the actions that we undertake to ensure economic growth and to reduce wealth inequality. Finally, environmental sustainability is predominantly concerned with protecting our planet, and ensuring that our behaviour as individuals and on a wider scale does not have a lasting impact on our natural environment.
Since the start of the 20th century, the average global temperature has increased by around 0.84 degrees Celsius, and it is expected to continue rising. This has resulted in glaciers and polar ice sheets melting, causing our oceans to rise and resulting in changing weather patterns. Global warming has been perpetuated further by carbon emissions, deforestation, agricultural practices and the burning of fossil fuels. Across the world, climate change has widened health inequalities, and it is associated with weather-related death and injuries, air pollution, increases in water-borne diseases and food and water shortages. Climate change is reported to affect those who are disadvantaged more, with poverty being a key indicator of being at risk. The National Association of Social Workers referred to this as environmental exploitation, which is ultimately a violation of the principles of social justice. Environmental injustices are entrenched on a personal, cultural and structural level and can have significant implications for social work practice, particularly on a global scale.
Four key themes for the practice of social work worldwide
Around the world, social workers are on the front line of sustainable development. International guidelines maintain that all professionals within the field have a duty to practice in a manner that promotes social, community and environmental sustainability. Furthermore, social workers play a key role in the response to natural and human-made crisis. In 2010, the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development agreed on four key themes for the practice of social work worldwide, including the importance of promoting social and economic equality, respect for the dignity and worth of all people, the importance of human relationships and community and environmental sustainability. Such themes were further strengthened in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included 17 goals and aimed to build upon the Millennium Development Goals. In England, the Sustainable Development Unit was formed in 2008 to implement a sustainable development strategy across the country’s health and social care system. Funded by the Department of Health, the programme places a strong emphasis on the role of sustainable development in ensuring resilient communities and protecting and promoting the health and wellbeing of each individual citizen. It basically involves thinking about the future of our profession in the changing world and the manner in which health and social care practice can address the social, economic and environmental challenges that we face as a country and as a planet.
Everyone is responsible for sustainability, and it is our responsibility to highlight concerns, challenge and pass on the message of protection. With climate change being used as part of the political war and even being denied by some in power, the concept has never been more important. Regardless of your political leanings, the crisis facing our environment and dealing with its effects should not be one of left or right, red or blue. Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom. Last year was the first year that the UK produced more renewable energy than non-renewable and the younger generation are leading the climate change revolution. Led by Greta and supported by the experts, the new generation is angry about the current situation. They call for humanity to realise that ultimately we depend on the natural world to live, and it is our duty to protect our planet for the generations yet to come.
However, implementing a more sustainable approach to practice requires innovative change and commitment. Recently, there has been an increased interest in the concept of green or environmental social work and how this can be an effective way of achieving such targets. In order to address the systematic disadvantages faced by marginalised groups, there is a need to raise awareness about how a sustainable approach can be implemented in our everyday social work practice. Yet despite increasing popularity, there is often confusion about what environmental social work entails and how social workers can implement these. Despite some interest in the policy framework in the UK, the improved commitment to sustainability has not really transferred across into health and social care. With student social workers spending minimal, if any, time on the topic and professionals not always clear about their own role and obligations. Whilst the need for change is slowly being recognised, we have yet to reach a solution.
It is also important to consider the issues regarding the sustainability of the health and social care profession. The increasing and ageing population, the decrease in student take up, the period of austerity; there is a multitude of factors which put our own sustainability into question. The number of children in care is at the highest it has been in over 40 years and yet the number of social workers is at an all-time low. The effects of climate change already impact those who are marginalised the most, and we have a responsibility to be aware of how this will serve to impact upon the people who we work with and to plan for the ever-increasing challenges we will face as we move into the future.