What is eco social work?

World Social work day

Today is World Social Work Day. The theme for this year’s celebration of the profession is ‘Promoting community and environmental sustainability’. So there seemed no better time to explore one of the most contemporary areas in social work research and practice – eco social work.

Social work in the age of climate change

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.

Social workers operate at multiple levels within practice, including with individuals and families, organisations, communities and all levels of government. This breadth of activity and associated skill equips social workers for addressing the effects of climate change on human wellbeing.

Dr Heather Boetto, Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services in Charles Sturt University (CSU)’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, specialises in this field.

“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. Others deal with communities recovering from bushfire and drought. We also support 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, we’re finding that we need to transition the profession towards being able to better address these issues.”

Inequality of environmental effects

As the climate changes and weather becomes more severe, individuals and communities are affected across a range of areas, from the financial to the social and mental health aspects.

And as Dr Boetto explained, the effects of environmental disruption are not always felt equally.

“Our profession is underpinned by values of social justice and human rights. 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 work to become more involved in this issue, as well as advocate and provide a voice for marginalised groups.”

Making a positive difference

Awareness of the intersection between environmental conditions and human wellbeing is starting to become more prevalent in the profession as a whole. The Australian Association of Social Workers, for example, now has environmental sustainability embedded within the professional code of ethics. There is also an increasing amount of cross-border collaboration in this area.

This is because the issues around eco social work are going to become increasingly common.

It does mean, however, that there are opportunities for people who want to enter the profession. They can really make a difference by bringing innovative thinking and passionate advocacy to the table to improve conditions for disadvantaged people.

Preparing for change

And that starts with gaining a deep 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 its why we are also now offering a core subject on eco social work and practice as part of our foundational Bachelor of Social Work. We are also in the process of developing a disaster recovery subject – which will be useful across the human services.”

With dedicated subjects, leading researchers in the field and a unique perspective on the impacts of environmental change on rural and regional communities, CSU is leading the way in 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.