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About this book

The world is on the brink of ecological crisis. In the last decade we have seen a number of catastrophic events that illustrate this, including the 2004 tsunami across the Pacific, which killed over 150,000 people, and Hurricane Katrina in the United States, which left thousands dead and millions displaced. As the frequency and scale of environmental disasters has increased, social workers have found themselves on the front line of crisis interventions, working to ensure that the basic needs of communities are met.

This evocative, highly thought-provoking book encourages social workers to incorporate an awareness of the physical environment into their work with individuals, groups and communities. Written by an international group of experts and led by two of the top names in the field, it offers an examination of key theoretical concepts combined with specific guidance on developing an ecological social work practice in a variety of situations – from daily life in urban communities to post-disaster sites – from areas across the globe.

A fresh new perspective on a topic that gains greater significance day by day, Ecological Social Work calls for practitioners to use their skills in speaking on behalf of the vulnerable to lend their voice to the physical environment: to bring forward the stories of those marginalised by environmental disaster in order to lead creative solutions to this most fundamental of crises.

Table of Contents



A new appraisal of social work’s engagement with the physical environment has been a feature of twenty-first century practice. With the world on the brink of ecological crisis and with environmental disasters and ongoing landscape degradation reducing our capacity to sustain a healthy planet, the social work profession is reimagining the environment as a critical field of social work practice. While global leaders express frustration, ignorance or denial as we drift towards the dangerous shoals of catastrophic climate changes and more frequent and intense environmental catastrophes, social workers across the globe are introducing an alternative paradigm that links social and environmental justice with human rights and advocacy. In the confusion, procrastination and uncoordinated global and national actions, social workers have taken a lead in bringing a greater focus to the social aspects of sustainability and the health and wellbeing of the planet and its people.
Jennifer McKinnon, Margaret Alston

Defining and Theorising Ecological Social Work


1. Conceptual and Historical Analysis of Ecological Social Work

This chapter:
  • Analyses the early roots of ecological thinking in social work by comparing how the two central pioneers of social work, Mary Richmond and Jane Addams, conceptualised the environment in their texts around 100 years ago.
  • Outlines the later historical progression of the theory of ecological social work in the 1970s and 1980s by comparing the systems theoretical approach, emphasising the holistic social environment, and the eco-critical perspective, applying the impact of the critical ecological movements in social work.
  • Compares the differences and similarities of the various contemporary concepts related to ecological social work, such as deep ecological social work, eco-spiritual social work, green social work, social ecological social work and environmental social work.
  • Considers that throughout the history of social work its relationship to the environment has been reflected, but the paradigmatic question is whether social work understands that it is also part of nature, which is shaped by human culture, and that social work has to contribute to a more sustainable transformation in society.
Kati Närhi, Aila-Leena Matthies

2. Social Development and Sustainability: Social Work in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Framework

This chapter:
  • Demonstrates the linkages between social development, environmental protection and economic development as mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development, and how these relationships inform the post-2015 Sustainable Development framework.
  • Traces international initiatives and platforms for action on sustainable development, social development, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the role of social work in promoting human rights.
  • Presents two case studies on 1) Johnsons Landing landslide event in British Columbia, Canada and 2) Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, China, that highlight community-based disaster recovery and community practices.
  • Considers social work’s contributions in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction to promote social and economic justice, human rights and dignity, social relationships and environmental sustainability.
Julie Drolet, Haorui Wu, Allyson Dennehy

Developing Ecological Social Work Practice


3. Developing Ecological Social Work for Micro-Level Practice

  • This chapter outlines an eco-social work framework for integrating theory with micro-level practice, including detailed strategies for day-to-day interaction with individuals and families.
  • Drawing from critical theory, micro practice can be framed through the lens of two key questions that relate to the natural environment, sustainability and environmental justice.
  • These key questions are applied to the theoretical practice approaches of the helping relationship (engagement, assessment, intervention and evaluation) and the micro, meso, and macro practice method.
  • Integrating meso and macro approaches into practice at the micro level is integral to critical social work practice.
Heather Boetto

4. Building Sustainable Urban Communities

  • Population growth and increasing social and cultural diversity in cities create sustainability problems and put stress on living together in a shared space.
  • Traditional concepts of community, for instance in terms of ‘shared values’ or ‘social cohesion’, are inappropriate to grasp the dynamics of community building in the light of sustainability issues.
  • Community building is interpreted in terms of processes of social learning with a political character. This implies a critique of a communitarian agenda and practices of participation without a view on power relationships. Instead, relevant processes of participation are confrontational and take into account the ways in which people already act in the places where they live. Here, citizenship arises as a shared responsibility for a concrete place.
  • Three cases are analysed from this point of view.
Joke Vandenabeele, Katrien van Poeck, Jef Peeters

5. Rural Community Sustainability and Social Work Practice

  • Sustainability involves complex and competing interactions between environmental, economic and social interests.
  • Communities marginalised in debates about sustainability are especially vulnerable.
  • Reconciling environmental justice and social justice demands inclusive social policies.
  • Social workers have a key role to play in building resilience and advocating for policies to minimise harm and expand opportunities.
Margaret Alston, Kerri Whittenbury, Deborah Western

6. Social Impact Assessment for Social Workers

  • This chapter outlines participatory action research.
  • It introduces social impact assessment (SIA) and links this to the eco-social approach.
  • Using two critical examples, it discusses how social workers can contribute to SIA.
Peter Raymaekers

7. Ecological Social Work in a Developing Nation: Africa

This chapter addresses the following areas:
  • Gender vulnerability and environmental stress.
  • Ecological social work and the empowerment of women in disasters.
  • Case study of ecological social approach to engage women in disaster risk reduction.
  • Social networks as strategies to build adaptive capacity.
  • Global toolkit to promote disaster resilience among women.
Robin L. Ersing, Jesse Sey Ayivor, Osman Alhassan, Kiki Caruson

8. Grassroots Ecological Social Work in India

  • The Republic of India is currently the world’s second most populous country, which means that approximately every sixth person on Earth is an Indian.
  • India has a rich linguistic and socio-cultural diversity, and caste, class, gender, education and wealth have remained significant determinants of individual social paths, even in a rapidly modernising India.
  • In 2014, India overtook Japan to become the third largest economy in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. However, despite the spectacular economic growth, India’s development potential may be hindered by the increasing income and asset inequality and persistence of poverty.
  • University-level educated professional social work has long been well-established in India, and co-exists with robust voluntary and popular approaches to social work; thus social work in India transcends disciplinary boundaries consciously in theory and practice.
Satu Ranta-Tyrkkö, Arpita Das

9. Social Work in Post-Disaster Sites

  • Catastrophic disasters are becoming more intense and frequent.
  • These have devastating effects on landscape and the physical environment.
  • The importance of ‘place’ to people’s well-being is a fundamental feature of ecological social work.
  • Damaged environments have critical impacts on people’s well-being.
  • Social workers will increasingly be drawn into post-disaster work and must understand the significance of place.
Margaret Alston, Tricia Hazeleger, Desley Hargreaves

Integrated Frameworks for Social, Economic and Environmental Justice


10. A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: The Need for a New Concept of Well-Being

  • To answer the current social-ecological crisis sustainable development has to be a systemic change that is based on a cultural paradigm shift.
  • Various ethical frameworks are linking ecological and social principles so that they can support the necessary social change. It is crucial that new visions of welfare are developed.
  • The ethical implications for social work are discussed.
Jef Peeters

11. Empowerment, Resilience and Social Capital: Building Blocks for a Sustainability Transition

  • Sustainable development is described as a practice of political citizenship.
  • To achieve this, a model for social-ecological action is put forward which is both systemic and political and is based on empowerment, resilience and social capital.
  • The opportunities for social action are framed within a post-capitalist perspective which is rooted in a commons-based economy.
  • Resilience can serve as a guiding concept for more specific options for social action.
Jef Peeters

Conclusion: Developing an Ecological Practice Framework

The chapters in this book provide significant support not only for the environment to be considered a significant field of practice for social workers, but also for the development of a more critical understanding of eco-social work practice. While this is not new, these chapters give additional insights, advance our theoretical understanding of the field and provide more clarity on practice frameworks and models. Building on a growing body of contemporary literature, we add depth to this emerging field and demonstrate through extensive examples the way social workers across the globe are responding to the challenge of environmental impacts on people and communities.
Margaret Alston, Aila-Leena Matthies, Jennifer McKinnon
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