Green social work:
In conversation with Lena Dominelli
[Transcript found in tab below]
What is green social work? Lena Dominelli talks to us about green social work and the role social work can play in today’s world.
Professor Lena Dominelli holds a Chair in Applied Social Sciences in the School of Applied Social Sciences and is a Co-Director at the Institute of Hazards, Risk and Resilience Research at Durham University. She currently holds (as PI) a Major ESRC funded project entitled ‘Internationalising Institutional and Professional Practices’ and (as CI) another significant EPSRC funded project entitled, ‘Climate Change, the Built Infrastructure and Health and Social Care Provisions for Older People’ and the NERC funded ‘Earthquakes Without Frontiers’. Alongside the wealth of experience she has had as a university educator and researcher, she has worked in social services, probation and community development. She has published widely in social work, social policy and sociology. Several of these are classics and have been translated into many languages. Her most recent publication is Green Social Work (Polity Press, 2012). She is recognised as a leading figure in social work education globally. Professor Dominelli was elected President of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) from 1996 to 2004, and is currently chairing the IASSW Committee on Disaster Interventions and Climate Change and is representing the social work profession at the United Nations discussions on climate change, including those to be held in Doha, Qatar from 26 November to 7 December 2012. She has also been the recipient of various honours including a Medal in 2002 for her contribution to social work given by the Social Affairs Committee of the French Senate, an honorary doctorate in 2008 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, an honorary professorship from East China University of Science and Technology in 2011, and the Katherine A Kendall Award from the International Association of Schools of Social Work in 2012.
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2012, November 20). Green social work: In conversation with Lena Dominelli [Episode 33]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/green-social-work/.
Dominelli, L. (2012). Green social work: Polity Press.
Transcription Podsocs 33: Green social work: with Lena Dominelli
Thank you to Naomi Ellis for this transcription.
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
We’re very pleased to have Lena Dominelli on Podsocs this morning. Good morning Lena.
Lena: Good morning Patricia. How are you?
Tricia: Good. It’s very nice to have you on Podsocs.
Lena: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. It’s my pleasure to talk to you.
Tricia: Now Lena, we’re going to be talking about Green Social Work. It’s a fairly new concept so I was hoping you might explain to us why Green Social Work is so important.
Lena: Okay. Well, thank you for asking me that question because I think people don’t normally think about either environmental social work or green social work and I’ll tell you why I am calling, what I mean by green social work and why I am drawing a distinction between the two. It’s not normally seen as something that social workers get involved in, it’s normally thought of ‘Oh! Well! The physical scientists can deal with those things because they’re about the environment, the physical environment and not social relationships’, and we forget that actually the founding Mothers of our profession talked about the person in the environment and never defined what environment they meant and over time it moved away from things like housing and communities into the social relationships that people had as their environment.
So, in a way you could argue that what I am trying to do is to bring back that broader understanding of environment so that we look at social, political, economic, cultural and physical bias-theoric environments. And, I do that for a particular reason which is that I think as we’ve become more developed as a profession and more mature as a profession, we’ve realised that the world is interdependent and a very complicated place and that how you relate to other people depends on notions of territory, identity, location, status, the physical housing that you live in and all sorts of other things. And, so I wanted to look at that more holistic understanding of the environment and focus specifically to include in addition to our social economic, political, cultural, once the economy and the physical environment or the biosphere as some people call it, the ecosystem as ecosystem as other people call it.
So, so that’s why I think because we’ve been left aside from the tables where decisions about the environment, urban development and all those kind of things were made, we’re not there at the table. I’m trying to get us back as we were once upon a time about a hundred years ago, even 50 years ago. We were involved in those decisions made at the political level about what kind of environments were most suitable for people to live in and um a lot…especially in the UK a lot of social workers were involved in developing the public health infrastructures, sewage systems, sanitation systems and of course in a lot of the doable south social workers as community workers are still involved in helping people acquire water, electricity and all of those things.
But, I think particularly in the west we’ve lost touch with that so I want to get it back into the social work theory and practice but getting us to main stream it as well and to start thinking about working in, with and through environmental issues are as important to us today in all parts of the world and especially as we become more and more aware of the physical environmental crises like climate change and the lack of adequate housing for people, the lack of sanitation for people, the lack of water for people to drink and you know without them having to carry it long distances and all of those things.
So, I think I’m actually arguing for some of the things that community workers and the settlement workers did a long time ago in this country to be brought back as mainstream social work instead of being seen as out there somewhere else and that we were, we are only tangentially involved in that. So, that’s the answer to that question Patricia, I don’t know if that answers it for you?
Tricia: Yes, yes.
Lena: I can move on to kind of like the distinction between environmental social workers and green social work.
Tricia: Yes please.
Lena: Yeah. My understanding of environmental social work and I think there has been some great work done by some people like Fred Besthorn and John Coates and others particularly in the USA to try and bring this back into social work discussions and asking us what we mean by what we say in the environment and between environmental social work and green social work but there are some crucial differences. Environmental social work as I understand it, is really trying to bring back the physical environment into our discussion as social work practitioners particularly but also theorists and I think that’s important and obviously it’s a key objective if they are going to make concern about people in their broader environment part of social work.
But, why I developed the term green social work to try and add to that is that I think looking only at physical environments, whilst that’s important, isn’t enough. And, by physical environments I mean housing, buildings, road structures, communication systems, biosystems, ecosystems, the flora, the fauna of the Earth. But, I think we need to do more than that and that is to offer a critique of the structures within which social relationships are embedded so it’s a bit of a kind like bringing structural social work, feminist anti-racist social work, critical perspectives in social work together with the environmental agenda.
And so, I actually think green social work is a holistic approach to practice that focuses on the structural inequalities which aren’t really mentioned in an environmental social work, as such. To look at those and to argue that one of the key problems that we have in the world and why we don’t have sustainable social development or sustainable economic development and why we end up with degraded environments that penalise the poorest people on the planet most, is because the socio-economic system which is namely neo-liberal at this point in time but also globalisation, has not been a system that has aimed at meeting people’s needs but at providing profits for the elite who happen to make decisions about production. Where it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, who profits or benefits from it and so there is no critique in environmental social work of kind of like the exploitation of women and people in the global south generally on low wages so that they end up producing cheap consumer products for the north and then they get paid wages that are impossible for them to raise their families on or to even argue for decent housing or running water in their homes and yet they are expected to have all these things and they want all these things.
So, I am trying to say it’s not enough just to focus on the physical environment and bring that back into mainstream social work. We have to take that larger holistic picture into account and we have to challenge the way in which corporate elites that are unaccountable do their business. And so, you know we have for example in 2010, there were 1210 individuals who owned the bulk of the world’s wealth, through multi-national corporations. They decided not just what happened in the west, you know so we have countries like Greece. The people there are paying horrendous taxes and they still can’t survive and they can’t have jobs so I’m asking the question; Well, who decides where the jobs go? Who decides who gets paid for jobs? Who decides what jobs we need? Who decides what the nature of social production, economic production is? Because, if we are only interested in producing profits for the few we will never have a system that either respects planet Earth and the environment or respects people and their needs.
So, I want to turn everything on its head and say we should be developing economic systems that respect the environment and respect the animals, the plants, the physical environment, our air, the oceans, the soil, the way we produce food, how food is produced. All of those questions should be there as an integrated whole that we consider and so that means we need to develop alternative models of social development and economic development so that we put people’s needs first, along with the environment, together as the physical environment, that’s polluted and degraded along with our needs and say what kind of economic system would best meet the needs of the planet Earth and of people so that we can live in harmony with our environments rather than exploiting them and treating the Earth as a site for profits for the few and exploitation for the many.
So, that’s the key difference. So it’s a political position because it is offering a critique but based on the experiences of people and the research that proves that actually neoliberal capitalism is failing more people than it’s serving and there’s loads and loads of research on that. I don’t need to go into it. People can look it up on the Web with reports from the Social Economic Forum, from the UN, from the ILO, from all sorts of very respected organisations, not necessarily known for their radical positioning. So for me, that is what’s so crucial about the difference between green social work and environmental social work.
Tricia: So Lena, how do you see that playing out in practice?
Lena: Well, in practice I think it means a number of things. It means that when we’re meeting, say a community group that wants to develop the water site to provide water, running water for people. We have to ask questions about, should we and there be lots of struggles over water. Water is a scarce resource and so we have to look at sharing it equitably and that’s part of green social work is the equitable sharing of the Earth’s resources. So instead of fighting each other for who’s going to have it and in many places from Palestine in Israel to Khazakhstan to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and in places in Latin America where people have had to fight for the development of, you know, clean running water. Safe to drink, running into the homes, yeah, being delivered on a tap like you and I have and people have to ask the question: Why is it that this is no longer seen as a public utility but as a private good that someone can make a profit out of? Cause the minute you start talking about making profits out of it then you’re not going to have equitable sharing, you’re not going to look at how can we ensure that everyone has running water in their homes so that no-one has to carry it for miles and miles and that it‘s clean and safe to drink and won’t carry diseases which endanger people’s lives. And that means respecting the source of the water because it has to be renewable and therefore we have to kind of think about well, if we use the water; how can we use it wisely, how can we recycle things so that we don’t, you know, since it is a scarce resource and not wasting it.
Like for example, did you know that in Cotton plantations in Central Asia, six times more water than is needed to produce the cotton is used because most of it is wasted and runs off because it leaks and because private companies who are run now are trying to make a profit out of developments are not interested in fixing leaks.
We have the same issue in the UK where we’ve got leaking infrastructure that is still Victorian in its origins because the more people pay for their privatised water, which it didn’t used to be and I can give you the figures on how they’ve grown from two figure sums to three sums per year. Once it was privatised and we still haven’t got the infrastructure that we need.
So, a green social worker would be asking those kind of questions and would be trying to hold with community groups, because this is not just about social workers working on their own, but with community groups and forming alliances with politicians and practitioners to say, how can we hold private companies, because there will be, you know, there will be private companies, I’m not naive to think that they’re going to disappear, but how do we hold them into a, hold them to account so they can justify the decisions they make. Which includes holding them to account for raising people’s bills for the supply of water and yet not spending money on developing the infrastructure.
So, in that sense I see social workers as being really important in collecting information and bringing disparate pieces of information together. Some of this information will have been collected by economists, some of it will have been collected by public health people, but we are the ones who actually relate to peoples’ lives and try to develop their well-being in a holistic way and I think green social work allows us to do that but we do have to work with other disciplines, other professions and multiple stake holders, including community residents and politicians.
Tricia: So Lena, it’s really about incorporating a theoretical perspective of green social into our frameworks at the very start and then how do we translate that into our day to day practice and our work with people?
Lena: Yeah. Yeah. And how does that broaden the horizons within which we actually operate so that we include information we wouldn’t have normally included. Like for example, most social workers even if they are trying to bring clean water into somebody’s home wouldn’t be asking questions about whose making profits from this and can we actually hold business to account.
Let me give you another example Patricia that might help you understand it better that comes from work I am doing here in the UK. It’s called the [...] Gate Green Energy Project and I started working in a very deprived community here in Durham, disadvantaged rather than deprived community, very disadvantaged. Most people are either on benefits or unemployed so they don’t have well paid jobs. The few that do hold jobs are usually women working in the retail sector and getting paid low pay, causal work, including some that are doing what we call zero hour contracts which is you get called when you are called and you have to turn up, which was imported from the US, which I think is absolutely awful.
So, I was working in this community as a community worker and asking the question that we would all do as social workers and community workers; What do you want? You know, what how, what do you want to do? What do you want me to help you with? And the original response was, well, we need to do something about our fuel, we are not able to pay our bills and so you know, fewer poverty. I thought, Oh! Gosh! I have been working on this before I started going back into community work 30 years ago and what we did then was we looked at, can we ask the utilities companies to give them a longer period to pay? will they settle for smaller amounts per week so that they can manage the debt? can we make sure that they are getting all the benefits they are entitled to? to maximise their income. I thought, well if it didn’t work for the last 30 years it ain’t going to work now, although I would still argue that we need to do that and make sure that people have immediate relief.
But, I started thinking about what alternative solutions can we have and so I then started linking up with other people to try and see what were the other options, what could we do. And being very aware that the reason that they were in fuel poverty was because; a) they got charged more for their electricity and gas because they were on pre-paid metres which had the highest tariffs whereas we like for example, one woman said to me, she spent 200 pounds a month on heating one room and I’m moaning because I am paying 100 pounds a month to heat the whole house. Right. I’m a middle class person and I’m given you know, permission to spend money before I pay for it. Right. And then pay it when it comes so were on direct debits, yeah. And then they get the lowest tariffs, so if you are poor and haven’t got that extra cash and aren’t able to do that then you get penalised for by these tariffs and I thought really the difference between them and me is that I’ve got a decent paying job and they don’t.
So, I started thinking about income generation strategies and then one day I was talking and you know, I was thinking about this and I was talking to the community people and I was talking to colleagues here at the Durham University who were working on renewable energy. And one of them was talking to me about his recent research was about how to reduce the loss of electricity by passing things down wires because of resistance in wires and therefore you lose a lot of the energy even before it goes into people’s homes. And it just sparked off a thought in my head which was, Oh! So, if we have an energy efficient communities it would reduce the cost on energy because it wouldn’t have so far to travel so we would lose a lot less and have reduced prices for everybody. But more importantly the guy then went on to talk about his other work which was in renewable energy and suddenly a light bulb lit up in my brain and I thought, well this is the answer to the fuel problem, is to develop renewable energy and use that to create more self-sufficient energy communities but to provide decent paying jobs for the people who are either unemployed, on benefits or in low paying jobs.
And so, that’s what we’re working on and of course the picture is always changing because when you are trying to convince private companies as I have been, that they should provide all these renewable energies sources free to communities you have to find a way of getting, recouping the money for it, for them somehow and then that relies on social policies being there to help you achieve that. And for us here, it was the feed-in-tariff which under the previous Labour government was very generous and we had agreed that we would divide this up, the tariff was 45p and we would give 5p to individual households, we would have 10p going to the community and the company would get 30p to pay for the renewable solar panels and turbines and all the other things, the heat pumps that they would provide for the community.
And, in addition to that we were going to have a workshop in that community to provide jobs for people, we were going to have a creche attached so that people who didn’t have facilities because here in the UK at the moment childcare is incredibly expensive and if you are lowly paid or even middle income paid it’s really hard for you to manage because it comes out of your after tax income and it’s quite horrendous.
So we, you know, we were working together as a multiple stake holder partnership to try to get all these things done and we had our MP supporting the moves and everything else. Now that to me, is an example of green social work. Another example is what happened in […] Argentina where an NGO was involved in helping reduce costs for firewood by helping people acquire solar panelled powered stoves for cooking, eating and lighting through solar panels. And, they ended up getting these for the community and the advantage of that is that it reduced demands for the […] tree which is what they cut down for firewood which is becoming extinct because of the demands on it.
But, now they don’t need it anymore because they can get the sun to provide help with all the lighting, heating and anything else that they need for cooking, water and schools. All the rest of it is all run on solar panels now so that’s where, you know this was done by community workers working with local communities, working with people to address the problems that they felt were really important for them and looking creatively and I think that is another thing about green social work, you have to look creatively at your world and think well, how can we do things differently from the way we have done them traditionally in the past in order to really engage in new alternatives and alternative ways of developing people.
Because, you know if people are really entitled as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says as to food, clothing, shelter, housing, education and health facilities. We have to find ways of doing that and we can’t do it by, I would argue by relying on fossil fuels, I mean there will be things we can only do with fossil fuels like for example, there are some medicines that can only be created by using petroleum. But, we should be saving a very scarce resource for things that we can’t have otherwise and look for other ways to do things that we can have other ways.
For example, why do we need synthetic cloths when we can have cotton, we can have wool, we can have hemp, we can have bamboo clothes. All of these things are renewable and natural so, we need to start asking those questions and I think fundamentally for me, green social workers sort of say, okay, we have a model of development which is hyper-urbanisation, everybody is centralised, crowded into cities which then count um you know, we are all stuck in traffic jams trying to get from A to B. Should we be asking questions and I argue, certainly in green social work, that social workers should be saying is this the best way to organise ordinary everyday life?
Are we better off having small cities, small communities where people know each other, can understand each other’s need, can help one another and build the interdependency, because I think, if we are going to share finite resources from this one planet, we are going to have to share them globally. We can’t just rely on what is in our own country because some countries have lots and some have little and we need to share them equitably if we are going to survive.
But, there are all sorts of other things that we then have to think about and this includes the education of women, thinking about population growth and encouraging people to reduce the size of families which you’re not going to do unless you provide welfare systems that will take care of people in old age you know because, is there a link between poverty and large families? Because the poorer you are the larger your family seems to be and a lot of that is because people rely on the family for social welfare and social security. Whereas, you know, you and I are up least up to now, try to rely on the welfare state and have fought for that. Yeah. And moved away from family reliance and you know we had large families in the UK too during the Victorian era and lots of women dying in child birth and all the rest of it.
So, I am saying if really, we want to develop humanity as a whole then we need to start challenging so many of our assumptions. Not in a way that dictates to people what to do but based on providing alternative scenarios that can be shown to work and educating people and especially women who have a right to control their own bodies, to live free from violence and fear and the same thing for children. They have the right to a violent free existence and yet, that is violated in so many places because we have social relations that are based on power instead of treating everyone with respect and dignity.
Patricia: Lena, final words?
Lena: Final words, well I think um I would like to argue that in future green social work should become part of the normally taught curriculum and not seen as something that is done out there by a few people who are interested in environmental social work and in the physical environment. And, I think that we need to get together as a profession and I actually think that Melbourne 2014, where the Global Conference for Social Work and Social Development is being held, where the International Association of Schools of Social Work, International Counsel on Social Welfare and The International Federation of Social Workers are coming to have our conference. That global agenda which is an important part of that conference is a way of arguing that we can do green social work and we can start linking together and join hands across the world to actually create this vision of a more egalitarian, more fair world that isn’t just about economic development but also about the protection of planet Earth and our human development as well as the social and economic development.
Particia: So we hope to see Melbourne full of Podsocsers in 2014.
Lena: Yeah. And, I hope this one gets a lot of reaction so that people can start preparing for it. Hopefully, environmental and green social work will be an important theme during that conference which I believe is going to be about addressing socio-economic inequalities and I don’t think you can do that nowadays in a world that is so environmentally degraded with climate change, threatening to destroy our planet because countries cannot agree, you know, to reduce carbon emissions at a political level internationally. I think, we need to start a grass roots movement and social workers are well placed and mobilised people to get that going and I think green social workers have a big role to play in that.
Patricia: Thank you so much Lena.
Lena: Thanks Patricia.
[Musical outro 29.39 to END]
Interview ENDS: 30:05