Social work and the environment

Elizabeth J. Clark, PhD, ACSW, MPHA short time ago, I had a week that began in Washington, D.C., included two days in North Dakota and ended in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

In North Dakota, I spoke to social workers who were trying to assist communities that were dealing with the oil boom brought about by the discovery of rich pockets of natural resources in the Bakken Shale region. Of particular note was the town of Williston, which has expanded in population size from 15,000 to almost 45,000 residents.

The entire community is stressed by the sudden and unprecedented growth. Social service agencies, hospitals and schools are struggling to keep pace with the demand. Housing is at such a premium that social work interns can no longer afford appropriate lodging, which they need in order to do their field placements. While Williston’s economy is booming, the physical and social infrastructure needed to maintain such change is disintegrating.

Fast forward to Dar es Saalam in Tanzania, which is a city of 3 million people. The climate, the culture and the economy are much different from North Dakota, but the problems facing their citizens and their social workers have great similarity.

Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, but gas deposits believed to be the equivalent of nearly all of Iraq’s gas reserves have been discovered in the Rovuma Basin off Tanzania and Mozambique. There is great concern about government capacity and about how these newfound resources will affect the rest of the country and its economy.

A recent column in the Financial Times was titled “Africa’s new oil nations grapple with the ‘curse’ of wealth.” It notes that mineral wealth may not be the blessing many people believe it to be. Social workers in North Dakota will tell you that the discovery of great oil reserves comes with few instructions for how to preserve the community or the environment. Almost 8,000 miles apart, these two cities must rapidly respond to significant changes in the economic, social and physical landscape of their communities.

This takes me to the third leg of my week’s journey — Washington, D.C., where we are constantly discussing the policy implications and fiscal realities of issues such as climate change. We just emerged from an election where little focus was put on the environment until “Superstorm” Sandy ravaged the Northeast.

Additionally, the BP oil company just admitted to felony crimes and will pay $4.5 billion in damages nearly two years after its mistakes wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, individuals, families and business owners have been expected to piece their lives together in the wake of such disasters.

The NASW policy statement on environmental justice defines the concept as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people … with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Further, we note that no populations should be forced to bear a disproportionate burden of the negative human health or environmental consequences of policies and programs.

Social workers in areas like Williston and Dar es Salaam, and our colleagues who have worked with those affected by Sandy in New York and New Jersey, can tell us that the most vulnerable populations are indeed those that suffer the greatest consequences when rapid or unexpected environmental changes occur.

Our responsibility as social workers not only lies in understanding the repercussions of climate change overall, but also in serving as a voice for those who are left with little recourse when their neighborhoods, homes or jobs are threatened through disaster, damage or degradation. We must not only protect our land, air and water, but our fellow community members and clients.

The New Year provides opportunities for us to learn from the challenges we faced in 2012, and become better prepared, and equipped, to respond to rapid community changes through a comprehensive social work approach.