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Eco Social Work

Definition, critique of current practice, holistic model, anthropocentric compatible model, practice approach, social work roles.

Three sections follow:

1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

2. A suggested Practice Approach

3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Critique of current social work practice

In recent times the economic model that equates wellbeing with economic growth has come under increasing scrutiny. Rather than promoting wellbeing, economic growth has been criticised for accelerating injustice and ignoring the core of what is required for holistic wellbeing (Boetto, 2017; Peeters, 2012; Powers et al., 2021). As part of this discussion, social work has been criticised for its failure to address environmental issues even though a focus on the environment has been part of social work practice and advocacy throughout its history:

  • Environmental issues have mostly remained outside of social work debate. Furthermore the profession has failed to challenge the beliefs and processes that support relentless economic development and the exploitation of resources.

  • The person-in-environment approach should inspire social workers to take a lead in efforts to tackle environmental threats to human wellbeing, but the profession has generally been silent, concentrating more on the social aspects of a person’s environment.

  • Topics related to environmental issues are, in general, not included in social work undergraduate courses.

  • There are various conceptions of eco practice proposed by different authors in social work literature with a confusing range of overlapping concepts and terminology.

  • There is no established practice model for how to apply the principles of eco practice in social work; there is a disconnection between the practice recommendations found in literature and day-to-day social work practice (Reu & Jarldorn, 2022).

Eco social work has evolved to address this criticism of social work practice. Eco social work involves a major shift in understanding about the place of humans in the natural world (Boetto, 2017; Timariu, 2022).

What is eco social work?

The basic premise of the eco social approach is that looking at the wellbeing of humans in isolation, disconnected from the natural environment, is no longer feasible. The eco social paradigm in social work seeks to widen the scope of the profession from a focus on individual humans’ well-being to a holistic view of the well-being of the whole planet and all its species. Humans are part of nature, and the natural environment plays a key role for all human beings and their wellbeing. Eco social work explores how social workers can promote environmental and human connectivity and wellbeing (Boetto, 2017; Reu & Jarldorn, 2022; Stamm, 2023; Wang & Altanbulag, 2022).

Boetto (2017) cautions that eco social work is more than an add-on to existing social work approaches. Adding-on simply sustains the dominant modernist paradigm and continues to exploit the natural environment. An eco-social model seeks to reflect the following:

  • Adopting a holistic worldview, which perceives every aspect of life as interconnected within a much larger system as reflected in Indigenous perspectives;

  • Fostering global citizenship within social work, which reflects an appreciation for cultural diversity and contributions made to social work by the Global South;

  • Adopting fundamental ecological values within the profession relating to sustainability and de-growth;

  • Reconceptualising an understanding of well-being to foster holistic, environmental and relational attributes;

  • Expanding the activities of social workers, including environmentally related work in personal, individual, collective, community and political dimensions of practice.

The eco social paradigm overlaps with, or in some cases, includes other approaches, such as environmental, deep-ecological, eco spiritual and green social work (Powers et al., 2021; Thysell & Cuadra, 2023). Furthermore, it shares common ground with critical and structural approaches to social work that take up critical stances regarding the narrow, individualistic understanding of the traditional person-in-environment model in social work. These critical and structural approaches critique the current neoliberal, growth-oriented economic model, which has led to the over exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of community-based forms of social solidarity. These approaches identify a political mandate for social work, focusing on the structural foundations of current social and environmental crises (Powers et al., 2021; Stamm, 2023).

Models/types of eco social work

Boetto (2017) suggests eco social work exists on three levels: (i) the personal or ‘self’ level, (ii) the social work theory level, and (iii) the practice strategies used by social workers’ level:

1. Being (the personal) As personal awareness of the interconnected relationship between humanity and the natural world develops, personal lifestyles, including purchasing and consumption practices, are questioned and the personal and professional spheres merge. One’s identity is seen as interconnected with nature.

2. Thinking (professional knowledge, values and ethics) This level involves developing and/or changing thinking around:

  • how justice applies to all living organisms, not just humans,

  • knowing how to promote healthy ecosystems,

  • learning from and valuing traditional Indigenous cultures,

  • recognising how social and political systems can exploit the disadvantaged,

  • adopting a global view around the impact of the environmental crisis (caused in the main by the Global North) on the Global South and other poor people, and

  • promoting de-growth as one way of achieving sustainability.

3. Doing (practice strategies) The actions, interventions and strategies used by social workers in everyday interactions with individuals, families and communities should involve

  • a reconceptualisation of wellbeing to include environmental aspects,

  • movement from individual to community wellbeing,

  • a deep respect for culture, and

  • initiating social action to facilitate economic and political change.

Thysell and Cuadra (2023) identify five types of eco social work.

1. The first and preferable type is Holistic: the belief that social and ecological dimensions are, in essence, entangled and inseparable with both dimensions having intrinsic (significant, essential) value. The human is part of a large and complex network of life, rather than positioned at the top of a pyramid. Humans need to defend ecological rights, taking into account the benefits to all living beings.

The authors suggest that people who do not accept the holistic view usually consider the social and ecological to be separate. This leads to four more views, related to viewing the social and ecological dimensions as either compatible or in conflict:

2. Anthropocentric Compatible—The human sphere has priority but with the non-human sphere contributing to the overall good, i.e. ecological improvements are necessary because the survival of human communities depends on a healthy natural environment.

3. Ecocentric Compatible—The non-human has priority, while the human contributes to the overall good because promoting the ecological aspect will have positive social effects.

4. Anthropocentric Conflictual—Human needs are more intrinsic than ecological needs and take priority.

5. Ecocentric Conflictual—The ecological aspect is more intrinsic than the human aspect and takes priority.

The eco social work literature focuses, in general, on either the holistic or anthropocentric compatible views (Thysell & Caudra, 2023). Social work needs to abandon the view that human beings are superior and exceptional; emphasising instead, humans’ interconnections with the natural world. This means that social work must expand its scope of responsibility and gain new competencies regarding the needs and rights of animals, plants, and ecosystems (Stamm, 2023).

Powers’ (2021) four elements of eco social work are a concise summary of what has been outlined above.

  1. Holism—every aspect of life is interconnected within a larger system

  2. Interdependence of wellbeing—every aspect of life is dependent on the wellbeing of all in the system; the emphasis must shift from an individual wellbeing to a collective wellbeing.

  3. Systemic connections and relationships—strong relationships between humans and nature are at the core; the focus is not on simply meeting human needs but on ensuring thriving and abundance for all life.

  4. Eco socially sustainable and inclusive communities—demands to meet human needs must not upset the balance of the ecological system overall; economic growth must be limited and decoupled from human wellbeing.

Eco social work in practice

Social workers support people from across society in a bid to assist with their mental health and overall wellbeing. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory highlights how systems at the micro-, meso- and macro-levels influence individuals for both better and worse, the basis of the ‘people in environment’ model. The aim of systems practice is to increase the fit between people and their environment as they experience stressors that upset their life balance and produce coping difficulties (O’Connor et al., 2008). Eco social work ensures this approach emphasises more than the person’s social environment—it must also include the natural world. That is, the challenge today is for social work and other professions to work cooperatively to better understand and respond to the global environment that humankind depends upon to live and prosper. Eco social work covers social justice from a local level to a global level (Gartshore, 2022).

Eco social work is social work with an expanded framework and worldview that considers how humans are a part of the ecosystem and seeks to achieve balanced justice for the entire ecosystem, not the promotion of humans at the expense of the planet. The current economic model that equates wellbeing with economic growth has been shown to actually accelerate injustice and trivialise holistic wellbeing. In order to bring the substantial changes needed, eco social work needs to be seen as centered in all social work, not relegated to the margins or seen as a niche. Social workers, who do not already hold to an eco social worldview, need to shift to embrace it in order to establish new policies and practices to move beyond the current professional models that are entrenched in perpetuating the very injustices that social workers seek to eliminate (Powers et al., 2021).

Practice Approach

The three levels of practice Boetto outlines above provide a foundation for social workers to use in eco practice.

  1. The foundation of practice is a belief in, and personal commitment to, recognising the importance of the natural world and acting accordingly, i.e. practice is built on personal beliefs that the healthy natural and social environments are essential for life, a practice supported by personal commitment to, for example, sustainable purchasing and consumption practices.

  2. From this platform social workers can examine the theory that underlies their personal practice to ensure it encompasses justice for all living organisms, not just humans (e.g. finding out how to promote healthy ecosystems, learning from Indigenous cultures, recognising how systems are exploiting the disadvantaged in the name of progress (both locally and globally), and recognising that de-growth is necessary, not further economic growth).

  3. With this foundation social work practice promotes the wellbeing of the whole ecosystem, human and natural. As well as, and when, supporting individual wellbeing, social work practice also respects culture, prioritises community wellbeing, and initiates social action to facilitate economic and political change.

In outlining their five types of the eco social (outlined above), Thysell and Cuadra (2023) stress that the holistic level should ideally drive eco social work practice. However they also recognise many social workers are still developing their thinking and practice in this area and acknowledge that practising the anthropocentric approach may well be a place many social workers commence their journey in developing an eco-social framework. That is, many social workers will still give priority to human concerns (rather than recognising human and ecological concerns are inseparable—the holistic view) but will recognise ecological improvements are necessary because the survival of human communities depends on a healthy natural environment.

A number of authors offer suggestions around adopting the holistic approach. Suggestions from Reu and Jarldorn, and Boetto follow. Reu and Jarldorn (2022):

  • Environmentally conscious principles can be included in many social work areas of practice. For example, in community development topics, social workers could identify an environmental issue in the local community and develop a plan to address this issue. This could be through improving access to resources for the community, supporting the development of a community action group, or advocating for policy change.

  • In policy-focused areas, social workers could explore policy on a local, national, or international level relating to environmental concerns—such as responses to drought, water shortages, habitat loss, or access to solar energy solutions. They could investigate the social impacts of these issues and how social workers have, or could be, involved.

  • Advocacy—writing to government representatives or getting involved in social-environmental movements can become part of practice.

  • In interpersonal practice, it could simply involve reiterating the positive effect of outdoor activities and engagement. When using “person in environment” models such as ecological systems theory, discussions could be broadened to include the natural environment as well as the socio-political environment.

Boetto (2017) groups suggestions under five headings with the heading themselves providing a guide to the holistic approach to eco social work. Social workers who are working from an anthropocentric approach will find among the dot points below a number of ways they can incorporate eco social work themes into their personal practice as their worldview gradually alters to better fit the holistic view.

Personal growth and action towards sustainability—the personal and professional self should be one, with congruence between pro-environmental beliefs and professional practice

  • Identify strategies within the household and family to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

  • Use alternative economic systems for purchasing household needs, e.g. Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), local farmers’ markets

  • Undertake volunteer work in local tree-planting projects

  • Engage children, grandchildren or neighbourhood children in sustainable living skills and outdoor leisure activities

  • Become a member of an environmental group in the local community

  • Increase knowledge and understanding about traditional Indigenous ways of knowing in the local community

  • Increase knowledge about ecological injustices and the impact on vulnerable groups

Holistic approach to human wellbeing—reconceptualise wellbeing to include environmental aspects

  • Redefine with individuals the characteristics considered important for well-being and quality of life

  • Expand access to outdoor space for individuals and families to reduce isolation and improve emotional health

  • Undertake household audits to add positive environmental qualities and to remove environmental hazards

  • Adopt the use of eco-therapies for addressing problems experienced by individuals and families

  • Provide guidance and education about practices for sustainable living

  • Advocate for individuals who experience the direct effects of environmental disaster and decline

  • Increase access to animals and the use of animal assisted therapies

Develop communities of practice and organisational change—the division between micro and macro approaches when supporting communities should be merged where possible to replace individualist notions of wellbeing with notions of community wellbeing.

  • Collaborate with like-minded social workers and other groups within the local community to develop a taskforce for eco-social practice

  • Organise or join a local women’s group for social networking and the sharing of sustainability practices

  • Participate in the local permaculture or green group to exchange knowledge and ideas

  • Develop partnerships between employing organisations and environmental organisations to facilitate moves towards sustainable practices

  • Develop partnerships with women’s services to raise awareness of the gender impacts of climate change

  • Develop partnerships with local food security projects in urban neighbourhoods

  • Build alliances with inter-professional groups, including environmental scientists, agriculturalists and environmental planners

Culturally located and culturally sensitive community-based approaches

  • Participate in community customs and activities to develop local knowledge and cross-cultural learning about sustainability practices and perspectives

  • Identify community needs and sustainability priorities by engaging as equals with local residents, organisations and groups

  • Develop a community-based planning group consisting of local residents and stakeholders to collectively prepare for disaster recovery

  • Empower marginalised groups within the community by ensuring their participation and involvement as stakeholders in community planning and development

  • Identify local residents and groups with capacity to build sustainability knowledge and skills within the community, e.g. local elders, women

  • Facilitate the mobilisation of resources embedded in local-level social networks and other place-based groups (e.g. workplaces, church groups) to develop community-based sustainability initiatives

  • Work with communities affected by disaster through volunteer or paid employment with organisations that actively engage local residents and organisations

Social action to facilitate economic and political change

  • Facilitate a public meeting in the local community for members interested in ecological sustainability

  • Attend local council/county meetings to advocate for the preservation of ‘green’ space in local areas

  • Engage in social media campaigns to promote global ecological justice, including the eradication of human trafficking, new mining developments, child and slave labour and forced marriages

  • Support public education campaigns that aim to protect the natural environment, including deforestation, decreased mining, use of renewable energy sources

  • Become an ‘ally’ for Indigenous movements and lobby for human rights and greater political participation of Indigenous populations

  • Organise collective social action and advocacy groups for people who share similar environmental disadvantages, e.g. women

  • Organise local community responses to global events related to sustainability, such as United Nations Climate Conferences and G20 Summits

Tamariu (2022), while also making a number of suggestions for eco social work practice, suggests a number of roles that eco social workers can adopt:

  • facilitator and coordinator

  • community and resource mobiliser

  • negotiator or broker between communities and different levels of government

  • mediator between conflicting interests and groups, including gendered relations

  • consultant to government and other agencies

  • advocate for people’s rights and entitlements (human rights are central to social work practice and many human rights are affected by climate change, including the right to life, health, development, food, water and sanitation)

  • educator giving out information about how to access relief aid and avoid diseases that can erupt following a disaster

  • trainer particularly in how to respond effectively in mobilising local resources when disaster strikes

  • therapist helping people deal with the emotional consequences of disaster (social workers are trauma-informed – this is important when thinking about environmental impact).

References / Supplementary Material

(available on request)

Boetto, H. (2017). A transformative eco-social model: challenging modernist assumptions in social work. British Journal of Social Work, 47, 48-67. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcw149

Boetto, H., Narhi, K., & Bowles, W. (2022). Creating ‘communities of practice’ to enhance ecosocial work: A comparison between Finland and Australia. British Journal of Social Work, 52, 4815-4835.

Gartshore, S. (2022). Eco-social work: Environmental and sustainable social work in everyday practice. Research Gate Technical Report. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.26847.33445.

Harms, L. (2007). Working with people: Communication skills for reflective practice. Oxford University Press.

Matthies, A-L., Narhi, K., & Ward, D. (2001). The eco-social approach in social work. SoPhi

Molyneux, R. (2010). The practical realities of ecosocial work: A review of the literature. Critical Social Work, 11(2), 61-69.

Narhi, K. (2004). The eco-social approach in social work and the challenges to the expertise of social work. Academic Dissertation, University of Jyvaskyla.

O’Connor, I., Wilson, J., Setterlund, d., & Hughes, M. (2008). Social work and human service practice (5th ed.). Pearson Longman.

Peeters, J. (2012). The place of social work in sustainable development: Towards ecosocial practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21, 287-298. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2011.00856.x

Powers, M., Rinkel, M., & Kumar, P. (2021). Co-creating a “sustainable new normal” for social work and beyond: Embracing an ecosocial worldview. Sustainability, 13, 10941.

Reu, P., & Jarldorn, M. (2022). Social work students’ perceptions of eco-social work in the curriculum. Australian Social Work, 76(4), 480-492.

Stamm, I. (2023). Human rights-based social work and the natural environment: Time for new perspectives. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 8, 42-50.

Timariu, D. (2022). Helping social workers to integrate eco practices in their work. Research in Practice.

Thysell, M., & Cuadra, C. B. (2023). Imagining the ecosocial within social work. International Journal of Social Welfare, 32, 455-472. doi: 10.1111/ijsw.12571

Unger, M. (2002, September). A deeper, more social ecological social work practice. Social Service Review, 76(3).

Wang, P., & Altanbulag, A. (2022). A concern for eco-social sustainability: Background, concepts, values, and perspectives of eco-social work. Cogent Social Sciences, 8, 2093035, 1-13.


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