Working with and for more than just people

Environmental movements guiding social work through climate crisis

As a young social work student, one of my early classroom memories is being asked why I want to become a social worker. I confidently responded with the short sentence “I want to work with people!”. Simultaneously to immersing myself in the human welfare focused literature in the university, I was on a whole other journey that year too. I had stopped eating animals a couple of years before, and animal rights and environmental concerns occupied a considerable share of my thoughts. There and then, various environmentally and ethically informed choices started outlining the practices of my everyday life. I became vegan, took part in demonstrations, joined a feminist organisation and felt empowered by the collective movements addressing the injustices of that period. At that time though, none of this seemed to have much to do with my social work studies or the professional path I was embarking on.

Global Climate Strike in Helsinki, Finland 27.9.2019 (photo: Fanny Södergran)

Years later, I found myself in a position where I was able to explore the very issues that intrigued me alongside my studies, interestingly enough as part of my job as a social work researcher. In my research, I examine bottom-up perspectives to social and environmental justice, drawing on the transformative potential of residents’ engagement in environmental movements in the Helsinki metropolitan area. The aim of my research is to describe how the climate crisis actualize and coincide with welfare issues and social injustices. By seeking to understand how residents relate to their lived and natural environments in climate crisis, I also focus on the wellbeing and sustainability of other living subjects than just humans. This contributes with new knowledge about the entanglements between humans and the natural environment, constituting of multiple subjects confronted by the risks of climate crisis.

Social work as part of the natural environment

Climate change has been defined as one of present and future generations’ most pressing structural and political challenges, to which social work until recently has been slow to respond (Noble 2016). Environmental problems disproportionately generate social injustices for already vulnerable communities, which divide opportunities for wellbeing on a global level (IFSW 2021). The actual costs; absence of clean water and air, food shortage, loosing livelihood or having to flee one’s home, needless to say are consequences that directly embeds in the practices of social work. Throughout its history, social work has sought to conceptualize the connection between individuals and their environmental context. However, the notion of the “person-in-environment” mainly focused on the social and intrapersonal aspects of the environment (Besthorn 2015). Recent developments in environmental social work therefore seek a “broader understanding of the environment beyond the social”, also giving attention to the natural surroundings (Gray & Coates 2012, 246).

Despite a renewed attentiveness to the natural environment in social work, it has been difficult to argue for environmental problems without prioritizing human interests. The climate crisis as multidimensional and complex as it is has effects reaching throughout whole eco-systems, on which the liveability of the planet depends and humans are simply a small part of. Still, in social work research the natural environment and the wellbeing of animals, plants, forests, oceans, and the air we all breathe, is rarely discussed as equally important for futures to come. This perspective is typically referred to as human-centered or Anthropocentric, defined by humankind’s growing influence on the planet and the superiority ascribed to humans in relation to other living subjects.

Forest in Finland (photo: Fanny Södergran)
Confronted with the fact that climate change is human-induced (IPCC 2021) and that the ‘Western’ society’s relationship to the natural world is exploitative, we as humans need to be critical about how we understand our place in the environment. Not all humans or cultures exploit nature or contribute to climate change, but tragically, the ones that have contributed the least are now suffering the hardest consequences. As a result, many have described the climate crisis as a cultural crisis. This illuminates how the Western modern lifestyle built on consumption and economic growth, enabled by extracting resources from nature, animals and people, is what put us in this position in the first place.

Current posthuman developments in social work aim to problematize this relationship (Bozalek & Pease 2021). Significantly informed by indigenous traditions and postcolonial perspectives, posthumanism questions human supremacy over non-human subjects, not only protecting nature for the survival of humanity but also because it has its own intrinsic value. From this perspective, the human and the non-human are entangled and intertwined, rather than separated. The posthuman theorist Rosi Braidotti encourages us “to think again and to think harder about the status of the human” and “to invent forms of ethical relations, norms and values worthy of the complexity of our times.” (2013, 186). Therefore, social work must aim beyond maintaining human needs and wellbeing as the only basis for accountability towards the natural planet.

Social movements setting the agenda

I recently took part in the launching of the Finnish youth barometer 2021 report about young peoples’ experiences of climate and sustainability issues (Kiilakoski & Fransberg 2022). At the end of the event, a 24-year-old in the audience commented on the results presented as too positive or downplayed, and that the hopefulness shown among the youth in the report was unrelatable. The message was clear: “I demand action!”. It’s evident at this time that we are experiencing a kind of momentum in Helsinki, residents are demanding change and especially young people are increasingly engaging in environmental movements. Together these residents are part of a cultural shift, with the aim to influence policymakers, institutions and companies to make necessary transformations towards a socially and ecologically just society.

Author Rebecca Solnit writes that the major catastrophes of our time are currently being mitigated and cleaned up by the various networks and movements collectively organising from the bottom-up. Solnit proposes a switch of perspectives and asks us to “[i]magine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda” (2020). These kind of movements in civil society have been described as a flexible resource that’s able to act through non bureaucratic means in the spaces where the welfare state may fail to respond, simultaneously acting as an eye opener for the public (see e.g. Turunen & Weinryb 2017; Askeland & Strauss 2014). At their best, they inspire society broadly to take action and join the social change work at hand.

While social work every day practice may be outlined by legally required activities, heavy workload and slowly changeable structures, social movements are able to mobilize quickly, make effective statements and go in to conflict with dominant structures. From a democratic standpoint, the alternative forms of social change work being done, is important for exploring how deeply environmental and social challenges are interconnected and affect the lives and wellbeing of residents in Helsinki, and all over the globe. Critical voices from the grass-root level contribute with new knowledge, practices and courses of action, which in the long run equally serves the social justice objectives of social work.

Looking back at my first year as a social work student, as almost 14 years has passed – situating social work in the climate crisis, in companionship with social movements and more than human subjects – would I have connected my headaches of environmental concerns, animal rights and human welfare with one another? Would I have dared to make social work about that: “I want to work with and for more than just people”? As an early career doctoral researcher, it’s a great privilege to fill my workdays with questions about how all of this is linked; reading, writing, trying to get the big picture, connecting the dots that are slowly laid out before me.

Text and photographs: Fanny Södergran. The author is a social work researcher at the Mathilda Wrede Institute and the Competence Development Unit for Social Services and Health Care in the City of Helsinki, currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Helsinki. The first photograph was taken at the Global Climate Strike in Helsinki on September 27th, 2019.


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