A Guest post by David Kenkel
Trigger warning: this post discusses bleak likelihoods that are painful to consider. The unmentioned backdrop to social work’s future is that the world has passed an ecological crisis point of no return and there is little chance that near-term catastrophe can be averted (see Bendall, 2018). This is a situation that the western world has not yet begun to face. This is a post about hope. Not hope that we can avert the coming environmental predicament, but hope that as communities face inevitable crisis, they will rediscover collective solidarity and wiser ways of living together. Social work can have a key role in this transition back to sanity.
If we are to steward the future of our profession, then we must have the courage to look squarely at what the future is likely to bring. The risk of not facing these harsh truths is that we become complicit in the rump end of neoliberalism’s continued siphoning of the world’s resources to a tiny number of people and the blaming of individuals for structural and environmental problems quite outside of their control.
At a personal level, I am seldom as blunt and assertive as I will be in this blog post. I am doing this because I believe it is time for our profession and the western world more generally to jettison the reassuring fantasy that science, progress and/or some greener version of business-as-usual will save us. They will not (Hine & Kingsnorth, 2009). Barring some miraculous change of heart by those controlling the global economy we are in for major societal and ecological collapse within the next 15 years. Best predictions put 2030 as when the perfect storm commences (Beddington, 2008, 2015). The short-form version of this perfect storm is as follows:
An economic system committed to endless growth with no off switch, controlled by a self-protective hyper-rich elite; dying fisheries; rapidly diminishing arable soil and fresh water; sea level rise; global heating / extreme weather events and the worldwide convulsion of hundreds of millions of people forced out of countries no longer able to feed them, with accompanying internecine warfare.
Predictably, the international web of trade and travel that defines our current way of life will collapse, taking with it most of the national and global institutions designed to provide care and support to those in need (Bender,2003; Emmett, 2014; Hansen, 2011; Jamail, 2019). This is not science fiction; these are predictions made by credible and cautious researchers (Beddinton, 2008, 2015; Motesharrei, Rivas & Kalnay, 2014). Again, to be blunt, business as usual is killing much of the planet and a significant proportion of humanity will die as a consequence. Life in future will be a hard struggle to survive within a fractured global environment much more hostile than that of today.
Neoliberal policies and practices are intimately intertwined with the coming catastrophe. Consider that more CO2 has been released and more ecological damage done since 1989 than in the previous 200 years. 1989 is approximately when neoliberal hegemony truly seized the reins of global political orthodoxy and commenced remaking the world in its own image – and to the advantage of its hyper-wealthy advocates (Harvey, 2013).
Hope is important, but it can all too easily be misplaced. Individual actions have little likelihood of stopping the environmental changes that are in train. Most serious researchers suggest it is too late. Human-driven climate change processes already in place mean major sea rise is inevitable. Every degree of global warming precipitates new problems that will further accelerate environmental degradation and shrinkage of the resource base that humanity requires to feed itself. Spiraling cycles of warming and extreme weather conditions will render large parts of the globe functionally uninhabitable. Life will retreat toward the poles.
This dire situation is compounded by the fact that current global power configurations are infused with a growth-at-all-costs capitalist economic policy rubric. There is little capacity or real will to alter the lethal status quo. Those who benefit most from exploitative profit-driven growth are those effectively in control of the global economy. Such privileged people will also have the resources to protect themselves from the worst effects of environmental breakdown. It is the poor and the already disenfranchised who will suffer the most (Motesharrei, Rivas, Kalnay, 2014).
Hope for the future does not lie in stopping catastrophe. Instead it is to be found in how we respond as communities to the coming predicament; and it is in that potential response that the social work profession has a significant role to play. The roots of social work track back to another time of crisis and societal disruption. Two hundred or so years ago, concerned authorities and charities tried to soften the social consequences of rapid forced urbanisation, extreme poverty and an accelerating industrial revolution fueled by brutal laissez-faire capitalism (Polanyi, 1965).
Twin strands of thought intertwined in the early evolution of what much later became the social work profession. First the imperative to blame the poor for their condition and then to re-moralise the apparently immoral classes. Secondly, a growing realisation that the problems of the poor and apparently feckless were a consequence of appalling social and economic conditions rather than moral weakness. The fore-runners of today’s social workers were at times complicit in enforcing the view that social suffering was rooted in individual fault. At the same time, a wide range of activists sought to improve societal conditions and address the ingrained structural inequities of the day.
These tensions continue to haunt social work. What is clear (in retrospect), is that blaming the poor for their situation was one tactic, among many, used by the beneficiaries of 18th and 19th century laissez-faire capitalism to avoid culpability for the social impacts of their economic policies.
Two hundred (and counting) years later and we’re again facing a time of massive social and economic disruption. The 21st century twist is that the swathe of destruction will also include ecological catastrophe on a global scale. Neoliberalism (today’s version of laissez-faire capitalism) repeats the song sheet of the early days of capitalism. Once again, the minority benefactors of ruthless economic and social policies find multiple ways to shift culpability for the effects of their rapacious stripping of the human and environmental commons.
The archetypal neoliberal response to societal and environmental crisis is to direct blame responses and tailor solutions towards individuals rather than to confront the fundamental drivers (Mayer, 2016; Rose 1998 & 1999). This approach has strongly impacted on contemporary social work practice. It needs to be exposed, recognised and resisted by the broader social work profession. The associated demand for an individualising social investment, a focus on personal trauma and evidence-based rehabilitation begins to seem like a sick joke when held up against the chillingly real likelihood of near future ecological and societal collapse.
Social work needs to refocus on assisting communities to develop compassionate and workable responses to the coming troubles. As in the past, the social work profession will once again face the choice of which strand of analysis to draw on in responding to the inevitable disruptions to come.
The key questions are: Will we commit as a profession to solidarity with (and liberation of) the oppressed that arises from the basic recognition that individual circumstances are all too often outside of individual control? Or, in the face of social and environmental collapse, will we persist in coaxing and (sometimes outright coercing) outlying social groups into obedience to the norms and lifestyles of a failing and ultimately genocidal system of capitalist social relations and economic development?
Image Credit: Digao SPBR
Beddington, J. (2008). Food, Energy, Water and the Climate: A Perfect Storm of Global Events? CMG FRS Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government Office for Science Kingsgate House 66-74 Victoria Street London SW1E 6SW. Retrieved from: firstname.lastname@example.org
Beddington, J. (2015). Tackling threat of climate change ‘has become more challenging’. Retrieved from: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/2015_Beddington_seminar 2015 –
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