13: The environment

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The environment, with climate and biodiversity crises, has to now be a major emerging focus for community work practice. Theory is needed, however, to structure this focus. This chapter explores the links between environmental and social justice. Environmental crises tend to affect disadvantaged communities more. Community voice is essential in any community response here, though the role of the community worker can be complicated by the varying interests involved, including local activists and activists from outside the community. In terms of theory, we also need to look at how extending our understanding of community to include the non-human can increase the reach of social justice. Discourses of the environment, like the climate emergency and the valuing of the natural, can be further ways of obfuscating and consolidating power.


The survival of many people, societies and, of course communities, and the biological support systems of the planet are at risk. It is a mainstream view that the biological systems on which all human life relies are, indeed, at risk (Jickling et al, 2021). With the climate and biodiversity crises, the social impact is apparent from scientific evidence. Environmental issues must now be a priority for community work. There is an urgency and an immediacy that runs counter to the often-long-term nature of much of our work, particularly community development. However, as the community work response to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated in many countries, there is clearly the creativity and resourcefulness in the sector and in communities needed to begin to and contribute to practice, to respond to this urgency.

Engaging with theory is central to understanding this community work and developing and extending our practice. Westoby says: ‘Community development practitioners, without being enlivened by renewed theory … can easily become ossified with auto-pilot practice. Human-induced climate change and species extinction certainly invite new theory or new ideas’ (Westoby, 2021, 387).

Engaging with theory is complex. Robinson, for example (2018) introduces, us to the ‘Four Phases of Theory Engagement’, proposing that a cyclical and systematic way of harnessing theory in our operating contexts is beneficial. We are led from phase 1, with a focus on identification of the problem to be solved, through identification of relevant theory or theories of action and evaluation of success, to potential new theories of action. Robinson is accentuating the importance of theory to practice, and alerting us to the need for reflection around what works best. If community workers are to be fully effective, we suggest, they need to be fleet of foot and connected to current and emerging sources of impact of the climate crisis on those with whom we work.

This chapter is divided into two main parts. Firstly, we look at the theory of how we can link what we do as community workers to the environment, and secondly, we engage in more focused discussion on what this means in some key areas of practice.

Social justice and the environment

We need firstly to think about the links between social justice and the environment and what these links mean. For us as community workers, social justice has surely to be our motivation (see Chapter 2). Westoby (2021) stresses our need to work for social justice. ‘If we are not haunted by the spectre of justice, then it would be best to walk away from community development, to leave it alone, to do no more damage’ (Westoby, 2021, 380).

It is quite clear to us that the environment and social justice are closely linked. As Harley and Scandrett (2019) argue, the natural resources of the environment are a critical part of community development. They form part of the assets of communities. Impacts on environment are, therefore, impacts on communities and impacts on what we can do as community workers. It is also clear that the climate crisis is affecting poorer and more vulnerable people the most. There is a grim logic here, as Harley and Scandrett make clear: ‘Economic decision making in the interests of capital accumulation leads to cost shifting onto the environments of those with least economic or political leverage’ (Harley and Scandrett, 2019, 8). Accordingly, if we are serious as community workers about social justice, we also then need to be serious about the environment. We look at this sense of the environment as the site of social justice in the next section.

We may, however, want to extend this link between the environment and social justice to something more fundamental. A colleague who works with an organisation with an ecological focus made the following claim about ideology and a political viewpoint: “I would say that as an organisation, we see them as fundamentally linked. One is actually not possible without the other. Yes, whichever way you look at it, I do actually think it’s worth seeing that, not necessarily as objective fact, but as an ideological or political viewpoint” (Matthew Evans, 2022, Focus Group).

The environment as the site for social justice

Before we consider what the closer connection between the environment and social justice might be, we need to consider how the environment can be the site for social justice. In terms of the environment, communities can be seen as the most effective way of bringing about sustainable change. Agenda 21, coming out of the United Nations Rio Earth Summit in 1992, recognised the key importance of community-led change. More recently, for example, the Transition Towns movement in the UK is another example of communities taking action into their own hands and on their own terms. This community-led participatory network aims to work from the bottom up for a socially just low carbon future (Transition Network, 2023).

It is important to distinguish community work, and community development, in particular, from much sustainable development. Harley and Scandrett (2019) argue that the sustainable development agenda has been co-opted by capital stakeholders and that the community participatory processes in this agenda have in fact largely been a cover for the neoliberal agenda (see Chapter 2) to cut public services. If this is indeed the case, as community workers it is vital that we are mindful of the values which underpin our work.

A focus group participant outlined clearly how working with communities on environmental issues based on values of social justice, respect, inclusion and empowerment can have positive social and environmental impacts which reinforce each other:

‘If we can look after and respect our green and local community areas, by involving the communities themselves, then this breeds respect and understanding within the community and leads to increased confidence, self-esteem, self-respect and respect for others. This then leads to a better community, where everyone feels that their voice is heard. They are respected and as a result we will find the community grows in strength. The areas become more environmentally friendly, therefore leading to more green areas hosting lots of new plant life and animal life, allowing for a more natural nature connection between individuals and their own local areas. We can also look at growing food in newly created community gardens.’ (Ross Weatherby, 2022, Focus Group)

The environment can also be the site for more direct social and political struggles and, in terms of community development, often the site of struggle between local concerns and other stakeholders. In terms of theory, these struggles are often informed by and understood through critical academic theory, engaging with neoliberalism, alongside reflections and understandings of activists and workers. Harley and Scandrett (2019, 8) attempt to ‘draw on all these in order to assist those engaged in struggles for environmental justice – as community workers or social activists, environmentalists or community mobilisers – to address the difficult questions about praxis in the face of the neoliberal onslaught’. As community workers engaged with theory to develop practice, it is important that we also ask questions about praxis (see Chapter 11) and what is driving our efforts.

Our relations with nature, extending community

So far, we have been talking about the environment insofar as it is important for human beings. However, there are other ways to think of the link between the social and the environmental (or natural), which can involve a valuing of the environment in itself. If we make the argument that the environment is part of social justice, then we might also say that the environment is part of the community as the site of social justice. This is a possible opening up of the ambit of community that, Westoby (2021) argues, we need to consider as part of our practice.

A colleague described an example from her practice which illustrates this.

‘It makes me think of the garden project that we’ve got going on at the minute with Lindy, a really amazing gardener. She really wants that project to think about, about caring for the garden and who cares for the garden. So, it’s not just her and it’s not just us. It’s also like the cat that comes in and keeps the mice away from the compost, it’s the worms, it’s the wasps.’ (Jess Carnegie, 2022, Focus Group)

This opening up of community as a site of social justice has difficulties, certainly. Benson explores what it means to be in a community, arguing that it involves at least a mutual awareness and interests, as well as some sense of mutual obligations. So, in what sense, he asks, can the non-human be part of such a community? He argues that respect for nature can be based not on a sense of community with it but on its very otherness (Benson, 1999). Although many Indigenous cultures recognise non-humans as part of the community, from the perspective of Western thought, particularly, any deeper identification with nature may be difficult. Kate Soper points out: ‘An opposition between the natural and the human has been axiomatic to Western thought, and remains a presupposition of all its philosophical, scientific, moral and aesthetic discourse’ (Soper, 1995, 38).

This is an opposition which has its roots in the dualism of Descartes and other philosophical thinkers. Deep green ecology, which is an environmental philosophy which argues nature has inherent value rather than just instrumental value for human beings, proposes an identification with nature, but this philosophy relies on problematic notions of an expanded self (Benson, 1999). An openness towards the possibility of extending community is important if we are to move away from what one focus group participant described as “a world created by capitalism, as a resource to be exploited, rather than a home to live in”.

Nature as discursive

Just as we need to be aware of and open to shifting meanings of community and social justice, so too we need to be mindful of how the language of the environment, and its connection to the natural, can be controversial. Soper discusses, ‘the semiotics of “nature”, which would recall us to the role of the concept in mediating access to the “reality” it names, and whose political critique is directed at the oppressive use of the idea to legitimate social and sexual hierarchies and cultural norms’ (Soper, 1995, 3). Soper suggests that an appeal to some way of life being natural can be used as a powerful form of putting that natural way of life beyond political critique. It is important to question critically such uses of the language of nature and how they can embody power. This can be contrasted with the ecological approach to nature ‘that has emerged in response to ecological crisis, is critically targeted on its human plunder and destruction, and politically directed at correcting that abuse’ (Soper, 1995, 3).

As workers who are perhaps committed to this ecological understanding of nature, we need awareness of how the language we use can mediate or construct the ‘reality it names’. For example, McGregor and Scandrett (2022) talk about the dangers of the construction of the climate emergency by those in power. A focus on emergency rather than transition can legitimise an ignoring of justice in transition. As community workers supporting environmental projects, we need to be critically aware of such legitimising actions.

Working with communities

The critical awareness mentioned earlier is not of course to deny the reality of the emergency situation in which we find ourselves. In political terms it means, as McGregor and Scandrett (2022, 12) argue, that ‘a left populist politics of climate emergency is one that articulates the connections between lived experiences of social and economic injustice and climate change’. Community workers have an important role to play in supporting the articulation of this connection in terms of local communities. As ever, with community work, this process needs to take place according to the needs and interests of those involved, as the following case study demonstrates.

Case study

Kevin was working with communities to prioritise actions for a region-wide plan to support eating well and keeping active. At a day-long event involving service representatives and community members, it was suggested early on by a service representative that some environmental principles should underpin the action plan. Most community members were not, however, interested in this suggestion. Understandably, their priorities were more about affordable transport and the food they could put on their children’s plates. Through the discussions of the day, connections were made between the economic circumstances in which people found themselves and climate change, putting pressure on prices and other resources. In the end, priorities with a green focus, such as active travel and sustainable local food systems, received support.

Working with communities: voice

Another key role of the community worker will be engaging with communities on environmental issues and, in particular, ensuring that local and marginalised communities are properly heard. Not only is this engagement important in terms of social justice, it is also, as McGregor and Scandrett (2022) point out, these communities that are often first and worst affected by environmental change and have the best understanding of what it means to address this change at a local level. Addressing change can be difficult work and the stakes can often be high, as Butler (2019) describes in an account of community resistance to a mining development in South Africa. Voice can be obstructed not only by threats and persuasion but also by the internalisation of an ideology of respect and knowing your place and by a civil society and its organisations who want to speak for rather than with the communities they support.

It is also the case that environmental issues may attract activists from outside the local community in a way that can challenge the way we work within the community. It can lead to tensions between local communities and environmental activists, as well as complicating or obscuring the voice of the community. For example, Ed was involved in some of the environmental protests in the 1990s, particularly around road building. Ed remembers one occasion when busloads of people descended on a quiet village in Surrey, in England, to occupy some land. There was little local involvement with the community and he spent a lot of time trying to placate local residents. Darcy and Cox (2019) outline the more constructive role that these outside activists can play in a community-led response in a discussion of local opposition to a new gas pipeline from Shell in rural Ireland, bringing new and relevant knowledge, skills and experience.

The following case study illustrates the some of the difficulties associated with supporting the genuine voice of communities.

Case study

Jess is a community worker with a community arts organisation in North East Scotland. As part of a project called ‘The World Is Ours, in Spite of All’, with artist and educator Hussein Mitha, she helped to set up the Huntly Youth Climate Warriors, a group of young people interested in climate justice. When the project working with young people ended, the young people were keen to continue and the group has since become independent. Although no longer supporting the group, Jess has remained in touch. She stresses how the group’s becoming independent has proved to be an important model for change, creating an autonomous space for young people to discuss and work together on issues that are pressing to them. The group are developing a highly political voice. Jess also says, however, that the young people have struggled initially with some of the practicalities of running their own group. It would be great if there were other similar groups locally that they could share with and learn from. (Jess Carnegie, 2022, Focus Group)

On a practical level, resources are important for this process. As community workers, we may have access to these resources, such as spaces to meet as well as networks and contacts to bring people together. Funding, including for paid staff, can also be crucial, and the short-term funding of projects, particularly in the third sector, can often be a barrier to effective longer-term engagement. The role of paid staff, particularly if they are paid by the state or through corporate money, can also sometimes be ambiguous, as highlighted by Darcy and Cox (2019) in relation to opposition to the Shell pipeline in Ireland. The ambiguity raises questions about the need for the central role of unpaid community activists and the how communities might employ staff without reliance on state or corporate funding.

Thinking about the practice of community workers, and their pedagogies for educational practice in particular, Jickling et al (2021) explore the complex area of study of environmental ethics, in a sourcebook for educators. They discuss pedagogies that explore, inter alia, values and what they term the ‘moral impulse’.
  • Etiquettes of daily living (what we do in personal and professional lives) are ways of generating the knowledge people need to grapple with the socio-environmental challenges.

  • Where value conflicts arise, reflection is a useful tool.

  • Ethics do not begin and end with humans, and developing strong moral impulses to the more-than-human world is dependent on having experiences of this. (Derived from Jickling et al, 2021, 270)

Jickling et al (2021) also discuss practical pedagogies that stimulate ethical environmental action. Considering ethics is not just an intellectual exercise, but is deeply rooted in practice and lived experience. Effective learning and teaching help to connect intellectual and emotional aspects of the environment and can bring ethical thinking and feeling into practice. Critique, which Jickling et al (2021) define as naming of problems and resisting ethical injustices, is linked to reimagining, seeing beyond problems, turning problems upside down and inside out to view situations in a new manner. An example is reimagining futures through ways of revealing social structures that are in plain sight and may be fault lines that could be reimagined. For example, they propose, in groups, looking at possibilities for a different future focusing on:
  • Language: how to reclaim or reinvent language to express values;

  • Social practices: reinventing or redesigning prevailing social practices that shape the environment;

  • Images: what new metaphors do we need? (Derived from Jickling et al, 2021, 188)

Jickling et al pose four elemental questions for thinking about environmental ethics:

What is ‘right’ and what is not ‘right’?

What could be different?

What should be (taking a holistic vision of self and others)?

What realistic concrete action can we take? (Derived from Jickling et al, 2021, 271)

This chapter has emphasised the need for community work to engage with theory so as to develop practice in relation to environmental ethical and practical challenges. It has explored this theory in terms of how we understand the link between the environment and social justice, different discourses of the environment and how we need to be critically aware of how these discourses may impact on our roles as community workers.

Principles in practice

  1. 1.There is no social justice without environmental justice.
  2. 2.An extended sense of community can be part of the connection between social justice and the environment.
  3. 3.Discourses of the environment can be oppressive as well as liberating. Think about the discourses you hear and use.
  4. 4.If you are a paid community worker, think about how these discourses might affect how you can support communities taking on environmental issues.
  5. 5.As community workers we need to be working with the most marginalised communities, supporting connections between disadvantage and environmental change.
  6. 6.Consider your role in learning and teaching for environmental visioning.

Challenge questions

  1. 1.How do you see the links between social justice and environmental justice in your work?
  2. 2.What is valuable about addressing environmental issues from a community work perspective? What is distinctive about this?
  3. 3.Do we need an extended sense of community as part of this work? What might this look like?
  4. 4.How have you supported engagement around environmental issues? What challenges have you found?
  5. 5.What is your vision for an environmental future thinking about social practices?
  6. 6.Thinking of the case studies of Kevin and Jess, what were the strong points of their work, and what were any limitations, in your opinion?


  • Benson, J. (1999) Environments, Ethics and Human Concern. Open University Press, Milton Keynes.

  • Butler, M. (2019) ‘Mines come to bring poverty’: extractive industry in the life of the people in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In A. Harley and E. Scandrett (eds) Environmental Justice, Popular Struggle and Community Development. Policy Press, Bristol, pp 10116.

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  • Darcy, H. and Cox, L. (2019) Resisting Shell in Ireland: making and remaking alliances between communities, movements and activists. In A. Harley and E. Scandrett (eds) Environmental Justice, Popular Struggle and Community Development. Policy Press, Bristol, pp 1528.

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  • Harley, A. and Scandrett, E. (eds) (2019) Environmental Justice, Popular Struggle and Community Development. Policy Press, Bristol.

  • Jickling, B., Lotz-Sisitka, H., Olvitt, L., O’Donoghue, R., Schudel, I., McGarry, D. and Niblett, B. (2021) Environmental Ethics: A sourcebook for educators. Sun Press, Zambia.

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  • McGregor, C. and Scandrett, E, (2022) Framing climate emergency: community development, populism and just transition. Community Development Journal, 57(1) 116.

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  • Robinson, V. (2018) Reduce Change to Increase Improvement. Corwin Sage Publishing Company, California.

  • Soper, K. (1995) What Is Nature? Blackwell, Oxford.

  • Transition Network (2023) A movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world. Available at: https://transitionnetwork.org (Accessed: 30 March 2023)

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  • Westoby, P. (2021) ‘A community development yet to come’: Jacques Derrida and reconstructing community development practice. Community Development Journal 56( 3): 37590.

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