Disrupting neoliberalism and human-induced climate change: emancipatory social work for ecosocial justice

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Angelika Kaffrell-Lindahl Mid Sweden University, Sweden

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Vishanthie Sewpaul University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

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An over-consumptive neoliberal world, fuelled largely by media messages that insidiously lead people to define their worth by their purchasing choices and purchasing power, is contributing to the destruction of the planet and pushing the Earth beyond acceptable tipping points, posing grave threats to human and planetary well-being. If social work is to play a meaningful role in challenging the hegemony of neoliberalism and human-induced climate change and their disastrous consequences, it must disarticulate itself from modernist, positivist orientations and embrace an emancipatory praxis with a focus on the politicisation of the self and of the profession. Emancipatory praxis holds the potential to combine a spiritual cosmocentricism, based on self-enlightenment and altered conceptualisations of self, other and nature, and the pragmatic aspects of liberation in freeing ourselves from cultural, political and capitalistic ideological hegemony to enable shifts towards ecosocial justice.

Abstract

An over-consumptive neoliberal world, fuelled largely by media messages that insidiously lead people to define their worth by their purchasing choices and purchasing power, is contributing to the destruction of the planet and pushing the Earth beyond acceptable tipping points, posing grave threats to human and planetary well-being. If social work is to play a meaningful role in challenging the hegemony of neoliberalism and human-induced climate change and their disastrous consequences, it must disarticulate itself from modernist, positivist orientations and embrace an emancipatory praxis with a focus on the politicisation of the self and of the profession. Emancipatory praxis holds the potential to combine a spiritual cosmocentricism, based on self-enlightenment and altered conceptualisations of self, other and nature, and the pragmatic aspects of liberation in freeing ourselves from cultural, political and capitalistic ideological hegemony to enable shifts towards ecosocial justice.

Introduction

The human-induced climate crisis is posing some of the gravest threats to humanity (GTP, 2023; IPCC, 2023), as it is dramatically changing the biophysical conditions that make the Earth a suitable home for human, animal and plant-based life (Rahmstorf and Schellnhuber, 2019), with anthropogenic warming being a cause of climate change (Powell, 2017; IPCC, 2023). The impacts of so-called ‘physical tipping points’ could trigger social tipping points, for instance, the disruption of social cohesion, economic destabilisation and violent conflict (GTP, 2023). Across the globe, we see the effects of climate change – cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, fires, mudslides and earthquakes – with disastrous consequences, especially for the poor and those living in vulnerable circumstances. Human-induced phenomena like deforestation, habitat destruction, the loss of biodiversity and water and air pollution contribute to environmental disasters, which exacerbate poverty and conflict (IPCC, 2021; 2022b; 2023). Social consequences include migration, the spread of diseases, malnutrition, homelessness and the disruption of family and work patterns.

According to the IPCC (2022a; 2022b; 2023), successful adaption requires urgent, accelerated action and technological and socio-economic changes to reduce climate risks to tolerable levels and to guarantee inclusive, equitable and just development. Given the interconnectedness between the global economic crisis, the climate crisis, the crisis of COVID-19 and ongoing wars, the hope for the future does not rest only on scientific-technological solutions and siloed, unidisciplinary approaches (UNDP, 2020). Rather than science and technology providing solutions, Houston and Gray (2016: 421, 425) write of ‘the destruction of the natural world through scientism and technology’, which negate Indigenous world views that ‘remind us of the indelible and insuperable reciprocity between nature and human beings’. While the rejection of scientism is legitimate, we do accept that in addition to other approaches and interventions, science and technology have important roles to play in climate change prevention, mitigation and adaptation strategies. Drawing the links between social and planetary imbalances, a 2020 United Nations Development Programme report calls for redesigning ‘a path to progress that respects the intertwined fate of people and planet’ (UNDP, 2020: iii).

As anthropogenic climate change is a thoroughly social phenomenon, rooted in routines of everyday life and the social, economic and cultural structures of modern societies (Crenshaw and Jenkins, 1996; Dunlap and Brulle, 2015), it bears direct relevance for social work, a profession that ‘engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing [where] social change initiatives recognize the place of human agency in advancing human rights and economic, environmental, and social justice’ (IASSW and IFSW, 2014). Scholars are convinced that global warming will not only impact the physical, economic and socio-political environments that social workers are engaged in but also influence the type of social work that has to be carried out (Coates, 2003; Lysack, 2010). Accordingly, social work in the era of the Anthropocene – a concept used by scientists to reflect the entry into a new geological epoch where humans have a profound influence on the planet and are a dominant force in shaping the future of the Earth (UNDP, 2020) – needs to meet the challenges of integrating environmental perspectives in order to change behaviours and lifestyles, as well as respond to the consequences of climate change to ensure human and planetary well-being.

The huge volumes of scientific evidence on climate change have not translated into behavioural choices on a scale needed to save the Earth. The reality of climate change and its consequences must become embedded in the consciousness of people. With an altered cosmocentric consciousness that holds the universe as sacred and recognises humans as part of the natural world (Boetto, 2019), people might be more willing to privilege sustainable development rather than support neoliberal consumerism and short-term, Earth-destroying profits. There is a need to transcend boundaries that exist around and within the profession and deepen understanding of how climate change is profoundly connected to the challenges and responsibilities of social work as an antiracist, anticolonialist human rights profession that strives for ecosocial justice.

The 2020–30 theme of the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), the International Council of Social Welfare (ICSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) is ‘Co-building a new ecosocial world: leaving no one behind’ (IFSW et al, 2020). This is not going to happen within conventional conceptualisations of social work and the impositions of neoliberalism and New Public Management (NPM). The UNDP (2020: iii) asserts: ‘Humans have achieved incredible things, but we have taken the Earth to the brink. Climate change, rupturing inequalities, record numbers of people forced from their homes by conflict and crisis – these are the results of societies that value what they measure.’ We are, indeed, experiencing a crisis of values. Neoliberal capitalism, which puts profit and greed above people and the planet, has become so normalised and naturalised that we do not question it.

In this article, our main premise is that if social work is to play a meaningful role in challenging the hegemony of neoliberalism and work towards ecosocial justice, it must be informed by an emancipatory praxis that heightens the consciousness of ourselves and societies at large. In theorising emancipatory praxis, we argue for an ontological view that integrates spirituality and science, as emancipatory praxis holds the potential to combine a spiritual cosmocentricism, based on self-enlightenment and altered conceptualisations of self and of the universe, and the pragmatic aspects of liberation in freeing ourselves from cultural, political and capitalistic ideological hegemony (Gramsci, 1977) to enable shifts towards ecosocial justice – in the words of Althusser (1971: 182), to shift from being a ‘subjected being’ to a ‘free subject’ that is the ‘author of and responsible for its actions’. As ecosocial justice is characterised by ideological contestations that span the spectrum of left–right politics, social work – as an applied profession – is ideally placed to bring people into dialogue, informed by the power of Freirean/Gramscian forms of emancipatory praxis. This is especially so as an over-consumptive neoliberal world, fuelled largely by media messages that insidiously lead people to define their worth by their purchasing choices and purchasing power, is contributing to the destruction of the planet (Bauman, 1993; Borgnäs, 2015; Sewpaul, 2015a) and pushing the Earth beyond acceptable tipping points.

Planetary thresholds, tipping points and cascade effects

International bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC, 2022a; 2022b; 2023), have accepted the threshold for dangerous anthropogenic interference (DAI) of 2 °C global mean surface warming from pre-industrial levels. As DAI involves value judgements based on nationality, ethnicity, economic well-being and social norms, it cannot be described only within natural science variables (Ramanathan and Feng, 2008). There is a common understanding that depending on the different elements of the climate system that are affected, a range of threshold values of global and regional surface temperature change must form DAI, which has led to the notion of climate tipping elements. These tipping elements can be triggered by global warming in different ranges: 1–2 °C or 3–5 °C (Ramanathan and Feng, 2008).

The 2023 IPCC report clearly states that without immediate and drastic greenhouse gas emission reductions, limiting global warming to 1.5 °C is beyond reach. Without a strong carbon dioxide mitigation policy, the exposure could exceed 3 °C within about 25 years (Ramanathan and Feng, 2008). There is a considerable risk that if the Earth crosses a planetary threshold that would cause continued warming on a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway, it could prevent climate stabilisation, even if carbon emissions are reduced (Steffen et al, 2018: 8252). The triggering of harmful tipping points in the natural world will severely damage our planet’s life-support systems and threaten the stability of our societies (GTP, 2023). In order to avoid such a threshold crossing, decarbonisation of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioural changes, technological innovations, new policies and governance, and transformed social values are required (Steffen et al, 2018; UNDP, 2020; IPCC, 2022a; 2022b).

The immediate and long-term consequences are complex, with cascading impacts: deforestation, desertification, extreme weather patterns and loss of agricultural areas and groundwater. These contribute to hunger, battles over scarce resources, violent conflicts, internal and external displacements, population migration, homelessness, and the loss of basic rights, which are central to social work as a profession committed to the pursuit of ecosocial justice and human rights. About 3.6 billion people live in regions that are susceptible to climate change disasters, with those in poor and more marginalised areas being most vulnerable to displacements, malnutrition, poverty and death (IPCC, 2022a; 2022b; 2023). Particular vulnerabilities are shaped by an ongoing legacy of colonialism, neo-colonial power structures and intersecting marginalisations, including race, gender, Indigenous identities, health, poverty and conflict (IPCC, 2022a; 2022b; 2023).

With additional warming, climate change impacts are expected to intensify in interaction with other societal and environmental challenges, such as unsustainable consumption, increasing urbanisation, deepening inequality and poverty, land degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction, and global pandemics (IPCC, 2022a; 2022b; 2023). Furthermore, the adequacy of different solutions, such as electric cars and wind and solar power, must be problematised in view of their creation of new problems and ecosocial injustices (for example, the mining of rare metals and minerals), which further privilege the Global North at the expense of the Global South, with emerging concerns about ‘the dark side of green energy’ (Al Jazeera, 2020).

Neoliberalism and environmental injustice

Greta Thunberg’s chastisement of world leaders at the United Nations (UN) on 23 September 2019 – ‘People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth’ – reverberated across the world (The Guardian, 2019). Spearheaded by Greta, the Fridays for Future (FFF) environmental movement gained traction, with thousands of schoolchildren catapulting the message of a looming climate crisis into the faces of world leaders and the world’s population.

However, the struggles of the FFF and other similar groups are relegated to the shadow of other events, such as COVID-19 and wars, with the current global focus being on Russia’s war on Ukraine and Israel’s war on Palestine, which, in addition to the wanton deaths, destruction and suffering, exacerbate planet-heating pollution (Paddison, 2023). Also, the money needed to mitigate the climate crisis is being used to subsidise fossil fuels, militarise countries and stabilise an economic system that is, itself, an engine of climate change. At the same time, global political dialogue, which is crucial to solving the climate crisis, is being undermined by new East–West divisions, leaving little hope for a shared focus on climate issues. Schwarb and Mallert (2020: 48) argue that ‘strong interconnections exist between global governance failure, climate action failure, [and] national government failure’, adding that ‘without appropriate global governance, we will become paralysed in our attempts to address and respond to global challenges’. As we live on an interdependent planet with a shared biosphere, the planet has to be managed as a single entity through global cooperation. While globalisation has accelerated the path to unsustainability and risk, global cooperation is essential to reverse the trend (Dominelli, 2019).

While avoiding global warming means sacrificing profit, neoliberal policymakers consider it ‘economically rational to engage in short-term, ecologically unsustainable exploitation’ (Fuentes-George, 2013: 146). Economic interests must not be negatively affected by climate change interventions, as made clear, for example, in one of the major UN climate agreements at the Rio Earth Summit 1992, which stated: ‘measures taken to combat climate change … should not constitute … a disguised restriction on international trade’ (Klein, 2014: 77). The pre-eminence placed on economic growth and global trade as the answer to the world’s social and planetary imbalances are central to the current crises that we are confronted with.

Neoliberalism contributes to the commodification of every facet of life, including nature. Schwarb and Mallert (2020: 34) define neoliberalism as a ‘corpus of ideas and policies … favouring competition over solidarity, creative destruction over government intervention and economic growth over social welfare’. Neoliberalism, characterised by deregulation, privatisation, tax cuts and a minimalist state, with cutbacks to health, education, welfare and housing, places economic growth and profit above people and the environment (Ferguson et al, 2005; Sewpaul, 2013; 2015a; Kamali and Jönsson, 2018) and has blocked serious responses to climate change (Dominelli, 2012; 2018; 2019; Gray et al, 2013; Klein, 2014). Neoliberalism has, in the words of Lukacs (2017), ‘liberated corporations to accumulate enormous profits and treat the atmosphere like a sewage dump, and hamstrung our ability, through the instrument of the state, to plan for our collective welfare’.

In order to safeguard a healthy planet, a shift is needed from a sole focus on economic growth to an understanding that nature is the foundation for development (IPBES, 2019). Strong market orientations are widening socio-economic inequalities (Sewpaul, 2015a; Kamali and Jönsson, 2018) and failing to secure people’s and nature’s rights, as the interlinkages between nature and people and between the global and the local are neglected (Dominelli, 2012; 2019). Well-being, as a central goal of social work, cannot be restricted to the well-being of people, as people’s well-being is bound to the well-being of the planet and its ecosystems (Dominelli, 2012; UNDP, 2020).

Ecosocial work and ecosocial justice

At the time of its inception, social work’s concern with both the social and biophysical environment was evident in the community-based work of Jane Addams, which, with the person-in-environment approach, was lost as the environment was conceptualised as the social systems surrounding the person (Houston and Gray, 2016). While the ecological has been shifting from the margins to the centre of social work (Boetto et al, 2020; Ouis and Cuadra, 2021; Ranta-Tyrkkö and Närhi, 2021; Thysell and Björngren Cuadra, 2023), the attention that the ecological has gained in social work academia has not cascaded into practice, particularly in the Western world (Närhi and Matthies, 2016; Thysell and Björngren Cuadra, 2023).

Social work’s roots in Western modernist, logical-positivist rationality is at odds with green/ecosocial/ecospiritual social work, which emphasises holism and interdependence (Gray and Coates, 2013; Houston and Gray, 2016; Närhi and Matthies, 2016; Boetto, 2019). Logical positivism has a significant impact on social work’s ontologies, epistemologies and practices. Positivism supports researcher/practitioner non-involvement, detachment, neutrality, generalisation, replication, the separation of the professional from the personal, technical-bureaucratic models in social work, and the demand to prove one’s truth according to positivist empiricism’s all too often linear reductionist reasoning (Bauman, 1993; Sewpaul and Holscher, 2004; Henrickson and Fouché, 2017). Such emphases have derided alternative and different ways of knowing and doing, embedded in critical, emancipatory, post-colonial theoretical understandings and Indigenous knowledges.

Authors have used different labels to describe environmentally oriented social work, such as ‘environmental social work’, ‘ecosocial work’, ‘deep-ecological social work’, ‘ecospiritual social work’ and ‘green social work’ (GSW) (Thysell and Björngren Cuadra, 2023). In this article, we use ‘green social work’ (Dominelli, 2012) and ‘ecosocial work’ (Närhi and Matthies, 2016) interchangeably. GSW recognises ‘the interdependencies between people and their socio-cultural, economic, and physical environments, and among peoples within an egalitarian framework that addresses prevailing structural inequalities and unequal distribution of power and resources’ (Dominelli, 2012: 8). GSW embeds environmental justice within social justice (Dominelli, 2019).

Green/ecosocial work, as both theory and praxis, aims to transform the socio-political and economic forces that impact the lives of the marginalised to enhance the present and future well-being of the people and the planet and advocates for the use of participatory, community-based approaches (Dominelli, 2012; 2018; 2019; Närhi and Matthies, 2016). Besthorn (2012) rejects social work’s anthropocentric view of justice, wherein humans are seen to have intrinsic value and the non-human as having instrumental value in service of human needs and wants (Thysell and Björngren Cuadra, 2023), supporting an ecocentric approach that sees humans as part of nature. Gray and Coates (2012: 241) argue that the social work profession ‘needs to walk a fine line between enlightened self-interest, which saves nature so humans can survive, and an ecocentric approach, which values nature for the sake of nature’.

Conceptualising justice is fraught with ideological contestation within both environmental and social justice discourses, often resting on the liberalism–socialism continuum (Ali, 2001) and raising questions mainly about distributive justice, namely: what is to be distributed and by whom? What are the implications of taking into account the historical and intergenerational transmission of injustices in addressing the contemporary ills of the world? What is the relationship between philanthropy and justice in the face of systemic, structural inequalities? How are rights and responsibilities conceptualised and apportioned within and across nation states? What is the role of meritocracy vis-à-vis needs-based approaches? What is the place of virtue ethics in social and environmental justice? How is global solidarity, a prerequisite for ecosocial justice, to be achieved within increasingly narrow state-centric practices? Furthermore, there is the complexity of connecting the dots between environmental and social justice, as explicated by Tucker (quoted in Kaplan, 1997: 69):

People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights group is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat.

While Tucker presents the ideal of ‘one group’, in reality, social and environmental justice movements, for purposes of power, impact and voice, tend to take the form of issue-based advocacy, focusing mainly on single issues. There can, however, be no denying that environmental and social justice are interconnected and must be addressed together. Linked with green/ecosocial work, ecosocial justice recognises that environmental problems often disproportionately affect marginalised communities and that solutions to these problems must take into account the social, political, cultural and economic factors that contribute to them. Ecosocial justice advocates for the equitable distribution of natural resources, including access to clean air and water, and the protection of biodiversity; it emphasises the need for the sustainable and responsible use of natural resources. It seeks to address social inequalities that contribute to environmental problems, such as poverty, discrimination and the lack of access to education and healthcare, and it recognises that these can create barriers to participating in environmental decision-making processes (Dominelli, 2019).

While sustainability is dominant in ecosocial justice, it has unfortunately been appropriated by various interest groups. Lele (1991: 613) asserts that sustainable development ‘is a “metafix” that will unite everybody from the profit-minded industrialist and risk minimising subsistence farmer to the equity seeking social worker, the pollution-concerned or wildlife-loving First Worlder, the growth-maximising policy maker, the goal-oriented bureaucrat, and therefore, the vote-counting politician’. In the face of ideological contestations, ecosocial justice seeks to ensure that all communities have a say in environmental decision-making processes. This includes providing access to information and resources and creating opportunities for marginalised communities to participate in social and environmental policymaking. Rather than the attempt to overcome such contestations, Ali (2001: 47) calls for an inclusive theory of justice to be ‘established through democratic deliberations and inclusive participation through a dialogue of visions’, which is a call made by the IASSW, IFSW and ICSW.

The ‘People’s charter for an ecosocial world’ (IASSW and IFSW, 2022), an outcome of the Global People’s Summit held in 2022, which was initiated by 26 global organisations, including the IASSW, IFSW and ICSW, is the result, to an extent, of a ‘dialogue of visions’. The charter is based on value premises that underscore: ‘Love and care for people and the planet, responsibilities and holistic rights; Respect, dignity, harmony and social justice; Diversity, belonging, reciprocity and equity; Ubuntu, togetherness, accountability and community; and Solidarity, equality, inclusion and collaboration.’ The implications of this for a sustainable future are elucidated as co-developing reciprocity, co-building peace, co-living with nature, co-creating social justice and co-realising equality. The emphasis on the ‘co-’ implies acknowledgement that the world is not going to be fixed into a finite utopia, that as long as there is life there will be struggle and that ideological differences must be managed and negotiated by bringing people into dialogue and action.

Social workers can respond to the call to action of ‘The people’s charter’ (IASSW and IASW, 2022) by: (1) working with local communities to advocate for environmental and socio-economic justice; (2) addressing environmental problems that disproportionately affect communities in poor, marginalised and vulnerable positions; (3) providing education and resources on environmentally sustainable practices, such as recycling, conserving energy and reducing waste; (4) including questions about environmental factors, such as exposure to pollutants or access to green spaces, in their assessments to better understand how these impact people’s well-being; (5) advocating for policies that promote environmental sustainability, such as supporting renewable energy initiatives or advocating for regulations that protect public health; (6) partnering with environmental organisations and other stakeholders to develop solutions to environmental and psychosocial problems; and (7) conducting research on the impact of environmental problems on marginalised communities, and building advocacy initiatives upon this.

Social work remains primarily directed at people, but it is underpinned by an awareness that it is certain groups, like the poor, primarily women and children, and people of colour of the Global South, who suffer the specific impacts of ecological crises most (Dominelli, 2012; 2018; Mushunje and Sewpaul, 2020; Ouis and Cuadra, 2021). Ecofeminism, which must be centred in ecosocial justice discourses, accentuates gendered positions of subordination by addressing how patriarchal global world views sustain the oppression of women, just as they oppress and exploit animals and nature (Besthorn and McMillen, 2002).

Limits to current conceptualisations and practices of social work

Adopting an emancipatory, ecosocial framework would challenge and change the identity of traditional social work. Besthorn (2013: 31) argues that ‘Social work must eventually change the central philosophical grounds of its conceptualization of justice. In a practical sense, no matter how social work languages its idea of justice, in the end all justice is ecological.’ While many global social work documents represent utopian ideals, they are far from the realities of contemporary practices. Part of the problem is the misfit between our stated visions and macro-level goals and the localised structuring of social work into specific fields of practice and specialised areas, with a narrow conceptualisation of roles, which are being accentuated by the influence of neoliberalism and NPM (Sewpaul and Holscher, 2004; Banks, 2011; Dominelli, 2012; Dlamini and Sewpaul, 2015; Ferguson and Lavalette, 2016). Ferguson and Lavalette (2016: 314) describe ‘the domination of social work by budgets, the commodification of every aspect of the social work task, [which] negates basic values, such as respect for people’, and the preponderance of care-management approaches and the deskilling of social workers.

Logical positivism, continuing imperialism, neoliberal market-oriented developments and NPM pose a risk of essentialising discourses in social work by individualising, medicalising, culturising and depoliticising social problems (Sewpaul, 2013; 2015a; Ferguson and Lavalette, 2016), as well as neglecting or trying to erase ‘the social question’ from public debates (Lorenz, 2016). How ‘the social’ is conceived in discourses on climate change has, to a great extent, been monopolised by economics, which has led to ‘a focus on human practices as individualistic, market-based, and calculative’ (Szerszynski and Urry, 2010: 2–3). Existing applications of social science to climate change tend to neglect the analysis of institutional, societal and cultural dimensions. As a consequence, the focus on individualistic analysis promotes political responses that overemphasise individual action, leaving political and economic institutions unaccountable (Shove, 2010). In the same way, neoliberal policies have shifted the focus of social work from understanding social problems through their structural and institutional mechanisms to blaming the individual and overemphasising their own responsibility (Sewpaul and Holscher, 2004; Sewpaul, 2013; 2015a; Jönsson, 2015; Kamali and Jönsson, 2018).

Neoliberal thinking, which influences the way in which nature and climate change are perceived, fits well with the Western Reagan/Thatcher notion of autonomous individuals responsible for their own choices, in the same way that individuals can be held responsible for the generation of carbon emissions and for reducing them (Lipset, 1997). Neoliberalism and NPM undermine social work’s ability to incorporate climate change causes and consequences into daily practice. Traditional Western knowledge systems, social care methods and ideologies are criticised by GSW advocates as being inadequate to address the ecological, spiritual, social, economic and security-related crises related to climate change (Coates, 2003; Gray et al, 2007; 2013; IPBES, 2019). Policymakers, researchers and decision makers across all professions, but especially in social work, as a human rights profession, are called upon to place the human-made effects of climate change at the centre of decision making while challenging the ‘exploitative economic activity and human exceptionalism arising from their perceived superiority over nature’ (Gray and Coates, 2013: 3).

Sewpaul (2020: 301) argues that on account of its seductive language of flexibility, freedom and choice, ‘Neoliberalism penetrates daily consciousness so much so that it is normalized and naturalized, and it is considered necessary for the social order despite the inequality and poverty that it engenders’, and writes of how neoliberalism ‘gives the corporate elite the freedom to produce as much carbon emissions as they can profit from, and to dump toxic waste on the west coasts of Africa that children die from’. In view of this, Sewpaul (quoted in Sewpaul and Nkosi Ndlovu, 2020: 110) calls for an approach that goes beyond critical theory to embrace an emancipatory praxis that focuses on ‘how the constraints of our own thinking, and the worldviews that we hold might influence our conceptualization of people, their life challenges, the methods and strategies that we choose to use, and the goals that we aspire towards’, as discussed next.

The way forward: from critical to emancipatory praxis

The ‘Global social work statement of ethical principles’ (IASSW, 2018) emphasises that the self must be the site of awakening and politicisation and accepts a dialectal relationship between individual and societal consciousness. Co-building an ecosocial world presumes an ultimate emancipatory shift from ego and ethnocentric consciousness to an evolved level of consciousness that recognises and responds to the divinity and inherent dignity of all sentient beings (Besthorn, 2013; Sewpaul, 2020). While such recognition and responsiveness rests on virtues like loving, kindness, integrity, gratitude, benevolence and compassion for self and others, these virtues are not ends in themselves; rather, they must serve as the foundation for building bridges of empathy that stimulate challenges to structural injustices.

Sewpaul (2015b) points to the diverse roots of emancipatory praxis, such as conflict theory, critical theory, feminist social work theory, anti-oppressive theory, anti-racist social work, post-colonial theory, structural social work theory, radical social work and liberation theology. Even within these, there might be a broad range of leanings and dissenting views. For example, feminist theory has subdivided into African feminism, Black feminism, liberal feminism, socialist feminism, developmental feminism, radical feminism, lesbian feminism, psychoanalytic feminism and cultural feminism. It is unfortunate that, as social scientists, we fragment at our own peril. Liberation theology might take overt religious standpoints, such as Islamic social work, Buddhist social work or Christian social work, or be underscored by unifying spiritual dimensions that embrace core values aligned with those of ecosocial work.

The understanding of the Earth as a holistic entity consisting of various interconnections between all living organisms is central to ecosocial work, particularly ecospiritual social work (Besthorn, 2012; Gray and Coates, 2013), which is in contrast with the profession’s modernist view of the natural environment being separate from and subordinate to humans (Coates, 2005; Houston and Gray, 2016). Holistic world views that enable social workers to conceptualise the self as being part of nature (Boetto, 2017) are to be found in many Indigenous knowledges and the philosophies of extant spiritualities emphasising interconnectedness, intergenerational equity and shared responsibility for the planet (Schramkowski and Stamm, 2023). This resonates with the Buddhist teaching on interdependent co-rising: the complex chains of interdependencies in all phenomena. Buddha told his followers: ‘When you look at a leaf or a raindrop, meditate on all the conditions, near and distant, that have contributed to the presence of that leaf and raindrop. Know that the world is woven of inter-connected threads. This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not’ (quoted in Nhat Hanh, 2018: 409), reflecting the transcendent excellence of systems thinking and liberation theology.

Just as a leaf is a manifestation of the universe, so is the self, with the realisation that the self and other are one, with such non-duality between self and other and between self and nature being at the heart of an emancipatory politics. Such awareness calls for shifts from egocentric to ecocentric world views (Gray et al, 2012) and from egocentric and ethnocentric world views to cosmocentric world views (Sewpaul, 2020; Wilber, 2020), where we recognise that each individual soul, which is a fragment of the Universal Soul, is interconnected with other souls (Tagore, 2005; Sewpaul, 2020). Diaz et al (2015: 13) define the cosmocentric as ‘a vision of reality that places the highest importance or emphasis in the universe or nature, as opposite to an anthropocentric vision, which strongly focuses on humankind as the most important element of existence’.

Rejecting dogma and literalist interpretations, Villa-Vicencio (2021) writes about the liberation potential of progressive spiritualities and science (not of the positivist tradition) in seeking an understanding of cosmic reality. From a Darwinian evolutionary perspective, Villa-Vicenco (2021: 141) asserts: ‘there is an inherent link between the first living cell to emerge and the entire universe’. For such ontological and epistemological world views to take root, social work’s Western, Eurocentric underpinnings must be challenged and changed to adopt ‘ontological principles that recognise the inter-dependence between humanity and the natural world’, where the ecosocial incorporates the rights of all living organisms (Boetto, 2019: 144).

Such a cosmocentric consciousness means that we hold peace, harmony, forgiveness, compassion, universal love, divine unity and divine oneness as sacrosanct, all of which are essential if we are to live up to social work’s core ethical requisites of respecting and responding to the dignity of all peoples in their infinite worth, embracing unity in diversity, respecting all life forms, and non-violence towards fellow human beings and nature. These holistic world views are reflected in Indigenous ontologies recognising the inseparability between humans and the Earth (Gray et al, 2007; 2013; Houston and Gray, 2016; Boetto, 2019). While social work has been reluctant to acknowledge Indigenous ways of knowing as being epistemologically equal (Young et al, 2013), some social work researchers have developed universal, cosmopolitan understandings of the self, for example, through cosmogenesis (Coates, 2005) and ecospirituality (Besthorn, 2000; Gray and Coates, 2013).

An emancipatory praxis integrates a spiritual cosmocentricism and the pragmatic aspects of heightening consciousness, which while seemingly incompatible, are not so, as both respond to the Socratic call to ‘know thyself’. While modernist notions of science might see this as antithetical, such integration within Indigenous world views is commonplace and conceptualised as synergistic. Knowing oneself is not an ethereal end in itself, as exemplified in the life of the Buddha. The Buddha used self-enlightenment to educate about witnessing the existence of suffering, recognising the causes of suffering, having the goal of ending suffering and ways of ending suffering (Nhat Hanh, 2018). The prominent late Vietnamese monk and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh asserts that if those causes rest in socio-economic and political structures that are violating, then our efforts at ending suffering must be located there (Nhat Hanh, 1993). Buddha was a pacifist, and he appealed to kings, politicians, religious leaders and villagers to adopt values and practices that engender peace, non-violence, non-discrimination, equality and respect for all life forms (Nhat Hanh, 2018).

As climate change impacts all life and requires radical changes in our lifestyles, broad-based critical awareness and the re-politicisation of life (Klein, 2014) are major responsibilities for social work research, education and practice. There is a need to mobilise communities and investigate the underlying causes of vulnerability to climate change to identify potential intervention strategies (Dominelli, 2012; Reyes Mason et al, 2017). There is also a need to question the taken-for-granted belief systems, ideologies and cultural norms that constitute the dominant and largely unquestioned understanding of the causes of climate change (Dunlap and Brulle, 2015). Through a critique of neoliberalism, social workers can identify dimensions of economic and political power and challenge the assumptions on which societies and welfare practices have been governed (Webb, 2019). Researchers draw attention to the need for radical changes in social work education towards a more critical and climate justice consciousness (Cuadra and Eydal, 2018; Dominelli, 2018; Dominelli et al, 2018; Boetto, 2019; Jönsson and Lauri, 2021; Ouis and Cuadra, 2021).

In addition to other pertinent questions, Sewpaul (2020: 296) asks: ‘As prisoners of political, socio-economic and cultural control, and prisoners of our own thinking, who operate on many taken-for-granted assumptions, how do we transform that consciousness so as to engage in radical, transformative change?’ While ‘The people’s charter for an ecosocial world’ (IASSW and IFSW, 2022) presents utopian ideals, it falls short on strategies, that is, on the ‘how’. The how, Sewpaul argues, can be addressed through emancipatory praxis (see Sewpaul and Nkosi Ndlovu, 2020). There is a need to move beyond an analysis of intersectional social criteria and power to an approach that combines critique and action. Giroux (1997: 3) asks the following cogent question: ‘How do we make education meaningful by making it critical, and how do we make it critical so as to make it emancipatory?’

Sewpaul and Nkosi Ndlovu (2020: 109–10) assert that emancipatory social work focuses on ‘liberation from the constraints of one’s own thinking, recognizing the inter-connectedness between individual consciousness and societal consciousness, and the importance of transforming both, directed towards deliberative, collective emancipatory action’. Such an approach allows people to reflect on external sources of oppression and/or privilege, and it holds the possibility of increasing people’s self-esteem, courage and conviction so that they, themselves, begin to confront the structural sources of poverty, inequality, marginalisation, oppression and exclusion (Sewpaul and Larsen, 2014). However, given that, as social workers, we are products and producers of our sociocultural, economic, political and cultural worlds, emancipatory praxis turns the spotlight on us as professionals and demands that we begin with ourselves.

Without the emancipation and politicisation of the self (Sewpaul, 2015b), it is unlikely that social workers would be able to politicise the individuals, groups and communities that they engage with, whether about the constraining power of digital technology and neoliberalism, how intersectional social criteria are underlying causes of human suffering, the causes and consequences of climate change, or constructions of self and other. Neither would social work educators politicise students if they were not politicised. Central to the pursuit of climate justice must be building the capacity of educators, whose world views, research orientations and pedagogical strategies influence students – who become practitioners – in profound ways.

It is heartening to note that turning the spotlight on us, as social work educators, practitioners and researchers, is included as a core ethical requisite in the IASSW’s (2018) ‘Global social work statement of ethical principles’, with Principle 4.7 reading, ‘Social workers recognize that dominant sociopolitical and cultural discourses and practices contribute to many taken-for-granted assumptions and entrapments of thinking, which manifest in the normalization and naturalization of a range of prejudices, oppressions, marginalizations, exploitation, violence and exclusions’, and Principal 4.8 reading, ‘Social workers recognize that developing strategies to heighten critical consciousness that challenge and change taken-for-granted assumptions for ourselves and the people whom we engage with, forms the basis of everyday ethical, anti-oppressive practice’.

In asserting the potential of emancipatory social work to be politics with soul, based on the core values of Ubuntu and being for the other, Sewpaul (2015b: 10) quotes Bauman to claim that social work, more than any other profession, holds the potential to function in that ‘intermediary site where “life politics” meets Politics with a capital P: where private problems are translated as public issues and public solutions are sought, negotiated and agreed for private troubles’. As social workers are strategically placed to ‘recognize and respond to people as agentic individuals with power to influence their life circumstances and environments’ (Sewpaul and Nkosi Ndlovu, 2020: 116), they can respond to the calls of the UN (UNDP, 2020) and ‘The people’s charter’ (IASSW and IFSW, 2022) for collective action towards an ecosocial world.

Social work must take responsibility to ensure that people’s critical voices against dominant, oppressive, economically impregnated discourses on climate change are given space and power to pressure political and corporate elites into responsible actions. Informed by emancipatory praxis, social workers understand that, ‘Embedded in the narratives and lived experiences of people, are rich tapestries of information and knowledge that must be tapped into, supported and maximized for transformative change’ (Sewpaul and Nkosi Ndlovu, 2020: 118). The UNDP (2020) calls for approaches that expand people’s choices, opportunities, capabilities and ability to participate in decision making so that they lead lives that they value while easing planetary pressures.

Social workers can draw on the thesis of Gramsci (1977) in efforts to transform common-sense, taken-for-granted assumptions into empirically tested good sense, as well as on Freirean strategies of consciousness raising through the use of reflexive dialogue in small groups and cultural circles to facilitate empowerment and engaged citizenship (Freire, 1970; 1973). ‘Dialogue’, according to Freire (1973: 21), who was a liberation theologian, ‘requires social and political responsibility, it requires at least a minimum of transitive consciousness’, the absence of which can reinforce the narrow nationalism, populist politics or fatalism that reinforce climate change denialism and the lack of implementation of strategies in the interests of ecosocial justice. Community work, as an established but retreating method of social work, must regain a central position. There is scope for social workers to take on the roles of social critic, advocate, activist and facilitator, as well as to work with global social and environmental justice movements to contribute to mobilisation for a more equitable and just climate transition.

Conclusion

Climate change is one of the major precursors to the internal and external displacement of people, affecting all countries across continents. As climate change is linked with the day-to-day struggles of the people that social workers engage with, it has direct and immediate relevance for the profession. However, the global call to co-build an ecosocial world is not going to happen without an emancipatory praxis and a radical shift towards a cosmocentric consciousness, which involves a re-evaluation of our values and a critical interrogation of our taken-for-granted assumptions upon which action strategies can be built towards ecosocial justice. The politicisation of the self and of social work research, education and practice is essential if social workers are to engage with the climate crisis. Emancipatory praxis demands that we: reimagine our world and conceptualisations of self, other and nature to challenge and undo neoliberalism; adopt governance systems that promote greater solidarity; work towards achieving equitable, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable de-growth and growth; and recognise the indivisibility of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.

Funding

The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the reviewer for the constructive feedback.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Angelika Kaffrell-Lindahl Mid Sweden University, Sweden

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