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date: 20 February 2017

Sustainable Development

Abstract and Keywords

This entry describes how the viability of long-term human social systems is inextricably linked to human behavior, environmental resources, the health of the biosphere, and human relationships with all living species. New ways of thinking and acting in our engagement with the biosphere are explored, with attention to new ways of measuring well-being to understand the global relationships among human settlements, food security, human population growth, and especially alternative economic efforts based on prosperity rather than on growth. The challenge of social work is to engage in socioecological activities that will prevent and slow additional damage to the biosphere while at the same time helping human populations to develop the cultural adaptation and resilience required to confront increasing weather disasters; displacement resulting from rising seas; drought conditions that severely affect food supplies; the loss of biodiversity, soils, forests, fisheries, and clean air; and other challenges to human social organizations.

Keywords: climate change, community empowerment, community practice, community resilience, economic well-being, environmental well-being, global warming, social well-being


The viability of long-term human social systems is inextricably linked to human behavior, environmental resources, the health of the biosphere, and human relationships with all living species. The recognition that all of nature, including human beings, who are part of nature, must be regarded as one complex interconnected system is in the early 21st century linked to the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (1987). It was in this report that sustainability and sustainable development were initially defined and promulgated.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of “needs,” in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs. (World Commission on Environment and Development, p. 43)

This idea has been examined and debated from many political and philosophical perspectives.

Some indigenous cultures have for thousands of years described an interconnected web of life and practice life as though nature is a sacred commodity (Holden, 2010; LaDuke, 2005; Roszak, Gomes, & Kanner, 1995). However, modern human behavior seems to emphasize a disconnection and detachment from nature allowing for the domination or destruction of nature’s elements (Norton, 2009). History now describes an industrialized world aggressively using and abusing natural resources, separating human needs and wants from the protection of natural capital, and thus creating an imbalance that now threatens the viability of humans as well as other species. The World Commission on Environment and Development report called for new ways of thinking and acting in our engagement with the biosphere and new ways of measuring progress to understand the global relationships among human settlements, genetic resources, loss of species, food security, human population growth, industry, and the use of energy to sustain it. The term “sustainable development” was coined to describe a new way of development that would be holistic, integrating social, economic, and environmental concerns. This complex development approach is sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line, or people, planet, and prosperity (European Commission, 2002). Economic progress would have to demonstrate its effects on social conditions and the health of the biosphere to correctly evaluate prosperity.

The 21st-Century View of Environmental Conditions and Sustainable Development

The predominant economic patterns since the middle of the 20th century promoted growth through unregulated free enterprise and narrowly focused central planning, resulting in contaminated air, water, soil, and forests, as well as the destruction of terrestrial habitat and protective ozone, thereby contributing to a damaged biosphere (Daly & Cobb, 1994; Korten, 2009; Shiva, 2008). Many scientific studies demonstrate that economic progress has already gone beyond the planet’s boundaries in three areas: climate change, the extinction rate of biodiversity, and the amount of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere for human use (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007; Raworth, 2012). Scientists agree that global climate change, which continues to warm the earth, is largely the result of human actions that contribute to greenhouse gases (McKibben, 2012). Economists, political scientists, and social critics have explored the ways in which human socioeconomic organizations, such as unregulated multinational corporations focused on short-term gain, mega banks using exotic leveraging devices for enormous monetary gain, and materialistic cultures that depend upon fossil fuels to satisfy the unlimited consumption rates of their populations, are the basic building blocks of human environmental degradation (Blinder, 2013; Hawken, 2007; Henderson, 2006; Korten, 2009; Stiglitz, 2012). The consumer-culture and growth-focused megacorporations all represent positive activities when measured by gross domestic product (GDP), but become negative markers when measured by well-being indicators such as child mortality rates, crime data, chemical pollution sites, suicide rates, and worker health/accident rates. Growth-focused socioeconomic institutions and behaviors have not only contributed to a damaged biosphere, but also stimulated the widening gap between wealthy and poor populations (Smith & Max-Neef, 2011; Stiglitz, 2012; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Deteriorating social and environmental conditions call into question the terms “progress” and “growth” when measuring economic development efforts. Successful development would measure the “quality of life” and “human and planetary well-being” as more appropriate indicators of prosperity (Hart, 1999; Jackson, 2009; WiserEarth, 2013).

The Role of Social Work in Community and Sustainable Development

Social work has a long history in community-development work. Jane Addams and her colleagues documented the deteriorating social and environmental conditions of Chicago’s industrial neighborhoods to initiate social actions that improved housing conditions, prevented child labor, enabled labor organizations, increased regular garbage collection, and expanded the national dialog on women’s issues and actions toward peace (Addams, 1910; Elshtain, 2002). Social work has been involved in community development, social development, and community organization for improved social and economic well-being for most of its history (Dunham, 1961; Perlman & Gurin, 1972; Poston, 1962; Rothman, 1968; Sanders, 1950; Warren, 1955). Whereas incorporating social and economic aspects of community development into social-work research and practice has been ongoing, incorporating environmental concerns has come more gradually.

Social work has been slow in recognizing the need to expand the person-in-environment paradigm to incorporate the physical world (Norton, 2009; Weick, 1981). Noting that most social work is grounded in egocentric and anthropocentric theories, some social-work scholars have called for a transformation in the way social work understands and engages with the fragility of earth resources, challenging social work’s conceptual and ethical preparation necessary to face the implications of a deteriorating natural world (Besthorn, 2012). Gray and Coates (2012) call for the elaboration of environmental ethics for social work to recognize and incorporate the nonhuman world into social-work practice. They raise the important concern that the ethical basis for sustainable development may be simply focused on social justice and human well-being, excluding concern for nonhuman species or ecosystems whose value to humans may not be known.

With a growing knowledge of environmental deterioration and the effects of such damage to global human development and upon other species, social-work journals have more recently documented social-work research and practice in community sustainable development, environmental advocacy, and social–ecological practice models (Besthorn, 2012; Dominelli, 2012; Gamble & Hoff, 2012; Gray, Coates, & Hetherington, 2012; Hoff, 1998; Norton, 2012; Peeters, 2012a, 2012b; Rogge, 2001, Shaw, 2008). Social workers have engaged in the discussion of the meaning of sustainable development and roles for the profession in responding to the call for a more holistic path toward the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.

In light of overwhelming evidence that a global environmental crisis exists and that the trend in global warming will affect every civilization on the planet, the challenge for social work is to engage in socioecological activities that will prevent and slow additional damage to the biosphere while at the same time helping human populations to develop the cultural adaptation and resilience required to confront increasing weather disasters; displacement caused by rising seas; drought conditions that severely affect food supplies; the loss of biodiversity, soil, forests, fisheries, and clean air; and other challenges to human social organizations.

Preventing and Slowing Additional Damage to the Biosphere

The vision for sustainable development requires a sense of connecting with and protecting all the species and materials of the natural world while simultaneously promoting human well-being. In a move toward establishing legal rights for nature in their new constitution, Ecuador accorded rights to nature (called Pacha Mama) in 2008 and further amended the constitution in 2010 to confirm that nature had enforceable rights. In a court challenge the following year, nature was declared the winner (Widener Environmental Law Center Blog, 2011). Social workers continue to explore issues related to human rights within their practice and now must also consider the meaning of rights for nature, of which humans are part (Reichert, 2007; Staub-Bernasconi, 2012). Peeters (2012a) suggests the need for a new cultural paradigm to encompass ecological justice:

A “relational” world view in terms of which all life forms are interdependent and have a “shared destiny” where people are considered intrinsically (eco)social beings, that is, they gain their identity through their relationships with other people and with the world. As such the human individual is not the center of his or her own universe but a “decentered subject.” (p. 290)

Recognizing the critical need for social work to engage in effective sustainable development for several decades, Estes (1993) proposed the rationale for social work’s role in sustainable development. Following the first United Nations (UN) Conference on Development and the Environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Estes elaborated the theories, drawn from a range of disciplines, which supported social-work practice in the arena of sustainable development. Estes (1993) identified that the most critical engagements to move development forward were “political, social, and moral in nature” (p. 15). He based a set of strategies for sustainable development on building group and individual empowerment, conflict resolution, community building, institution building, and national/regional/world building, outlining ways in which social workers could engage at all of these levels. All of these strategies focus on human relationships, a central theme of social work.

In comparing normative principles, Peeters (2012a) proposes that social work and sustainable development practice have comparatively similar principles except for social work’s failure to broaden the definition of a person’s environment to encompass ecological as well as social concerns. In their 2012 Global Agenda declaration, three international social-work organizations, the International Federation of Social Workers, the International Association of Schools of Social Work, and the International Council on Social Welfare, identified “working toward environmental sustainability” along with “promoting social and economic equalities,” “promoting the dignity and worth of people,” and “strengthening recognition of the importance of human relationships” as four priority goals for the next 5 years (International Federation of Social Workers, 2012, p. 1).

Maureen Hart (1999), an expert on community sustainable development indicators, and Jef Peeters (2012a, 2012b), professor emerita at Leuven University College in Belgium, both describe sustainable development using nested circles, locating the economy within society and society within the ecosystem. In their graphic representations both the economy, which is the smallest circle, and society must reside within the boundaries of the largest circle, which is the environment or ecosystem. The ecosystem or natural environment is the outer boundary as it both supports and limits all life forms and all human behavior (Raworth, 2012. As Peeters (2012b) states, “Economic production—as well as human behavior toward the natural environment—is a socially mediated process, hence the location of the social sphere between the economic and ecological spheres” (p. 9). Within this context Peeters (2012b) believes the appropriate role of social work is to develop empowerment, social capital, and resilience at the micro and macro levels of intervention for a socially just and environmentally sustainable society. These activities resonate with Estes’ strategies of sustainable social, economic, and environmental development further expanded by Gamble and Hoff (2012) to guide social workers in promoting relationships and policies based in “equality, opportunity and responsibility” (p. 223). Gamble and Hoff also identify a range of skills necessary for sustainable development, including the following:

  • Participatory engagement techniques that ensure involvement of local participants in assessment, priority setting, action strategies, and evaluation protocols for sustainable goals;

  • Training and experience to increase the leadership and organizational capacity of community members as they engage with the complexity of social, economic, and environmental linkages, thereby building social capital within their community;

  • Collaborative and intersectoral planning in the recognition that complex problems require multidisciplinary teams with many different skills and knowledge; and

  • The development and use of sustainable community indicators that measure well-being on a range of community-identified indicators, not on GDP. (adapted from Gamble & Hoff, 2012, pp. 222–227)

A holistic development approach, although directed toward social justice and human well-being, also recognizes the effects of human relationships on clean air and water, healthy soils, forests and fisheries, livelihoods that both protect and restore environmental habitats, nonfossil energy sources, and the beauty of natural environments so essential to human well-being. Sustainable development efforts are constantly balancing anthropocentric and biocentric perspectives and the dynamic relationship humans have with a planet they have already begun to change in negative ways.

Measuring Progress for People, Planet, and Prosperity

Engaging in community and regional development requires an understanding that economic progress does not necessarily mean growth, but it does mean innovation, entrepreneurial opportunities, and more equal access to education, wellness care, and asset development. Unfortunately, the historical tool for measuring progress, primarily the GDP or gross domestic income, gave the industrialized world a false sense of human well-being. It did so by labeling any money that changed hands a positive metric: spending money for any purpose was considered progress. It neglected to incorporate, for example, levels of freedom, education, gender equality, and health and longevity of populations. It did not subtract such things as the cost of wars; ethnic, female, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender oppression; all forms of violence including poverty; illness from hazardous and toxic employment; and exclusion and removal of indigenous populations to extract natural resources.

Working toward new methods of measuring progress has been a focus of the UN Development Program (UNDP) since 1990 (UNDP, 2010). Although not completely satisfactory to everyone as a means of measuring well-being, the Human Development Index generates a composite score for nations by incorporating values for the following:

  • Life expectancy at birth to generate an index for health.

  • Mean years of prior schooling for adults 25 years of age, combined with expected years of schooling for children in school at the time of data collection.

  • Gross national income per capita used as an index for living standards. (The GDP used previously does not include such things as foreign assistance income and remittances sent home by foreign workers.) (UNDP, 2010, p. 215)

In addition to the Human Development Index, the UNDP continues to explore ways to measure human development and now has composite indices to measure inequality-adjusted human development, a gender inequality index, and a multidimensional poverty index. Although the UNDP has engaged nations and subnational entities in making use of the Human Development Index and other indices for planning and policy purposes, other efforts have also explored the well-being or progress among populations (Estes, 2012; Gamble, 2012; Hart, 1999; Healy, 2012; Stiglitz, Sen, & Fitoussi, 2009). The Global Peace Index, for example, measures progress in terms of establishing security within nations, often called a peace dividend, so that development investments can be made. It uses 23 indicators grouped in three broad rubrics: ongoing domestic and international conflicts, safety and security in society, and militarization (Vision of Humanity, 2012). The sixth Global Peace Index published in 2012 measures the relative peace dividend in 153 countries, as well as dividend scores for the 50 U.S. states.

The genuine progress indicator was originally developed as an alternative to the use of GDP as the indicator of progress for a nation or state (Talberth, Cobb, & Slattery, 2006). It incorporates not only the value of products a population produces, but also the cost incurred in the production, such as use of natural resources, the value of household work and parenting for production to occur, and the possible cost of crime, auto accidents, or injuries as the result of production among other costs and values. In 2010 the state of Maryland established its official baseline for measuring progress with a composite of 26 items grouped into economic, environmental, and social indicators (Maryland's Twenty Six Indicators, 2010). Their annual measurement is compared with the state’s GDP.

Social workers can help communities engage in understanding the wide range of measures to monitor progress and well-being. They can also engage local communities in establishing their own well-being/progress indicators (Estes, 2012; Hart, 1999). These efforts contribute to social learning. When people learn how to identify and calculate progress in new ways beyond the use of the GDP, they begin to see how progress is more related to their actual situations, empowering them to organize toward progress within their own reality.

Engagement with Environmentally Friendly Economic Alternatives

The UN mounted a Second UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty in 2008. The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day is now about one and a half billion (Chowa, Masa, Sherraden, & Weil, 2012). Hulme (2010) notes that extreme poverty describes the condition of more than 25% of the world’s population and 47% live on $2 or less a day. Efforts to diminish poverty worldwide have been a perennial concern of social work; however, the large numbers of impoverished people remain a moral and practical challenge. Many economists have promoted the policy of growth through unregulated free enterprise as a way of raising the GDP for nations as a whole. The belief was that a rising GDP would eventually be good for everyone in the society, including the poor (Midgley, 2012; Smith & Max-Neef, 2011). Unfortunately, we have learned that growth occurs very unevenly in a free-market economy and recently has contributed to a great divide in income levels as well as promoted environmental damage (Korten, 2009; Stiglitz, 2012; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). The challenge, then, is to promote a range of local and national economic policies that can diminish poverty and provide well-being for the broadest range of populations while avoiding fouling the air, water, and soil; eliminating biodiversity; and using up resources needed by future generations. No perfect socioeconomic solution has emerged for this conundrum, tied as it is to often opposing political and philosophical perspectives. However, many national and local efforts continue in a search for answers.

Drawing from a range of economic and social rights, Gamble (2012) has described some conditions to consider in developing economic policies that are good for people as well as the planet. They include the following:

  • Economic systems—the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities and services—should include opportunities for paid and unpaid work and asset development.

  • Livelihoods encompass all the striving people do for themselves, their families, and their communities. A wide variety of livelihoods should be available to encourage creative, artistic, esthetic, and inventive endeavors. Livelihood opportunities should not exclude differently abled people.

  • Wages should be sufficient to meet a family’s needs for shelter, food, health care, transportation, and continuing or higher education.

  • Economic well-being requires equitable economic and exchange systems as well as information systems and infrastructure. Exchange and financial systems, the reciprocal patterns of activities developed to trade services and commodities, and the value societies place on particular commodities and services must be transparent and fair.

  • Degradation to the environment as well as cleanup costs and the costs of rehabilitation that result from damage to health should be included in production costs. Overconsumption should be recognized as a danger to individuals as well as the planet.

  • Measures such as GDP and gross national income are deficient for measuring well-being. The costs of war, violence, prisons, and deaths resulting from poverty should be subtracted from well-being measures, whereas uncompensated contributions such as child rearing and volunteer work should be added. (Gamble, 2012, p. 679)

Nothing can compete with the development power of a nation that structurally reinvests resources in human potential to create a healthy, educated, adequately sheltered, more egalitarian population (UNDP, 2010). Formal social protections, and investments in health care especially, can keep families from falling into poverty and building social capital for their communities (Chowa et al., 2012; Krishna, 2010). Such structural investments by themselves cannot boost quality-of-life indicators or prevent environmental degradation. People must also have freedoms to gain the capacity to make choices to fulfill their desires, to engage in social learning, to develop knowledge and skills to contribute to their futures and those of their children, and to make informed choices about their behaviors toward improved community well-being (Bruni, Comim, & Pugno, 2008; Nussbaum, 2011; Sen, 2005). Individual choices, as well as community and regional policies, that decrease the use of fossil fuels through the promotion of local economies (for example, buying local foods and products); that provide opportunities for making choices about reproductive health (such as birth control to lower population growth, prenatal care to secure healthy children, safe sex to diminish medical costs); that minimize the distance and travel options from home to work; and that allow the resources and opportunities to build homes that use environmentally friendly materials with small utility costs all can contribute to a smaller ecological footprint (Global Footprint Network, 2013).

Alperovitz (2011), cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, elaborated a range of economic activities already taking place in the United States and around the world that have a focus on environmental health and social well-being. Some of these ideas are as old as cooperatives and worker-owned production models. Newer state laws, such as laws allowing corporations to organize with part of their profits going to social causes rather than to shareholders, have been passed. Employee stock ownership plans such as those from Gore-Tex fabric and King Arthur Flour are examples of new economy efforts where workers are full or part owners of production. Cooperatives based on the Mondrogon cooperatives of Spain, one of the largest and oldest in the world, can incorporate revolving loan funds and focus on blighted neighborhoods as part of their community reinvestment actions. Cooperatives, whether organized around agriculture and food security, health and elder care, child care, home-building resources and construction, or a range of other economic endeavors, tend to build social capital within communities. As described by Majee and Hoyt (2011), cooperatives contribute to the bridging and bonding aspects of social capital because they

gather local people and pool their resources to gain power to participate in and influence market forces and community development. They promote community control, local control of capital, local ownership, local hiring, business and community leadership development, and the development of trusting relationships. (p. 58)

In the developing world, communities have also benefited from asset-building programs and microfinance schemes. These small, community-based programs are generally tailored to the particular cultural and economic context of place, where local people engage in the analysis of economic and social depravations and build their capacity to provide leadership for the particular asset-building or microfinance program that best suits their situation (Chowa et al., 2012). Some of these programs have a decidedly environmental aspect, keeping an eye on development for people, prosperity, and the planet. Some groups have taken over management of the village forest, developed clean water systems, promoted organic agricultural plots, and established bicycle repair stations. World Neighbors has established two international programs that promote green/manure cover crops, eliminating the need for fossil fuel–based commercial fertilizers (Killough, 2012). These successful methods of fertilizing fragile soils have been spread to 500 institutions in 70 different countries.

Money, which controls all economic transactions based on bank debt, is part of the conundrum of how to decrease the continuing economic threat to environmental health. As Hallsmith and Lietaer (2011) note, “We have all been trained to believe that an economy requires a monopoly of a single currency, and that bank-debt money is the only type of currency that is appropriate for a modern economy” (p. 208). Creative thinking and experimentation have provided a number of alternative ways to engage in economic and social exchange without using bank-debt money. One way is through complementary currencies that rely on meeting local needs through unused resources in organized social exchanges (Hallsmith & Lietaer, 2011; Kennedy, 2012; Lietaer, 2013). Complementary currencies do not take the place of national currencies but are a buffer against the negative aspects of interest-based currencies: “the growth imperative, upward redistribution of wealth, errors in assigning risks and liability, social erosion, and the accelerated growth of monetary wealth and debt” (Kennedy, 2012, p. 47). There are now thousands of communities around the globe making use of complementary currencies on nearly every continent (Complementary Currency Resource Center, 2013). Bernard Lietaer (2013), an international expert on currency systems and a research fellow at the Berkeley Center for Sustainable Resources, promotes the establishment of local currencies to counter the boom and bust patterns of national currencies and to promote solutions to educational needs, forestry preservation, and health care, among others. Suppose, for example, people could receive a health credit, let’s call it a SaludCredit, for every preventive or health-promotion activity they completed. They could receive SaludCredits for attending exercise classes, weight-loss programs, or smoking-cessation classes; providing home care for a family member; growing their own vegetables; receiving pre- and postnatal care; or receiving an early-detection examination. The SaludCredit earned by these individuals could be used to buy health-care products, get lower insurance premiums, or even partially pay for a medical appointment. The insurance and health-care providers could cash these SaludCredits in for national currency. Because prevention activities lower the overall cost of health care, both the individuals and the government-funded health institutions win.

Social workers can provide leadership and organizational assistance to community groups interested in establishing cooperatives, complementary currencies, and alternative economies with goals for food and housing security, promotion of health and education, and solar- and wind-energy sources. Social workers have skills in assessment, goal development, evaluation, and participatory engagement that can benefit communities in planning and working toward environmental, economic, and social progress.

Developing Resilience

Many socioeconomic activities, but especially social and ecological activities, can begin to make positive changes that will prevent further deterioration of the biosphere. However, the results of climate change have already been witnessed in nearly all parts of the globe as the number of violent storms increases, desertification continues to creep into formerly productive land, and extended drought conditions threaten food security. World weather systems are changing as temperatures increase, ice caps melt, and seas rise (McKibben, 2012). Many would say the crisis is upon us and changes will continue because world leaders and populations have taken too long to respond. Peeters (2012b) suggests that social work engaged in helping communities become empowered will contribute to social capital in communities by strengthening people’s capacity to engage with crisis, thus contributing to their resilience.

Holistic development strategies that integrate social development, economic progress, and environmental protection and restoration can be explored in the social priorities governments established in preparation for the UN Conference on Rio + 20 held in June 2012. Eighty countries submitted primary concerns for both social and environmental conditions. Among the social concerns, 11 were deemed to be priorities, here grouped into three clusters: well, productive, and empowered (Raworth, 2012, pp. 12–13).

  • Well: through food security, adequate income, improved water and sanitation, and health care;

  • Productive: through education, decent work, modern energy services, and resilience to shocks;

  • Empowered: through gender equality, social equity, and having a political voice.

Among environmental concerns, priority issues were identified by the same countries as climate change, loss of biodiversity, adequate water resources, land and forest management, loss and degradation of soil, ocean acidification, and the health of marine resources (Raworth, 2012, p. 22). Social work knowledge and skills includes the ability to help communities become and stay well, to be productive, and to be empowered, thereby becoming more resilient (Ungar, 2005).

Using Community Practice Skills to Build Resilient Communities

Community practice skills, incorporating everything from neighborhood community organization, to planning and administration for community programs, to political practice and social action, all contribute to developing the capacities of community members to become more resilient (Gamble & Weil, 2010; Netting, Kettner, McMurtry, & Thomas, 2012). Employing community practice skills will inevitably require deep political and ethical reflection among social workers so engaged because this work is not politically or philosophically neutral (Gamble & Weil; Peeters, 2012b). Community practice work in sustainable development will draw upon the values inherent in social justice, human rights, and the rights of nature.

Participatory research and empowerment are the result of local populations engaging in rigorous examination of deteriorating resources available to them compared with assets and opportunities to develop well-being in social, economic, political, and environmental realms. Rogge (2001 2008) describes local communities engaged in examining the extent of toxic chemicals used in public-school cleaning supplies, an assessment of the geographic location of toxic waste sites in relation to low-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color, and the pollution of water and soil in rural communities by companies mining and drilling for fossil fuels. In many areas local residents have organized to stop activities that contaminate their air, water, and soil.

Shiva (2005) describes how, upon discovering their water sources were either polluted or diminished because the nearby Coca-Cola plant dumped waste water onto the land while producing more than a million bottles of Coke a day, women farmers in Kerala, India, examined the waste pumped into the water table by the Coca-Cola production plant. They organized against the pirating and polluting of water, eventually engaging a whole movement of young people in the wider concern for water contamination near soft drink–production plants. The youth started a campaign to boycott the product by declaring their schools and universities “Coke–Pepsi free zones” (Shiva, 2005, pp. 168–172).

As the effects of climate change, toxic endangerment, migrations caused by loss of land and food scarcity, and other environmental disruptions increase, a significant source of cultural and social resilience will be required. Social learning through community organization and participatory research and action will play a large role in helping people understand the forces that work against their development and environment and those that work for them. Social workers can help local communities network with others to develop the social, cultural, and economic resources necessary to build community resilience (Gamble & Weil, 2010; Peeters, 2012b; Stibbe, 2010; Ungar, 2005).

Social workers who can employ social learning, community organization, participatory research, and social/political practice will be most useful to the work of sustainable development. Michael Weyers has conducted research with community-development workers in South Africa and Namibia to determine what traits make these workers most successful. Among the eight habits he identified, two traits appeared to be essential in building empowerment among community members:

  1. (a) They activate the push of discomfort and the pull of hope in others by:

    Accepting that community members are experts on their own situation; always starting with the felt needs of the community and not accepting the needs ascribed to it by the government; using collaborative procedures to help community members involved take ownership of needs and fulfillments; see the community as a pool of assets, strengths and abilities waiting to be tapped.

  2. (b) They instill an internal locus of control in others by helping community members:

    Unlearn their learned helplessness mindset, and helping them see themselves as potential victors. (Weyers, 2011, pp. 94–95)

In the process of training community-development workers in Namibia, Weyers and Herbst (2011) concluded that they could influence the learning of community-development social workers in a co-constructed learning environment. They learned that having the right attitudes about community development, especially being able to empower the community with appropriate skills, having a passion to do the work so that they would be an inspiration to the community, and having a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve with the community were very important (Weyers & Herbst, p. 283). This kind of co-constructed educational training, built on respect for the adult learner and building on their own perspectives, can be useful in helping practicing social workers add the skills necessary for sustainable development work.

Next Steps

There is still much to be learned about how social work can become effective in the field of sustainable development. Given the understandings social work has explored since the 1990s, and especially in recent years with regard to the common principles between social work and sustainable development, social-work scholars have developed a clear path for expanding the person-in-environment construct to include the natural environment. The roles that social work can take within this work range from very micro interventions to global involvement. Four lessons seem to be important first steps in helping social work engage with sustainable development concerns:

  1. 1. Given the environmental resource depletion and contamination already documented, sustainable development must focus on the quality of prosperity and not on growth.

  2. 2. Measuring the quality of prosperity must incorporate elements of well-being related to health, education, inclusion, political freedoms, gender equality, and economic equity. The goals, strategies, and evaluation measures must be built within the local/regional context and with the broadest participation of the local/regional community members.

  3. 3. Work in sustainable development recognizes that the move toward global economic and social progress will entail competing and conflicting perspectives. Mediating structures can help move communities and regions to improved well-being as long as minority perspectives are heard and incorporated.

  4. 4. Deep reflection of ethical and philosophical values will be essential in this basically political arena.

Social work has the knowledge, values, skills, and judgments to engage in sustainable development. The contributions of practitioners and researchers to this important work will continue to inform its direction.


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Further Reading:

Krugman, P. (1997). The age of diminished expectations: U.S. economic policies in the 1990’s (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Max-Neef, M. (1991). Human scale development: Conception, application and further reflections. New York, NY, and London: Apex Press.Find this resource:

Mulvaney, D. R. (Ed.). (2010). Green politics, an A to Z guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Find this resource: