Social workers have proposed a number of avenues through which to address the root causes and social and ecological effects of environmental degradation. The majority of these responses to environmental degradation and its disparate social impacts have sought to mitigate harm that has already occurred and create strategies to adapt to disasters. Despite research that finds that a focus on prevention is an important component of interventions, social workers have less frequently considered prevention-based practice as a model to address environmental issues.
We use the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and the Grand Challenges for Social Work Creating Social Responses to a Changing Environment challenge as frameworks and hone in on the role of community-level practice. We discuss how a prevention-focused, proactive agenda for environmental social work will provide a role for social workers in collaborative partnerships and allow us to learn from grassroots groups that have been working to prevent environmental degradation and its social impacts.
We used an instrumental case study method to describe the phenomenon of community-engaged environmental prevention in the real-life context in which it occurs. In instrumental case studies, a case is examined in depth; the goal is not to generalize or compare to others but to illuminate one case and come to know it in detail. Drawing on our collective experience and expertise in environmental justice-focused scholarship we selected three instrumental cases chosen for their utility in illustrating and better understanding how community groups undertake environmental prevention work.
We describe three instrumental cases and analyze how each works as an approach to prevention. First, we describe environmental justice efforts in Warren County, North Carolina; a historical example that is instructive in our discussion of how community practice skills can be engaged to not only mitigate and adapt to environmental degradation (and root causes of degradation like racism), but also to further community-based prevention. Next, we describe how partnering with communities to rigorously document impacts can leverage local concerns to gain the attention of media and enforcement agencies. The importance of this sort of partnership, known as “street science”, is demonstrated through an examination of the Flint water crisis. Finally, we draw on an international case study of environmental activists in Kerala, India for whom imagining and experimenting with “alternatives” (badal) is as crucial to the pursuit of environmental justice as for example, protesting industrial pollution. We compare these approaches and offer an analysis of prevention as a paradigm for community practice.
Conclusions and Implications
We describe how social workers can work at the community level with a prevention focus to intervene in environmental problems and promote racial and economic equity. Our findings have important implications for social work, suggesting that a prevention-focused agenda, in partnership with community groups, can be a promising avenue for environmental social work practice. The approaches show how prevention-focused work has been enacted by communities across the globe and illustrate avenues for partnership and advocacy to prevent environmental degradation and its root causes.