Sustainability and Social Work: Earth Day 2017

by Pat Shelly

Sustainability and Environmentalism

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” This is an old Yankee/New England proverb that resounds with our more environmentally-conscious society today.

Sustainability is  a word that appears more frequently in the press around Earth Day, which is observed on April 22 in the US. Many slogans address environmental issues. Some instruct: “Reduce, Reuse, Recyle,” or humorously inform: “Recyclers do it over and over again,” or recommend:


Smiling man in baseball cap with arms hugging a big tree. Only one arm is visible as tree's circumference is too large to encircle with his arms. is too big to get

Photo: Carolina Hoyos Lievano / World Bank






“Hug a tree, they have fewer issues than people.”




At the University at Buffalo, there are many green initiatives. We have the daily recycling of paper, plastic, and metals, and we turn UB’s cafeteria food waste into compost. We have LEED-certified (green) buildings. Plus,


we are Bicyle-Friendly!

Banner shows man on bicycle with book bag leaning forward on bike against a campus building background. Text says "The League of American Bicyclists called us a Bicycle Friendly University"

Photo: Pat Shelly

Both North and South Campus offices of UBSSW have drop-off points for battery recycling.

sign above office door "UB Alkaline Battery Recycling Drop Off"

Drop-off locations: 661 Baldy and 232 Parker. Photo by Pat Shelly









We have the Solar Strand (3,200 panels / 750 kilowatts) that provides enough carbon-free electricity to supply 136 households, as well as serving as a demonstration project to advance solar technologies in New York State. UB also purchases green energy in the amount of 75 million kilowatts, equal to about 35% of our total power consumption.


aerial photo of the 3200 solar panel array at Universtiy of Buffalo North Campus

Photo: Douglas Levere

Sign iwth picture of children in sunglasses in front of the UB solar panels with caption "Lowering Emissions, Raising Standards, Solar strans provides countless benefits to the entire community"

Photo: Pat Shelly









Photo: Douglas Levere



These aspects of sustainability – encouraging people-powered commuting, keeping toxic materials out of landfills, and producing and purchasing green energy – are familiar to most people.


Sustainability as an Essential Social Work Value

In  Sustainability, human rights, and environmental justice: Critical connections for contemporary social work, Professor Catherine A. Hawkins of Texas State University explains:

“Social work has a long-standing tradition of emphasizing the interaction of people and their environment, although this systems perspective has focused almost exclusively on the importance of social relationships…[we] need to pay more attention to the critical role of the physical environment…the profession is joining the call to action for sustainability…The important connections between social work, sustainability, human rights, and environmental justice in our contemporary world need to be more clearly articulated in the scholarly literature. An understanding of these separate but closely linked concepts is necessary for the profession to effectively pursue the goal of making the world a more just, humane, and sustainable home for all life.”

“Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.” The NASW Code of Ethics may have had the “Person-in-Environment” context – and individual in human and community environments – in  mind rather than the sustainability of life on this planet, but  21st century conditions means we must enlarge our definition of environment.


The American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare has  identified the need to “Create social responses to a changing environment”  as one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work:

“The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.”


The Council on Social Work Education has nine areas of competencies to be taught in accredited schools of social work. One competency is that of advancing human rights and social and economic justice.  Advancing environmental justice was added in 2015.


photo of land bordering water with a fringe of trees on the right. Quote by Gregory Bateson: The major problems of the world are the result of the diference between the way nature works and man thinks.":



Sustainability for Mental Health

The physical health impacts of polluted land, air, and water is well-known. But how does sustainability relate to our mental health? In March, the American Psychological Society issued its report, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance .  Climate change can affect an individual’s resilience and sense of hope; it often results in maladaptive coping tactics, diminished sense of worth, and weakened connections to family and community.

The UBSSW MSW curriculum has a human rights and trauma-informed perspective underlying all coursework. The trauma of climate change is becoming more evident each year. Our profession works with people to help them to sustain physical, mental and emotional well-being, and climate change is a threat in all these realms. Universities and all schools of social work need to incorporate advocacy for the rights of peoples to a healthy environment. We need to always acknowledge our interdependence with other-than-human beings, and dedicate ourselves to restoring and healing this planet.


Earth as seen from space with North and South America visible and cities shining as points of yellow light on the blue continents

Photo: NASA


What are your thoughts on sustainability in social work practice? Please share in the comments section below!



Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica. Downloaded from

Hawkins, C.A. (2010). Sustainability, human rights, and environmental justice: Critical connections for contemporary social work. Critical Social Work (11:3). Retrieved from

Kemp, S. P., & Palinkas, L. A. (with Wong, M., Wagner, K., Reyes Mason, L., Chi, I., … Rechkemmer, A.). (2015). Strengthening the social response to the human impacts of environmental change (Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 5). Cleveland, OH: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

National Association of Social Workers (2008). NASW Code of Ethics (Guide to the Everyday Professional Conduct of Social Workers). Washington, DC: NASW. Retrieved from:















One comment

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s