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From social work towards sustainability work

By Werner Sattmann-Frese and Stuart Hill - posted Tuesday, 9 October 2018

In our 2008 book Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation the authors of this paper have argued for the need to create the profession of sustainability workers; a professional focused on the task of enabling the population and communities to explore their psychosocial sustainability issues, and to support individuals and their families to lead satisfying and meaningful lives with a low ecological footprint.

In 2018, almost 10 years after the publication of our book, we are still far away from being able to say that most people in the Western world have significantly advanced their ecological consciousness. Ecological progress has been slow and has mainly taken the form of technological advances, and curative (back end) rather than enabling and preventative (front end) measures.

Although the current American President, Donald Trump, has been widely rebuked for leaving the Paris climate change agreement, and many countries have reaffirmed their commitment to it, the agreement itself is mainly concerned with the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies; in our view an important transition, but only one of many pressing issues that need urgent attention. Here we are thinking, for example, of the continuing rise of global inequality, the rise of right-wing fascism in many countries, the continuing deterioration of mental health, even in countries with a relatively well-organised health system, and the need to radically design and redesign systems at all levels to avoid rather than just ameliorate problems. The extent of what this requires is illustrated by one of us in relation to the design and management of a genuinely sustainable food systems (Hill, 2014).


Considering the above, we endeavour here to justify the need to establish the profession of sustainability workers, and to describe what this might entail. One way to understand this need is to compare this proposed profession with conventional social work, a profession that has had, over the last 120 years, enormous positive impacts on the lives of millions of people; and that is now in the process of branching out into a broad range of socially important fields.

Social work and sustainability work

From the establishment of the first Summer School in Philanthropic Work in New York in 1898 to the academic training programs found in many countries 120 years later, professionals trained in social work now are active in areas such as welfare and income support, child protection, aged care, disability services, health care, psychiatric and general mental health care, youth work, and justice. They are employed as counsellors in diverse contexts with individuals, groups, and increasingly also in disaster management teams. Common driving forces for social work has been concerns for poverty, exploitation, misfortune, traumas, and also increasingly the effects of problematic lifestyle choices.

It is with the latter that we see the need for sustainability workers. Although we acknowledge that poverty continues to be an enormous psychosocial problem, with poverty rates in 2015 in 19 OECD countries affecting over 10% of the population, and in Australia at 13% , we now also suffer from affluenza, a "painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more" (de Graaf, Wann & Naylor, 2002; see also Hamilton and Denniss, 2005, Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough). This 'pursuit for more', in our view, is best viewed as the unsustainable medication of feelings of self-deficit through compensatory consumption of (and distraction by) goods and services; this being one of the main contributors to increasing ecological deterioration. Another driver is the vast number of people who, though living above the poverty line, do not have enough disposable income to afford sustainable high-quality products and services that have minimal environmental impact. Living often hand-to-mouth, and engaging in unhealthy lifestyles, these people add to the unsustainable consumption that continues to drive climate change, and contribute to health and social problems.

Considering the above, we believe that the task of sustainability workers is to enable people to develop an ecological consciousness, and to remove the barriers to acting on this. The people likely to be most receptive are those who are not acutely struggling with the effects of poverty, are not acutely physically or mentally ill, are not dealing with the effects of sexual and other abuse, and are not facing immediate environmental disasters. These are the people who, at least viewed conventionally, appear to lead 'normal' lives by pursuing their careers, holding down jobs, and by having enough available income to cover more than their basic living expenses. Yet, their environmental impacts are substantial; and sustainability workers could help them reduce this significantly.

Green and environmental social work


The question then arises to what extent sustainability work, in this sense, is already covered by what has become known as 'green social work? According to the website at

Green social work is a branch of social work that deals with the impact of the faltering environmental stability upon human populations. It is essentially a broadening of the definition of environment, sociologically speaking, from referring exclusively to someone's immediate surroundings to referring to the planet that we all share.

The task

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About the Authors

Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese is a Senior Lecturer at the Jansen Newman Institute in Sydney. After studying medicine and psychotherapy from 1977 to 1984, he has been in private practice as psychotherapist and supervisor for more than 30 years. He has completed a Master of Applied Science degree in Social Ecology in 1998 and a PhD on the psychological causes of ecological deterioration in 2006. Before joining the Nansen Newman Institute in 2011, he has worked as a casual lecturer at the University of Western Sydney from 2006 to 2010.

Professor Stuart B. Hill is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Werner Sattmann-Frese
All articles by Stuart Hill

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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