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Social Justice and the Environment: Why Sustainability Goes Beyond Politics

The idea of social work as ‘green’ is a relatively new concept. More and more, though, issues of social justice overlap with access to clean air and water. In fact, the Council on Social Work Education recently declared sustainability the social justice issue of the year. The majority of legal cases involving land and water rights also involve people of color in historically poor or disenfranchised areas—whether they be located within city limits or in more rural areas. Take the current situation with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests on the part of the Sioux people and numerous other tribes and supporters of their cause.

As is often the case, the company building the pipeline values investment and profits over people’s livelihoods. Regardless of the consequences, Dakota Access is more interested in carrying out their plans to complete the crude oil pipeline intended to transport dirty oil—a fossil fuel that is growing increasingly impractical, unnecessary, and unsustainable. There is an inherent conflict between fossil fuels and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, since clean water and air are necessary in order to grow food and live sustainably—that is, without resorting to mass consumption of cheap grain and factory farms.

In fact, fossil fuel companies’ blind pursuit of unnecessary natural resources without regard to the livelihood of rural peoples, historically disadvantaged groups, or urban food deserts is a blatant disregard of our already-strained ecology, which is experiencing unprecedented drought, rising temperatures, and a surge in natural disasters like floods, forest fires, and hurricanes. These catastrophes will continue to occur at unusual rates as long as the CO2 levels continue to rise in the same manner.

This is why the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) declared, in 2010, that the environment is a social justice issue: because without the ability to live in a pollution-free home and community, children’s brains are affected by chemicals like lead or mercury and families are unable to grow their own food due to radiation poisoning or a water supply polluted by crude oil or sewage. Without legal checks on corporate powers, the wealthy will continue to enjoy unfettered access to clean water and air, while socio-economically and historically disadvantaged groups will continue to suffer disproportionately as a result of corporate greed and selfishness.

Case Western Reserve University cites author Annie Muldoon’s observation that “the groups who are most immediately and profoundly affected by environmental destruction are those who face multiple systems of oppression. These include women, the poor, people of colour and people who reside in nations of the global South.” Related to these social justice concerns, the American Academy recently named “12 Grand Challenges for Social Work,” which named healthy youth development, reduction of economic inequality, and the harnessing of technology for social good among the top priorities for social workers around the country.

If we simply take that last one—the harnessing of technology for social good—the current construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline flies in the face of everything so many have been working so hard to remedy. The case for North Dakota has moved from the United States to Europe—specifically, the EU. According to Slate, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault recently traveled to Geneva to present his tribe’s case to the United Nations, saying, “This pipeline violates our treaty rights and our human rights, and it violates the U.N.’s own Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” This move was in part symbolic, but the situation has garnered a level of solidarity and attention that is unprecedented in recent years.

This is so in part because resistance to the pipeline’s construction is symbolic of everything that environmental proponents and social workers have been working so hard to protect: access to clean water and air, sustainable sources of energy, and justice for historically underrepresented groups. If we consider the newest influences, technologies, and priorities of supply chain management, the Dakota Access Pipeline represents the polar opposite of what is considered progressive. Fossil fuels like dirty oil are anything but sustainable, especially when the methods of transport and distribution of said oil threatens to disrupt the entire North Dakota Sioux tribal people’s way of life by endangering their water supply and historically sacred sites, as well.

In addition to sustainability, data security and augmented reality are integral to the new age of supply chain management. This is not only because of social justice and environmental concerns, but also due to high levels of interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) on the part of proponents of sustainable transportation and distribution methods; for example, choosing to support companies that patronize local vendors, reducing wasteful cross-country shipping of production supplies via freight or airline. Working with local suppliers also minimizes potentially costly and unnecessary security breaches. It also ensures a greater degree of transparency, minimizing unknown variables like human rights abuses or unregulated international trade practices.

This greater degree of transparency also extends to new developments in augmented reality technology, as well as increasing live social media coverage of current events by citizen journalists. This greater level of awareness also extends to our purchasing decisions as consumers: the more transparent companies are about their supply chain management practices, including the ways in which they practice sustainable production methods, the greater the chance that younger consumers will want to support them and purchase their products. If, on the other hand, companies exhibit an absence of willingness to minimize their carbon footprint or blatantly support practices that harm the environment, consumers can choose to boycott those companies unless they change their policies to be more in line with sustainable practices.

More than a progressive pipe dream, environmental stewardship and sustainable supply chain management is increasingly tied to social justice, since clean water, air, and land are fundamental to our ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. We can choose to support businesses and corporations that serve as exemplars, and in so doing we can know that we are encouraging companies to become good stewards of the land, water, and air—for ourselves and our families, now, as well as for future generations.