How should social workers respond to today’s existential triple threat?

Unless we belong to the counter-productive school of reality denial, disease, climate chaos, and war, along with all its horrific effects (we will leave aside, for the moment, political and economic crises, spawning a mounting volume of social unrest) compel an ever-increasing share of our attention. “Stability” is nowhere in sight, “disruption” and “breakdown” appear to be the defining features of current reality and surely of the near- and medium-term future.

So what should social workers (including social work educators) be thinking about, and, ideally, planning around? Here’s a starter set of items offered for reflection and critique.

To begin with the “good news”: The profession of social work embraces (and in its ethically best mode, promotes and advances) the correct vision of the world “as it should be” – a world characterized by equal respect for all and a fundamental equality of persons and culture, by a culture of care dedicated to meeting basic human needs, by an anthropology of social interdependence, by solidarity and peace. This vision, alarmingly rejected by far too many, including so-called national and world “leaders,” needs to be affirmed, frequently and forcefully.

Moreover, the social work skill set (in ideal form, at least) is studded with competencies relevant to addressing “crisis” and “resilience” in one or another form, across the “micro” to “macro” continuum of systems. These competencies – along with the knowledge bases underlying them – from “emotional first aid” to community organizing to policy advocacy and social movement building, likewise should be affirmed and, wherever possible, sharpened and expanded.

On the downside, the profession and its practitioners need to jettison beliefs, mental paradigms, and behaviors mismatched to the new realities, and the sooner the better. Most importantly, educators and practitioners must recognize that our political structures and processes are not rational; all attestations to the contrary, they do not aim in fact to “solve problems,” even when those problems constitute an existential threat to civilization itself. On the contrary, they are subject to forces of a truly irrational economic system and its momentum, and the obsequious service of so-called political leaders to that system and the “perks” that it provides them.

This is the core reason that no quantity of high-quality research or demonstration of evidence can correct our crisis-ridden course. It is the reason that power and ideology (indeed, even mad beliefs and “big lies”) trump seemingly self-evident fact. It is the reason that humanity’s “progress” is not a given, and systems failure is in fact ever more likely. It is the reason that “policy incrementalism” is certain to prove a failing advocacy strategy. It is the reason why “voting,” if not backed by broad-based, values-driven, and ideologically coherent social movements, will never be enough to install effective leadership.

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