The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “green”

The World is Ruled by Fear

Dictatorship or democracy – who has the power?

Who and what keeps the people ‘under control’.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the West was fearful of Russia and communism.  After the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union broke up these fears lost their power.

In the 80’s and 90’s public fears changed from communism to global warming and the end of the world’s resources – coal, water, gas.  We may yet run out of these resources but they are taking longer to come about than was suggested at the time and these fears have lost their power.

Although the promotion of the fear of global warming has continued the new millennium has seen it give way in the fear stakes to the “War on Terror” – fear of attacks on the West and the US from Muslim forces in particular, opening the doors to the proliferation of CCTV and oppressive security measures such as the recently exposed news of the US government’s official internet snooping of the world’s population.

What next?

It doesn’t matter.  Keep the people in fear of something and you keep them distracted from what the rulers and politicians are up to.

Whatever our personal opinions, whatever our politics, we need to be aware of what influences us and be prepared to take an independent viewpoint if we are to protect the vulnerable and weak in society.


The Coca Cola Conundrum

It seems hardly possible that some businesses have budgets larger than some countries, such as Wal-Mart, whose revenues in 2009, exceeded the respective GDPs of 174 countries.  And what seems hardly possible can be easily overlooked, while the significance of the changes brought about by the growth of the super-business can be easily missed.

The returnable glass bottle is just one example of this.  Younger generations, particularly in the UK and US, may never have seen one.  Older generations may remember them with a little fondness but assume they could never make a comeback.

Yet throughout Central and South America they still exist, mainly in the many small shops and cafés that abound in these countries.  Only in some of the larger chains, and those promoting a ‘modern’ image, has the plastic bottle taken over completely.

Why this international difference and does it matter?

Even if you do not subscribe to the view that the planet is in immediate danger of collapse due to global warming, there is some logic in the view that the world’s resources are finite in the face of an ever growing population in many parts of the world.  Enough people believe this to ensure that scientific advances are being made in the development of alternative power sources, such as wind farms which have sprung up on land and at sea all around the world, instead of continuing dependence on fossil fuels.

The use and recycling of plastics remain the subject of much debate, not least due to the difficulties involved while websites such as ‘My Plastic Free Life’ have growing followings.

Cynics might (reasonably) see governments’ promotion of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” message as pandering to the whims of the electorate, yet it indicates that the conservation movement has sufficient following for those dependent on elections to sit up and take notice.

But this doesn’t answer the question as to why the international difference?  The answer to that question is much more important and just one small indicator of the root of many of the ills of modern society.

The role of big business.

Some of the largest businesses in the world are linked to the manufacture and distribution of food and drinks.  Kraft, Tesco, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Costco, are among the best known, although often under several names so the extent of their operations are not always immediately realised.  In most cases they are seen as positive, at worse a necessary evil.

In the so called advanced economies people have grown used to supermarkets dominating our High Streets and our shopping malls.  On the positive side, larger businesses are usually able to command bulk purchase discounts and introduce economies of scale that result in cheaper shopping for the average person.  For many years shoppers have been able to go to just one store or shopping mall and find everything they need, and more, in that one place.  It has meant convenience, easy parking, less hassle.  It has suited those with busier lifestyles, often travelling to work further from home or working longer or more irregular hours, trying to fit in children’s social commitments alongside greater expectations to visit aging parents who increasingly live alone.

Sometimes older generations might pause to think about all the small traders who used to provide haberdashery services, tailoring, butchery, greengrocery services, as well as a host of other trades.  Now they are hard pushed to find an independent butcher in the High Street, or a greengrocer who knows their produce.  Occasionally they might find small independent stores providing up-market jewellery, or art, or occasionally fashions, but these are few and far between.  Apart from products such as gourmet teas or handmade sweets these rarely include everyday goods and foodstuffs.

Yet this is not the case everywhere.  In Eastern Russia, the capitals of Kazakhstan and Mongolia and much of Central and South America we found most supermarkets were often no larger than the supermarkets of England in the 1960’s, maybe 10,000 square feet.  There are a few exceptions of course but most are tiny by comparison to modern superstores.   Elsewhere small ‘corner stores’ abound, selling everything the big supermarkets sell but in smaller quantities.  Here large packets can be opened and you can buy your cigarettes, sanitary towels and even painkillers and chewing gum, one at a time.  In garages all sized bottles of car oil can be opened so you can buy the amount you need, not the amount that is deemed the right size by the manufacturer.

Coca Cola delivery lorries are a common sight in Central America

Coca Cola delivery lorries are a common sight in Central America

In Mexico, Central and South America another notable difference is evident, as Coca-Cola delivery vehicles collect empty glass bottles at the same time as delivering the refilled bottles for resale.  It hardly seems likely that Central and South Americans have banded together to demand this ecologically friends service from Coca-Cola, when other nations have not been able to achieve this.

More likely it is the infrastructure of a vast network of small shops and café’s selling small quantities of products spread out over a relatively small geographical area where road conditions favour the use of smaller delivery vehicles, makes this still a commercially viable option for Coca-Cola.

By comparison, the vast wastelands of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia have also seen the demise of the recyclable glass bottle.  A cynical view might be that the huge distances between shops, café’s and even towns, would significantly increase fuel consumption if the delivery vehicles collected the empty glass bottles for returning to a depot and refilling, making plastic much more economically viable.

In small shops, finding somewhere to store empty returnable bottles is not difficult, they take up the space vacated by the sold products until the next collection and delivery is made.  In the vast superstores and supermarkets that predominate in the UK and the US, every inch of space is carefully calculated to be turned over to profit.  Here, the storage of returnable glass bottles would take up precious space.  In the UK and US, where huge trucks or lorries are on a tight delivery schedule, collecting the empties would add to the time and therefore the costs.  The additional weight of the glass bottles being carried over long distances between vast warehouses and delivery points would add to fuel costs.  All these additional costs would then undoubtedly have to be passed on to the consumer, something many would not want to accept.

None of this fits well with the cut-throat supermarket industry, where profit margins have been historically tiny, reducing the incentives of other large corporations, such as Coca-Cola in the case of the returnable glass bottle, to offer the customer a genuine choice.

Conclusion: None of this is of itself bad.  It is, however, unfortunate, when we, the public, take on board the messages of big business and assume they have our best interests (and that of the planet) at heart.

The assertion of this article is that this may not always be the case and it is our duty as consumers to question, discuss, analyse and respond to big business to hold even them accountable.

Green Social Work

Green Social Work: From Environmental Crises to Environmentl Justice, is the title of a 2012 book by renowed social work academic Lena Dominelli.  Polity. ISBN 97-0-7456-5401-0. Paperback: £15.99 (

How could social work be ‘green’ I wondered as I approached this book.

Starting with the historical foundations of social work up to identifying it as the weakest (and progressively weakening) player on the professional stage, Green Social Work is a rallying cry for the re-politicisation of social work.

Dominelli uses examples from the impact on the poor and disadvantaged caused by international ecological disasters, and the role played by big business and the ruling elite in both the cause and response to those disasters, and the disenfranchising of the world’s poor, thus linking social work practice and values to ecological values and a possible solution to the profession’s “crisis of confidence”.

In doing so she demands the practitioner think beyond the micro level of day to day practice with individuals in their immediate circumstances to the role and responsibility of social work to make a difference at the macro level and reclaim the strengths of the profession.

Practical case studies, particularly from community social work, along with suggestions as to how social workers could be involved in environmentally related politics, illustrate how, with a little application, these concepts can be incorporated into everyday practice.

What is not clear is what impact societal and government expectations, employment criteria and current funding of community social work in particular will have on the ability of the profession to apply the green social work values.

As an academic work the book is not always light reading, but is of especial relevance at a strategic level and to those with an interest in the ‘bigger picture’.

The profession is in crisis and this is one voice among a growing number that wants to see social work rekindle its early political roots.  I look forward to following up more of this theme in future.

Light pollution kills

I happened to see a film the other night, all about light pollution.

Light Pollution over Las Vegas – seen from 100 miles away, with our car in the foreground

We were staying at a campsite in San Pedro de Atacama and the film was being shown in the open air in the town square as part of a local campaign to reduce light pollution.  Hardly surprising as the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of those parts of the world where it is still possible to see the stars at night.As the film began by demonstrating how in much of the world it is no longer possible to see the stars or even the plants of our solar system in the night sky, I was reminded us having left Las Vegas a year previously, driving maybe 100 miles, and looking back to see the lights of Vegas glowing in an orange dome in the distance.  That scene was such a contrast to the nights we have been enthralled to see the stars in the night sky in places far from the city lights.

As I watched the film I reflected on my childhood in England in the 1960’s, when the street lights in our home town would go out at 11.00 pm. Then in the 1980’s that became 2.00 am. Now they stay on all night, often in the guise of ‘security’. As children and young adults we could see the stars in the night sky. Today’s city and town dwelling children hardly know that the stars are there.  They have no experience of the wonder of seeing the night sky.

But it’s not just aesthetics, the price of progress: the film went on to describe some more of the effects of a growing obsession with light.

It is believed that migrating birds use the stars to navigate and light pollution in the worst affected areas is affecting their ability to migrate. In some cities, particularly in the US, it is known that birds often crash into the tall buildings, falling injured to the ground, with broken wings and broken beaks. There is a whole army of bird rescuers who go out and pick up and look after as many fallen birds as they can find.

Young turtles have evolved to hatch at night and head towards the brightest horizon as soon as they hatch. As the sea reflects the moon and starlight this means they can head straight to the safety of the sea. However in some places, where electric light pollution is creeping in, the young turtles are often found heading in the wrong direction, towards the wrong light.

On a human level, recent research has indicated a link in the progression of some cancers in humans, particularly breast and prostrate cancers. Melatonin in the body apparently suppresses the growth of cancerous tumours but melatonin levels only rise during periods of darkness. Sleeping in a lit room, whether lit internally or by bright street lights, reduces the body’s production of melatonin. Shift workers, who work by electric light at night and sleep during sunlight hours much of the time are particularly at risk.

In many places street lighting is chosen for its appearance rather than its practicality. Light globes appear attractive to the modern eye but 60% of the light goes upward into the sky rather than down to where it’s of more use. The cost of that is twofold: increased light pollution and waste of resources by using more energy than is necessary.

As the industrial revolution developed through the 1800s and 1900s, a sign of the wealth of a town was seen in the number of chimney stacks belching smoke into the atmosphere. Today we no longer aspire to have those chimney stacks, seeing them instead as polluters of the world’s environment. Today how brightly we light our cities is seen as a sign of progress and wealth.

In how many years, the film asked, will light pollution be seen as another type of polluter, one that is affecting the health of humans, plants and wildlife alike?

We ask, should we be worried by this; should we try and have some influence on this problem, not just for the aesthetics but for the health of the planet and the people and wildlife that live on it?

Check out this website for links to further information about light pollution.

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