Organise Against Social and Environmental Suffering

A guest post from Michele Jarldorn – Flinders University, Adelaide.

Just a few days before Christmas when the temperature in Adelaide reached over 40 degrees for the fourth consecutive day, I watched with sadness as the Cuddlee Creek bushfires burned an area enmeshed in my childhood memories. It’s not just bushfires – unprecedented heatwaves are killing our wildlife.  I have lived my entire life in Adelaide and grew up knowing that this was the driest state in the driest continent. But, in my 56 years I have never seen Australia so dry; some towns have literally run out of water. This is not just one day or even one week of catastrophic fire danger though; Australia has been burning since September, yet Prime Minister Scott Morrison felt it was okay to go on holiday to Hawaii. This lack of leadership, according to Richard Flanagan “symbolised contempt for all Australians” (2019). For the First Nations Peoples of Australia, the utter disregard and resulting degradation of country is another in a long line of injustices of theft, lies, racism and dispossession (Pascoe, 2018).

A thick smoke haze hangs eerily over large sections of Australia—and is drifting towards Aotearoa. In an act of insensitivity of the highest order, while this beautiful country continues to burn, and people are dead or unaccounted for—last night the Prime Minister hosted the Australian cricket team for a ‘friendly get together’ on the lawns of Kirribilli House. As survivors return to fire ravaged towns and are sifting through the ashes that were once their homes, today the Prime Minister implored Australians to ‘be optimistic’, and to respond with ‘patience and calm’ in the face of the crisis. Similarly, former Treasurer Joe Hockey tweeted that the bushfire crisis has made him ‘so damn proud of the resilience and strength of Australian people’. I can tell you that the people around me are not feeling proud or resilient but are collectively overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness and despair.

A humanitarian disaster is happening right now, people are without food and drinking water. Animals are dying, millions of hectares have burned already and there are more than two months of the fire season yet to come. Thoughts and prayers just don’t cut it.

Politicians have worked hard to convince Australia that people arriving by boat and terrorism are serious threats to our wellbeing, while the climate emergency has been downplayed and minimised. As parents we were told that our children should stay in school rather than demand climate action. The Liberal party’s incessant drive for a budget surplus has come at the expense of under and de-funding community organisations such as the Country Fire Service, leaving them and others to spend an inordinate amount of time with hat in hand seeking crowdfunding to purchase basic safety equipment for its volunteers; volunteers who face personal danger every time they fight a fire.

This lack of decent funding is not an anomaly; on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Australian government announced that funding for the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum—a voice for First Nations women who are survivors of family violence—would be discontinued. The state’s refusal to adequately fund communities to resolve their own social problems is a form of state perpetuated, structural violence, enacted through neoliberal policies and fertilised via the lie of ‘trickle down’ prosperity.

However, recently John Falzon (2019) suggested that all is not lost, arguing that:

“Neoliberalism has successfully dismantled much, but not all, of the social democratic project in Australia. It is up to the  movement for progressive social change to dismantle neoliberalism, incrementally displacing it”.

Drawing upon the work of Angela Davis, Falzon suggests that although our futures appear bleak at this current moment, rather than “indulge in the luxury of despair” we should join community organisations and social movements that matter. Falzon argues that this is the basis of a strong civil society requiring a combination of hope and hard work.

This is why I am a prison abolitionist. When I began my PhD in 2013, the number of adults in prison in Australia had just tipped 30,000, just seven years later, that has blown out to over 43,000 people. It costs around 100,000AUD to lock someone in prison in Australia for a year. This is a conservative figure as it is near impossible to calculate the social costs of having a family member in prison or the struggles that former prisoners experience in trying to create a non-prisoner identity post-release. Lock and key modes of punishment extend well beyond individuals to affect prisoners’ families and communities in fundamentally collective ways. We must ask ourselves—and our leaders—what do we want funded by the public purse? I would suggest that very few folks who use social services would choose spending so much money on prisons, or locking up asylum seekers or building a monument to acknowledge the invasion of Australia—no matter how lovely it looks.

The disproportionate over-representation in Australian prisons of First Nations Peoples, folks who are poor, homeless or who are mentally and physically unwell mirrors the dearth of adequately funded community led responses to social problems. Angela Davis (2003) was right when she argued that prisons and their associated industries siphon social wealth away from the very communities that need support the most. Prisons are seen as so ‘natural’ that it is difficult to imagine what a world without prisons would look like. Yet as I have argued elsewhere (Jarldorn, 2019), the goal of abolishing prisons aligns with the goal and values of liberative and transformative social work.

Often abolitionists – and social workers – are cautioned for their utopian idealism, but as Vincenzo Ruggiero (2015, para 15) maintains:

“There is nothing utopian in attempts to redress ‘remediable injustices’: abolitionists do not pursue perfect justice, rather, they aim at enhancing justice. Their focus on social interactions rather than institutions, on precise settings in which people live rather than official norms and extraneous professionals, locates them in a specific political and philosophical tradition”

While mainstream social work has largely neglected the theories of social movements, the radical arm of social work has been informed by the belief that social action provides impetus for social change (Harms-Smith, 2015). Hyslop agrees, arguing that, ‘the future of social work requires an alliance with wider social movements’ (2011, p. 405).

And while Scott Morrison urges us to pray for rain—and rain will be welcomed at this current moment—praying is not a viable alternative to participating in a social movement and demanding action on climate change. Rather than ‘helping’ people ‘cope’ with the oppressive features of society, social workers must take the position that radical transformation is required because the current way of doing things is not working. Whether you choose to join Extinction Rebellion, the prison abolition movement or any other rights-based social movement, do so with heart, tread lightly on the planet and organise for a different future.

                                                                                                                                                                                           Image Credit: red.wolf


Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Falzon, J. (2019). We cannot indulge in the luxury of despair. We need to engage in the hard work of hope. The Guardian

Flanagan, R. (2019). Aloha, little Scotty from marketing, it is resurrection you’re looking for? The New Daily retrieved from

Harms Smith, L. (2015). What should social work learn from ‘the fire of social movements that burns at the heart of society’? Critical and Radical Social Work Journal, 3(1), 19-34.

Hyslop, I. (2011). Social work as a practice of freedom. Journal of Social Work, 12(4), 404-422.

Jarldorn, M. (2019). Radically rethinking social work in the criminal (in)justice system in Australia. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, Online first DOI: 10.1177/0886109919866160

Pascoe, B. (2018). Dark emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture. Melbourne: Scribe.

Ruggiero, V. (2015). The Legacy of Abolitionism. Champ Pénal, 12,


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