Contemporary pou for an existential threat

A guest post by Kerstin Hagena, Alina Hagena and Luis Arevalo

“The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences”

(Winston Churchill, 1936)

Kia ora koutou! 

Here we are again, the trio of social service professionals and animal rights activists encouraging conversation within the social service sector about the imminent danger climate change poses to tamariki and whānau. We believe the ANZASW Code of Ethics gives us the responsibility to pay more attention to this threat and have written about this before (202420232022).

In our view the pou enshrined in Te Tiriti and the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) Code of Ethics place an ethical obligation on social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand to see climate change as an existential threat to their clients and importantly to act accordingly. The pou implore social workers to advocate for a transition away from industries that exacerbate environmental pollution and biodiversity loss – a heavy task as some of these industries are iconic Aotearoa industries. And while the marketing gurus in these industries push the boundaries in trying to show how they promote rangatiratanga and hauora; they are in fact false economies and do nothing but create an imbalance across our taiao. Te Tiriti and the pou contained in the ANZASW Code of Ethics, seen through a contemporary lens, can guide us to be responsible ancestors for future generations. 

We are Pākehā of both European and Latin American decent. Both lineages have a rich cultural fabric spanning several countries and continents, and it is important to position ourselves in the context of Te Tiriti. We are vegan and see our position within the natural world as being on equal terms with it. We have become attuned to see the interconnectedness of everything in our world and we advocate strongly against any negative action that unbalances the very fine margins holding everything together. We strongly agree with the notion of environmental whakapapa and work hard towards living in a world where we leave it in a better state than when we found it. 

We find the consumption and production habits of humanity antithetical to the pou enshrined in Te Tiriti and ANZASW. As equals with nature, we advocate for a tukino free world for our awawhenua, biodiversity and all sentient beings. In doing so we feel we are true to the pou discussed here.

Why keep banging on about it?

You might be wondering why we keep ‘banging on’ about it? Quite simple really, we believe our collective inaction is creating victims; the victims in this scenario are our taonga, awa, whenua, maunga, biodiversity, tangata whenua, hauora, other sentient beings and future generations. And it isn’t too late to get organised and try to do something about it. 

With this in mind, we examine three pou and discuss how we believe they are perfectly positioned to argue for strategies to combat the climate change threat. And just to be clear, unlike this current Government that seems to be questioning the value of Te Tiriti, we are not asking to rewrite Te Tiriti and ANZASW pou. We are saying that if we were to look at pou through a contemporary lens it then becomes clear that our mission has expanded to include this existential threat. In short, taking an originalist stance in a world of imminent consequences fails to comprehend the finite nature of the contemporary outcomes we are all facing.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi is recognised as the foundation of governance for ANZASW and its obligation to it is not an option (ANZASW, 2019). ANZASW pou “emanate from our National Foundation Document: Te Tiriti o Waitangi” (ANZASW, 2019, p. 10) and it is at this intersection we believe the relevance to social work exists. Our argument is that it is the pou that show social workers, with distinct clarity and in an unambiguous manner, the way we must act towards our taonga, our biodiversity, the environment, and other sentient beings. 

The pou, viewed through a contemporary lens, are more applicable now than any time in history, however we are overlooking their very clear messages. We seem to be disregarding the obvious for our own self-centered reasons. We are, in effect, interpreting the pou to suit our contemporary actions, our contemporary habits and disregarding real science, all the while wandering headlong into climatic calamity with a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance.

Three Pou for contemporary threats

‘Ka mau tonu nga taonga tapu o nga matua tupuna Koinei nga taonga i tuku iho, na te ātua’

‘Hold fast to the treasures of the ancestors. For they are the treasures that have been handed down to us by God’ 

(Harmsworth & Awatere, 2013, p. 274)


Whanaungatanga declares the interconnectedness of all on earth and that if there is a change in one, there is a downstream effect on others on a physical, spiritual, and cultural level. ANZASW declares as one of its Whanaungatanga principles that social workers should “reflect on and critically evaluate” (ANZASW, 2019, p. 11) their practice and be aware of any impact of their practice to others (ANZASW, 2019). We believe that social workers, as social change agents, should move away from ‘only’ a human centred approach and clearly understand that every action, or inaction more to the point, has far reaching ramifications for all life on earth. Their practice, like the pou, should now be bracketed with an eye to an existential threat that goes beyond a one-on-one praxis and embraces all life on earth.


Wairuatanga, not only “refers to the spiritual dimension” (Ritchie, 2010, p. 14) but also the “duty of spiritual respect for all living things” (Havemann, 2016, p. 184) with “clear links between healthy ecosystems (with greater life-supporting capacity) and people’s cultural and spiritual well-being” (Harmsworth & Awatere, 2013, p. 274). The omnipresent threat of climate change endangers “the spiritual components and, critically, the well-being of future generations” (Awatere et al., 2021, p. 2). 

We believe that Wairuatanga, while referring to the spiritual, a respect for all and a linkage between a healthy environment and a healthy culture, interconnects with ANZASW ethical principle of acknowledging “the importance of whakapapa and these wellbeing dimensions in the people with whom” (ANZASW, 2019, p. 14) they work with. Wellbeing is not just physical, but embraces Taha tinana (physical health), Taha whānau (family health), Taha wairua (spiritual health) and Taha hinengaro (mental health) (Ministry of Health, n.d.). A degradation of any of these puts undue pressure on the other aspects causing an imbalance. Climate change, and the practices that cause them, which we have briefly mentioned, arguably effects all of these. The social work profession, if it was being honest with itself, should be fighting this injustice and human rights issue without delay.


And finally, Rangatiratanga requires a “duty of respect of others’ sovereign autonomy” (Havemann, 2016, p. 184).Rangatiratanga not only incorporates ‘personal’ sovereignty but also asks for us to respect the sovereignty of others. The sovereignty to live a fulfilled life in the manner that one decides without having undue complications thrust upon them. 

ANZASW Rangatiratanga principles speak to the promotion of policies and legislation that are socially just (ANZASW, 2019) which means going against policies and legislation that impede sovereignty especially when one’s future is impacted. You cannot live a life to your full potential when the physical, spiritual, and cultural fabric of society is being ripped away by processes out of your ‘perceived’ control.  

Another ANZASW Rangatiratanga principle imposes “any limitation on a person’s right to self-determination only where there is a demonstrable need to protect individuals from self-harm, from harming others, or from being harmed by others” (ANZASW, 2019, p. 10). Pou and principles now require a caveat of sorts; we wholeheartedly agree with Rangatiratanga however when there are actions where there are victims involved and the physical, mental and spiritual hauora of our treasures, of our people, of other sentient beings is demonstrably affected, then social workers have an ethical right to speak up.  


The web of whakapapa is becoming unbound, and the profession is largely just standing by watching it happen. The pou enshrined in Te Tiriti and ANZASW Code of Ethics have an added priority in contemporary times due to climate change. Viewed through a contemporary, as opposed to originalists lens, we have argued the pou have inherent responsibilities to present and future lifeforms of all species, the environment and that there are ethical obligations to pursue the pou and principles to that end. 

Some may think that this battle is too big for the social work profession to tackle. We totally disagree; choosing what battles to fight and which to leave based on size and complexity is the wrong way to look at it. 

Climate change is a threat so large, so all-encompassing that it is, and will, be affecting everything and everyone on earth. On that basis alone social work should be heavily invested at all levels of advocacy, the profession has an ethical obligation to do so.

Resources for those interested:

There is no ‘one size fits all’ regarding how a social worker or the profession can become more active in advocating for a sustainable world. For us it all started with a re-engineering of what we thought was more important and then educating ourselves in how best to achieve those new outcomes – quite simply put; reading, watching, listening and korero.

And to be totally transparent to this exercise, this journey also required us to look hard at what we consumed and how our consumption habits, collectively, add fuel to the climate emergency fire. We needed to change, and we did and we unashamedly point people to a tukino free way of living whenever we can.

While we like to put our points across with blogs such as this, we also discuss our points with educators, employers, staff, peers and colleagues in a way that is respectful and non-confrontational. While we may not agree, and most times we feel our voices get lost in the breeze, we feel that if we are going to be seen as ‘good tūpuna’ then we must continue down this pathway and work towards a world where pou and reality are one.

We’ve listed some resources here however, there are so many resources online for any social worker to absorb, that if we were to list them all here, it would run into a ream of paper, so we have decided to just list a very small portion of some local to international resources (what we found interesting) as something to start on.

Take care, Kerstin, Alina and Luis


Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (2019). Code of Ethics.

Awatere, S., Ngaru, D., Reid, J., Williams, L, Masters-Awatere, B., Harris, P., Tassell-Matamua, N., Jones, R., Eastwood, K., Pirker, J., Jackson, A.M. (2021). Te Arotahi – He huringa āhuarangi, he huringa ao: A changing climate, a changing world. Manaaki Whenu: Landcare Research.

Harmsworth, G. R., Awatere, S. (2013). Indigenous Māori knowledge and perspectives of ecosystems. In J. R. Dymond Ecosystem services in New Zealand (pp. 274-286). Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research.

Havemann, P. (2016). Mother Earth, Indigenous peoples and neo-liberal climate change governance. In D. Short & C. Lennox Handbook of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (pp. 181-200). Taylor & Francis Group

Image credit: Anup Shah

2 replies on “Contemporary pou for an existential threat”

Very good post – well argued. And, well linked to both Te Ao Māori and a range of social work aspirations.
Annoyingly and bluntly, I want to put another perspective that has emerged out of my 10 or so years of speculating about the future and who we might be in that very different future.
Firstly. Predictably, in the next hundred years two thirds of the current human population will die in consequence of what we are now doing to the planet. At this point the changes are too late to stop. With massive effort, some mitigation might be possible, but our global political systems make this unlikely.
Approximately one third of the planet will become functionally unliveable for humanity. This will be accompanied by mass paroxysms of warfare and massive migrations of population. In many places it will come down to what is sometimes been described as the final stage of warfare – ‘insensate spasm’. Or –‘war to the knife’.
Predictably, in places such as Aotearoa there will be a combination of high-tech rich enclaves, surrounded by communities struggling to survive. Governments are likely to become significantly more ruthless in oppressing opposition of any nature.
Social work will face some hard choices: Will we be a zombie social workers staggering around enforcing the norms of vicious states, whose main interests are protecting the diminishing resources available to the rich?
Or, will we have the courage as an industry (and as people) to stand alongside the communities that live in the detritus of what we are now producing and supporting and nurturing the caring interdependent nature that is likely to emerge in consequence of shared struggle?
We also need to ask ourselves what is our position in regard to the Whenua. Will we support efforts to recreate it as another resource to be plundered? Or will we have the courage to listen to the quiet voices of Tupuna and the land itself that it is something to be treasured in ways that transcend how it can be turned to human purposes?
Tough times are coming. It is stupid to bullshit ourselves about this. The master’s tools will never dismantle the disastrous machine the master has created. Social work has some choices about how and where we place our shouts of outrage. Do we continue to support an evil status quo that is killing the planet? Or do we stand outside that status quo and clearly state that it is evil crap?
I am aware that, an entire industry producing social workers is on the line – as is the salaries we gain as registered social workers. I suspect these points will matter less and less as the decades progress.
Kia kaha to all of you that are angry. We need that anger. My hope is not for us now. But instead for the hard won wisdoms and ways of being in the world that our descendants will have.

Thank you David, we’re glad you enjoyed the article and please continue being annoying and blunt 🙂 we need more of you – you’ve nailed it in terms of what we need to start thinking about and how we should start approaching these issues.

The numbers you’ve quoted are stark and very true, and unfortunately unless one goes looking for it they are buried in behind the headlines of the day – but they are there. We also think that the magnitude of the suffering coming down the pipeline is so huge that a lot of us throw our hands up in the air and walk away from the mahi that needs to happen.

But we must meet this challenge head on because the future of this earth depends on it.

At some point we’d love to explore more your point suggesting that the social worker production line being in jeopardy. We don’t think it needs to be in jeopardy if the profession pivots towards seeing the environment (and future generations of tamariki, whanau and other sentient being) as its ‘client’.

If the profession is true to the code of ethics and we can get the education / academia group truly onboard then change will come. We say education / academia because, over time, with a work force educated with the environment as one of it’s core responsibilities, change will come.

We are well past current practice methods where we work one on one with our clients and think the future is rosy.

Take care and stay safe

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