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Environmental management and organisations
Environmental management and organisations

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5 Systems and environmental management

Systems and environmental management are closely linked. It is almost impossible to imagine one without the other.

You may think this a very bold statement and you would be right to question it (as with anything you come across in this free course or elsewhere). But Activity 2 might offer you some assurances that the statement has some validity.

Activity 2 Systems and environmental management

Note down any instance where the word ‘system’ is linked to something that you think might be associated with or relevant in environmental management.


The following list is certainly not exhaustive!

  • solar system
  • ecosystem
  • earth system
  • climate system
  • river system
  • soil system
  • hydrological system
  • groundwater system
  • ocean circulation system
  • coastal system
  • agricultural system
  • political system
  • economic system
  • social system
  • decision-making system
  • management system
  • accounting system.

Activity 2 should raise your awareness of the links, in language at least, between systems and environment. But it is more than just language. Thinking in terms of systems shapes the way natural and environmental processes are understood: i.e. as a system – a collection of interdependent elements functioning with purpose.

It is not much of a further step to suggest that if an environment is understood as a system it begins to shape the interventions and processes that are put in place to ensure the system is managed. You may have heard of a range of approaches linked to environmental management. Examples might be:

Some of these approaches understand environment as a system. That said, it is important to be aware that there are often different interpretations of system and its meaning in many environmental management approaches. Many of these interpretations hinge on whether a system is considered to exist ‘out there’ in the real world or whether it is a ‘mental’ model constructed for the purposes of exploring a situation.

You will explore some of these in later sections, but to get you started thinking about systems in environmental management, try Activity 3.

Activity 3 Connecting environmental management and systems

Think of a very ‘simple’ environmental situation where you are involved in the management of something ‘natural’. It could be a potted plant, a lawn or perhaps a pet. What are the management practices you engage in to ensure that the thing being managed continues in its present direction?


A living potted plant is an environmental system comprising three main elements: container, soil and plant. For a potted plant, management is about providing it with the right conditions regarding water, temperature, soil type and light or location (and changing these as necessary). To do so requires some knowledge of the plant’s preferences. This knowledge may be gained in several ways: perhaps from reading the label, a book, speaking with others’ or searching on the internet. There is rarely the perfect location in a house or garden, and so some compromise is often reached where the plant eventually is sited. Management of this potted plant system also includes: monitoring the plant’s health, checking if it needs watering, removing dead flowers or leaves and re-potting with fresh soil as it grows. The management system here has to consider more than just the plant – it must take account of the plant, soil, light, water, temperature, etc., and the interactions between them. It must also include the person doing the managing.

The example of the potted plant should reveal to you some of the complexity required in managing something so ‘simple’. The potted plant, as a system, requires a corresponding management system to manage it – and even then this is no guarantee it will flourish as you might expect.

If you extend the scale and complexity of the situation to be managed, the demands upon those engaging in environmental management escalate considerably. Highly complex environmental situations are not easily understood or managed. This is in part because knowledge and understanding, science, political processes, and decision making all occur in context – socially, geographically, culturally, economically and temporally.

Science in particular has tended to be linked to management in a model of policy making where science provides data to inform decision making, often described as an evidence-based policy. But policy making can be selective of what science is used or even funded. The science–policy relationship is therefore not always straightforward and does not always shape policy or actions. The briefest dip into climate change debates and global agreements will reveal the difficulties of assuming science will directly shape actions and environmental management.

As you study this unit, the connection between environmental management and systems will become more and more apparent. What you will also encounter is an understanding of environmental management as an ongoing process of developing ideas and practices for managing human–environment relationships in context. The changing nature of the contexts means that environmental management ideas and practices are underpinned by value systems that are constantly changing, contested and negotiated through a variety of context-based social structures, including science, economics and policy. The result is that the environmental management of one area, region or country will be different to another. Equally, the environmental management of yesterday is different to the environmental management of today, which will be different to the environmental management of tomorrow.

If environmental management is about managing changing human–environment relationships, it follows that environmental management is also about learning how to manage those relationships (but this is not to say all learning leads to entirely positive outcomes). In this unit, you will begin to explore how learning is core to thinking about environmental management ideas and practices.