Introducing environmental decision making
Introducing environmental decision making

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Introducing environmental decision making

2 What do we mean by environmental decision making?

2.1 Concepts of environment

Activity 3 Your understanding of environment

The term ‘environment’ is used in many different ways and in many different contexts. Take a few minutes to write down two or three sentences that describe your own understanding of it.

The way in which our environment is perceived is central to the way in which we approach environmental decision making, so the concept of environment will be explored iteratively in this course. At this stage, I simply want to introduce the concept, to encourage you to be critical of how the term is used and to explain the way the term will be used.

The words ‘environment’ and ‘environmental’ appear a lot in everyday language. For instance I picked out reference to the environment, learning environments, the business environment, my home environment and environmental schemes in a couple of magazines I was reading recently. But in going on to read the articles in which those words appeared it became clear that those terms had little in common beyond a generic meaning of ‘contexts’ or ‘surroundings’ .

Activity 4 Substituting words

Read the following paragraphs. Write down some other words that you think could be substituted for the words ‘environment’ or ‘environmental’. Comment on how easy or difficult you found it to do this exercise and why.

  • (a) Concerns that the environment is being down-graded in EU policy-making have been fuelled by reports that major initiatives from the European Commission are to be delayed, and potentially watered down.

    ENDS Report 366 (July 2005)

  • (b) The Court of Appeal has recently been required to consider the compatibility of the Environmental Assessment Directive with the UK system for dealing with outline planning applications.

    Macrory (2005)

  • (c) Lack of Public Sector Transparency Distorts the Business Environment.

    The Development Gateway Business Environment web page (2005)

  • (d) Hydro-electric power is pollution free and safe once it’ s up and running, although in creating it there can be tremendous disruption and upset to the environment, animals and nearby residents.

    BBC Weather Renewable Energy Water web page (2005)

  • (e) It brings together games players, makers, thinkers and artists in a unique environment where games fans and novices alike can experience a mix of old and new, fun and discussion in the context of cinema and media.

    BBC website advertising the event Screenplay 2004


  • (a) protection of natural resources and management of wastes;
  • (b) effects of new developments such as dams, motorways, airports or factories on their surroundings;
  • (c) set-up or context
  • (d) physical and biological elements;
  • (e) context or ‘space’.

In each case the word environment or environmental seemed to be used in a broad sense so I didn’t find it easy to find substitutable words. However, there were different emphases and adjectives in each paragraph so I deduced that the words had different meanings, dependent on the context within which they were used. Considering these different paragraphs suggests to me that people use the term in different ways.

David Cooper (1992) contrasted a distended notion of environment, where each person’s environmental concern is supposed to extend everywhere ‘from street corner to stratosphere’, with the idea of a ‘milieu’ in which a person belongs and which they make their own. Their environmental concerns will begin ‘at home’ with their environments and the networks of meanings with which they are daily engaged.

Activity 5 Which issues are yours?

Which environmental issues are yours? Look at the list below. It is extracted from the BBC News website (in 2005). I searched for ‘environmental’ and a long series of headlines appeared including those below. You could generate a similar list yourself. Notice the wide range of issues that are considered to have an environmental aspect.

Which of the issues mentioned in the news headlines below seem distant or close to you? Which issues interest or concern you? (If none of these do, then try generating your own list to widen your selection.) Select three examples and note why they are of interest or concern to you.

  • New-look [greenest] road on award shortlist
  • Fury as greenfield homes approved
  • Call for changes to housing plan
  • Sewage study creates red (River) Clyde
  • Campaigners fight nuclear reactor
  • Environment award for youngsters
  • Gold mine sparks battle in Peru
  • Timber scheme wins national award
  • Formal warning for cement works
  • Anti-social behaviour inherited
  • What really goes into a nappy?
  • Protests as furnace plan unveiled
  • General Electric doubles spend on green agenda
  • Azerbaijan’s post-industrial hangover
  • Pollutant affects sex chromosome
  • Climate change message for city
  • Greenpeace opposes wind farm plan
  • Biodiversity project gets funding
  • Online campaign seeks fishing ban
  • Protestors arrested at G8 summit
  • River Jordan nearly running dry
  • Eco-Islam hits Zanzibar fishermen


Issues that seem distant to me are gold mining in Peru and Azerbaijan’s post-industrial hangover. Some that seem close are those about home building on Greenfield sites, environmental awards for youngsters and opposition to windfarms. Three examples of issues of interest or concern are:

  • The idea of an award for ‘greenest’ roads. I am curious to know what is meant, and as a road and car user concerned about the impact of road building and use, I’m interested to hear more about what sounds like a move to limit detrimental effects.
  • Greenpeace’s opposition to a windfarm plan also interests me because I lived for sometime in Denmark where a lot of energy is generated by wind turbines where there seems to be a lot less opposition to them. To me, windfarms provide a better alternative to power stations, which seem to have more damaging environmental effects (such as coal or nuclear). So I’m interested to know the nature of Greenpeace’s objections.
  • The online campaigns seeking a fishing ban also interests me. My perspectives are both as a consumer of fish and someone who enjoys seeing fish and other freshwater and marine life in their natural habitat in different parts of the world. I am also interested in the role of the Internet in environmental decision making.

In doing Activity 4 and Activity 5 you will have encountered some different ideas about what constitutes ‘environment’ and ‘environmental’ and thought a little about what the terms mean to you and what aspects interest or concern you. But how will these terms be used throughout this course?

The environment of an entity can usually be described as that which surrounds it, affects it and in most cases is affected by it. The entity concerned may refer to an individual (as in my environment) or a group of living and/or non-living things (as in an organisation’s environment). Used in its narrow and ‘natural’ sense ‘the environment’ often refers to our biophysical surroundings. But humans are part of nature. People are in continuous interaction with their environment as they depend directly or indirectly on it for food, water, air and shelter for their very existence. It is our life-support system and at times its physical elements will be part of us. As well as sharing our environment with other people, we share it with other living things (both animals and plants) on which we depend.

However, the relationship between people and their environment has many dimensions – physical, biological, social, psychological, emotional, economic, even temporal – in terms of how we are currently affected by past decisions and how our decisions will affect us and other generations in the future. This unit will generally use ‘environment’ in this broad sense acknowledging its many dimensions.

One useful way of representing the relationships between entities and their environment is to use a diagram – in this next case a systems map. Click on the following link to view a PDF on this diagramming technique.

View document [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Figure 2 uses systems maps to represent some different interpretations of the word environment and to experiment with boundaries. It is deliberately in draft form as it is trying to capture and represent a series of ideas about the concept of environment, from different perspectives, rather than showing a situation at a particular moment in time or a single system of interest, which would have a clear whole system boundary.

A series of draft systems maps, showing different relationships inherent in different definitions of environment (a) The general idea of environment as whatever surrounds something (b) Humans as part of society, which has a natural system in its general environment (c) Humans as part of a social system, operating within a general biophysical environment (d) Humans as part of social, economic and biophysical systems, within a general environment
Figure 2 A series of draft systems maps, showing different relationships inherent in different definitions of environment (a) The general idea of environment as whatever surrounds something (b) Humans as part of society, which has a natural system in its general environment (c) Humans as part of a social system, operating within a general biophysical environment (d) Humans as part of social, economic and biophysical systems, within a general environment

There is much criticism of anthropocentric (human-centred) definitions of ‘the environment’ because they emphasise its utility value to people rather than recognising it has value in its own right (i.e. intrinsic or inherent value). These definitions also fail to recognise the way in which people are always in their environment not able to be separated from it. Human-centred definitions are also often thought to imply control by humans of physical and biological processes that we cannot control. They also fail to acknowledge the many feedback loops in our relationship with our environment. However, humans exist in societies, most of which use technology, and we certainly have the ability to affect some natural processes in our use of that technology, depending on how we choose to use it. For example, temperature, rainfall, sea levels and the composition of the atmosphere have all been affected by people’ s activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy and transport or changing land use. Our use of ‘green’ technology, e.g. for renewable energy, might have less effect on natural processes, depending on how it is used (Figure 3).

People’s activities affect natural processes
© Photofusion
Figure 3 People’s activities affect natural processes

There are many possible choices about how we live and these choices are not simple to make, not least because the organisation of human societies is experienced by many as complex. Humans also affect and are affected by their environments just by living – breathing, eating, drinking, producing wastes, etc. – not only in their use of technology. In order to understand better the effects of our decisions and actions and how we might make necessary changes there is therefore a need to focus on what surrounds and affects humans, as well as their relationships with their environments. But it is important to keep in mind that there are many definitions of ‘the environment’ and to recognise that there are limits to what humans control (Figure 4).

‘There are limits to what humans control’ (a) Sicily’ s Mount Etna erupting in 2002 (b) A satellite image of Hurricane Katrina taken on 29 August 2005 as it passed through the USA Gulf Coast
(a) Carsten Peter/National Geographic Image Collection, (b) © Reuters/NOAA
Figure 4 ‘There are limits to what humans control’ (a) Sicily’ s Mount Etna erupting in 2002 (b) A satellite image of Hurricane Katrina taken on 29 August 2005 as it passed through the USA Gulf Coast

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