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Introducing environmental decision making
Introducing environmental decision making

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2.3 Characterising environmental decisions

Ken Sexton and his colleagues wrote a book called Better Environmental Decisions Strategies for Governments, Businesses and Communities (Sexton et al., 1999) in which they characterise environmental decisions (see Table 2). They had a particular purpose in mind in doing this:

Although the list is not exhaustive, it offers insight into the formidable task of categorising and evaluating different types of environmental decisions.

(Sexton et al., 1999, p. 5)

They structured their table around six dimensions:

  1. At what social level does the environmental decision occur?
  2. What are the important substantive aspects of the environmental decision?
  3. What is the social setting for the environmental decision?
  4. What is the mode of environmental decision making?
  5. What are the assumptions about underlying causes of the environmental problem?
  6. What criteria are used to evaluate the environmental decision?

suggesting that

Answers to these and related questions allow us to determine which disciplinary approaches, analytical methods and decision-making tools are most appropriate for evaluating and improving specific decisions. But we must recognise that the categories and sub-categories in Table 2 are artificially systematic and unrealistically precise devices that allow us to construct an easy-to-apply framework for conceptualising the important components of environmental decision making. The simplified framework, whilst useful, cannot completely describe the complexity and interconnectedness of many real-world decisions.

(Sexton et al., 1999, p. 5)
Table 2 Multidimensional characteristics of environmental decision making
I Social Level of the Environmental Decision
 1 Individual3 Organisation
 2 Group4 Society
IISubstantive Domain of the Environmental Decision
A Type of issue
 1 Air quality control7 Urban infrastructure/growth management
 2 Critical natural areas8 Waste management
 3 Energy production/distribution9 Water allocation
 4 Green technologies10 Water quality control
 5 Natural resource management
 6 Historic, cultural and aesthetic resources
B Spatial extent
 1 Socially constructed scales, e.g. neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries
 2 Natural system scales, e.g. watersheds, airsheds
 3 Geologically based scales, e.g. plains, valleys, continents, earth
C Temporal factors
 1 Persistence3 Cumulative effects
 2 Reversibility4 Context (past, current, future decisions)
IIISocial Setting for the Environmental Decision
A Key Decision Maker
 1 Individual acting as an independent agent
 2 Individual acting as a member of a group or organization
B Decision Participants
 1 Governments4 Environmental advocacy groups
 2 Regional governmental organizations5 Community/neighbourhood groups
 3 Business associations6 Affected or interested individuals
C Urgency of decision
 1 Urgent
 2 Deliberative
IVModes of Environmental Decision Making
 1 Emergency action4 Elite corps
 2 Routine procedures5 Conflict management
 3 Analysis-centred6 Collaborative learning
VAssumptions about Basic Underlying Causes of Environmental Problems
 1 Lack of scientific knowledge and understanding about natural systems or impacts of technology
 2 Imbalanced or inappropriate economic incentives
 3 Misplaced belief system and core values
 4 Failure to use comprehensive approaches (overly narrow perspective)
VICriteria for Evaluating Environmental Decisions
A Decision process
 1 Fair3 Informed
 2 Inclusive
B Decision outcome
 1 Workable4 Efficient
 2 Accountable5 Equitable
 3 Effective6 Sustainable
(Source: adapted from Sexton et al., p. 4)

Activity 6 Engaging with multidimensional characteristics

Look at Table 2 above from Sexton et al. (1999):

  • (a) Are there any words in the table that are not familiar to you? If so, list them to look them up in a dictionary or online search, or make a note to come back to them when you have finished the unit and see if their meaning has since been made clear.
  • (b) Sexton et al. use the (italicised) categories of level, domain, setting, mode, assumptions and criteria in grouping dimensions of characteristics of environmental decision making. Work through each category selecting some of the levels, domains, settings and modes you have direct experience of and which assumptions and criteria you have come across before. Given that the list of categories and sub-categories is not intended to be comprehensive, are there any you would add?


  • (a) I have come across all the terms in the table before but I do wonder what the authors mean by words such as ‘elite corps’, ‘deliberative’, ‘natural systems’, ‘persistence’ and ‘critical natural areas’. There is some qualification of these terms in the text of their book, so I have either looked these up there or made some assumptions about what is meant:
    • Elite corps – seems to refer to senior members of responsible organisations. This mode of decision making is one where those who do not fall into that category do not participate in the decision process.
    • Deliberative – organised for a process of deliberating or debating, which as it’s in a category about urgency implies a longer time period is available than the ‘urgent’ category.
    • Natural systems – I assume here that ‘natural’ as opposed to ‘manufactured’ is meant and that system refers to an assembly of interconnected components that does something. But I’m aware that ‘natural’ and ‘made’ distinctions often get blurred and ‘system’ is often used in a vaguer sense. The examples given regarding ‘natural system scales’ in the table are watersheds and airsheds, and while water and air are what I think of as ‘natural’, there is a lot about their use and management that isn’t. I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘airshed’ (other than as sheds that house aircraft!) so I looked it up and found it to mean an area where common weather conditions behave in a coherent way with respect to air pollution in the atmosphere. As such it provides a unit for analysis or management in the way that a water catchment area does. My understanding of ‘watershed’ in this context is also what I would think of as a water catchment, i.e. an identifiable area rather than a boundary. My understanding is that terms such as watershed, water catchment and airshed are used in a range of different ways in different countries and traditions.
    • Persistence – I presume this refers to elements that persist over along time rather than breakdown, as with radioactive particles or some kinds of pesticides.
    • Critical natural areas – I assume this refers to ‘critical’ in its ‘crucial’ rather than its ‘finding fault’ or ‘evaluating’ senses. But critical for what? Looking it up in their book, I note that Sexton et al. have given a definition as ‘issues concerning the protection of are as such as coastlines, floodplains, wetlands, ecological bio-reserves, parks, and the habitats of endangered species’.
  • (b) A few examples of dimensions I have direct experience of:
    • Levels – all the social levels;
    • Domain – issues of critical natural areas and natural resource management: neighbourhoods (villages) and countries, watersheds; persistence (nuclear power issues) and context (my interest in ‘trajectories’ of decisions which in corporate past, present and future);
    • Setting – individual acting as member of an organisation; environmental advocacy groups, community groups and affected or interested individual; urgent and deliberative decisions;
    • Modes – emergency action, routine procedures and collaborative learning;
    • Assumptions – I have come across all the assumptions about basic underlying causes of environmental problems (though I’m not entirely sure what’s behind ‘failure to use comprehensive approaches’ so would need to check that one);
    • Evaluation – I have also come across all the evaluation criteria.

From my own experience I would add ‘multi-agency’ as a social level of the environmental decision. I would add ‘rural’ tour ban infrastructure/growth management from a UK context, and I would add ‘ethical’ to the criteria for evaluating environmental decisions.