Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Introducing environmental decision making
Introducing environmental decision making

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.3 Evolving discourses concerning environmental decision making and sustainable development

What is valued by people and how they think of power relations is often evident in their discourse. A discourse is described by John Dryzek (1997) as ‘a shared way of apprehending the world. Embedded in language, it enables those who subscribe to it to interpret bits of information and put them together into coherent stories or accounts’. Discourses change over time as new knowledge and understanding is developed. Individuals also move on to take part in different discourses. For example, from the perspectives of many, the prevailing discourse concerning the relationship of humans with their environments has changed from one of ‘mastery over nature’ to recognition of the role of people’s activities in global warming and depletion of natural resources and the need to manage wastes.

Dryzek developed the following checklist of elements for the analysis of discourses (Dryzek, 1997, p. 18):

  1. Basic entities recognised or constructed;
  2. Assumptions about natural relationships;
  3. Agents and their motives;
  4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices.

Dryzek’s category of ‘basic entities’ acknowledges that different discourses recognise or construct different things in the world. For instance, according to Dryzek, some discourses recognise ‘ecosystems’, some do not. Assumptions about natural relationships refer to notions of what is natural in the relationships between different entities, e.g. some see competition or cooperation or hierarchies as natural. Agents and their motives refers to both individuals and collectives, mostly human but in some discourses also non-human. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices are used to refer to one thing in terms of another to put a situation in a particular light.

For instance referring to ‘Spaceship Earth’ or the ‘war against nature’ uses the terms ‘spaceship’ and ‘war’ metaphorically rather than literally, possibly to invoke a particular image to convince listeners.

Dryzek identified environmental discourses around:

  • (i) global limits and their denial;
  • (ii) solving environmental problems;
  • (iii) the quest for sustainability; and (iv) green radicalism.

All are relevant to environmental decision making in different ways. For example, he introduced his analysis of ‘survivalism’ which was a discourse identified in the ‘global limits and their denial’ in the following way:

The basic story line of survivalism is clear enough: human demands on the carrying capacity of ecosystems threaten to explode out of control, and draconian action needs to be taken in order to curb these demands. This storyline is in turn constructed from the following basic entities, metaphors, other rhetorical devices, assumptions about natural relationships, agents and motives.

(Dryzek, 1997, p. 34)

Dryzek went on to explain in detail the elements that were part of the story line. He also summarised them (Table 3), which, with a few notes, is sufficient for our purpose here:

Table 3 Discourse analysis of survivalism
1 Basic entities recognised or constructed
  • Finite stocks of resources
  • Carrying capacity of ecosystems
  • Population
  • Elites
2 Assumptions about natural relationships
  • Hierarchy and control
3 Agents and their motives
  • Elites: motivation is up for grabs
4 Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
  • Overshoot and collapse
  • Commons
  • Spaceship Earth
  • Lily pond
  • Cancer
  • Computers
  • Images of doom and redemption
(Dryzek, 1997, p. 37)

Dryzek describes the elements in this survivalism discourse, as well as listing them in a table. In the summary regarding basic entities, stocks of non-renewable resources (such as oil, coal, etc.) and the capacity of ecosystems to produce renewable resources (such as timber and fish) are treated as finite. The term ‘population’ rather than people is used to make a point about the aggregate entity, and elites such as governments, modellers, etc. play a central role. In terms of assumptions, there is an assumption that natural relationships are hierarchical and that they can be controlled. In terms of agents, the elites have the capacity to act. Key metaphors and rhetorical devices include ‘overshoot and collapse’, which refers to population growth of one species at a time (taken from models of the dynamics of simple ecosystems). ‘Commons’ refers to how we deal with shared resources such as air or fish stocks and to the work of Garrett Hardin (1968) on ‘the tragedy of the commons’. ‘Spaceship Earth’ is a metaphor first coined by Kenneth Boulding in 1966, likening the earth to a spaceship, a whole system. The ‘lily pond’ and ‘cancer’ metaphors are linked to ideas of rapid population growth. The ‘computer’ is an old-fashioned metaphor now for enhanced ability to carry out complex calculations in modelling.

Further details of this environmental discourse and others are given in Dryzek’s book.

As mentioned above, this example is just one of many, but it is a useful reminder that our assumptions in or around a discourse can vary a great deal, and it seems reasonable to assume that the nature of the discourse will affect what and who we see as significant in a decision-making process.

Activity 14 Participating in environmental discourses

  • (a) Have you participated in or been aware of any environmental discourses before starting this course in the areas that Dryzek identifies? If so, list them.
  • (b) Give some examples of (not necessarily environmental) discourses you have participated in or been aware of. Do you think these discourses were relevant to environmental decision making?


  • (a) I am familiar with most of the discourses that Dryzek has identified. Those in which I have actively participated most recently include discourses around environmental problems and sustainability.
  • (b) Examples of discourse in which I have participated include discourse on learning, in particular on social learning. Also on sustainable development. I see both as relevant to environmental decision making. Learning to use shared resources and deal with wastes with others or in a social context provides ways forward that complement other approaches such as regulation, legislation and market-led approaches. I see sustainable development as important context for environmental decision making.

An analysis of a broader range of discourses concerning approaches to sustainable development has been prepared by Bill Hopwood, Mary Mellor and Geoff O’Brien of the Sustainable Cities Research Institute at the University of Northumbria in the UK (Hopwood et al., 2005).

Activity 15 Mapping sustainable development

Read the paper linked below and then answer the following questions:

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

  • (a) What kind of shift in understanding do the authors see in the widespread rise in interest in and support for the concept of sustainable development?
  • (b) Why did the authors use the mapping methodology based on combining environmental and socio-economic issues?
  • (c) How are the two axes in Figure 1 of the reading labelled? (i.e. what are they plotting against what on this graph/map?)
  • (d) Which three broad views on the nature of changes necessary in society’s political and economic structures and human – environment relationships to achieve sustainable development are overlaid on the Figure 1 map?
  • (e) What limitations do the authors recognise in their mapping exercise?
  • (f) In the authors’ view, what dominated the sustainable development discourse at their time of writing?


  • (a) The authors are referring to a shift in understanding relationships between humanity and nature and between people. They comment that this shift contrasts with the dominant outlook of the last two hundred years, especially in ‘Northern’ countries, that has separated environmental and socio-economic issues.
  • (b) They used the mapping methodology to help make sense of many different interpretations of sustainable development and to be able to compare them.
  • (c) The horizontal axis is labelled ‘increasing environmental concerns’ with three categories specified: virtually none, techno-centred and eco-centred (after O’ Riordan’s categorisations). The vertical axis is labelled ‘increasing socio-economic well-being and equality concerns’ ranging from inequality to equality.
  • (d) The three broad views of nature overlaid on the graph in Figure 1 are:
    • (i) status quo, where a need for change is accepted but neither environment nor society are seen as facing problems that are impossible to overcome, so no fundamental changes are seen as needed;
    • (ii) reform where there is acceptance of mounting problems, criticism of current policies but still no recognition of a need for fundamental change in society and in people’s relationships with their environment;
    • (iii) transformation where mounting problems are seen as rooted in society and in how humans interrelate and relate with their environment so transformation of society and/or human relations with the environment is needed to avoid a crisis or collapse.
  • (e) Limitations appear to be: the authors describe their framework as a broad conceptual framework rather than a precise mapping so exact locations of initiatives mapped are open to challenge; classification into groups is a simplification and the location of boundaries and their nature are debatable; they recognise also that individuals and groups change their views over time.
  • (f) In the authors’ view, the sustainable development discourse at present is dominated by the managerial outlook.

This paper includes a detailed discussion on what the authors see as the major trends within sustainable development and more extensive conclusions. While the main topic of the paper is sustainable development, it is also highly relevant for understanding discourse on environmental decision making. For instance, the authors analyse and suggest positions for different levels of environmental concern and explicitly consider decision making in the context of sustainable development. They also question what may or may not need to change and the tools and actors needed for these changes to take place.