Skip to main content


1.3 What is environmental management?

'... but what exactly is environmental management? Is it a single field or discipline? Is it a process? Is it an agreed approach? Is it efforts to identify and pursue goals? Perhaps a philosophy? Or, is it environment and development problem solving?'

Source: Barrow (2005) p. viii

Define 'environmental management'.

A diverse set of activities

Environmental management is not easy to define. As Barrow (2005) has acknowledged, it can refer to a goal or vision, to attempts to steer a process, to the application of a set of tools, to a philosophical exercise seeking to establish new perspectives towards the environment and human societies, and to much more besides. Environmental managers are a diverse group of people including academics, policy-makers, non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, company employees, civil servants and a wide range of individuals or groups who make decisions about the use of natural resources (such as fishers, farmers and pastoralists). Indeed, environmental management involves all people to some extent because all human activities ultimately have some sort of environmental impact. However, some individuals are more directly involved with resource use, and some special interest groups are particularly concerned with resource exploitation and with issues related to pollution. Environmental management therefore involves many stakeholders and requires a multidisciplinary perspective. It involves many spatial scales, ranging from the local to the global. It also involves many, diverse goals, including the desires to control the direction and pace of development, to optimise resource use, to minimise environmental degradation and to avoid environmental disaster. Environmental management may be practised by individuals and groups holding conflicting - and even directly opposing - views, as may be the case when environmental managers employed by large multinational corporations come into conflict with environmental managers representing voluntary organisations.

A focus on decision-making

In general, however, environmental management is concerned with the understanding of the structure and function of the earth system, as well as of the ways in which humans relate to their environment. Environmental management is therefore concerned with the description and monitoring of environmental changes, with predicting future changes and with attempts to maximise human benefit and to minimise environmental degradation due to human activities. Yet, characteristically, environmental management is about decision-making - and it is especially concerned with the process of decision-making in relation to the use of natural resources, the pollution of habitats and the modification of ecosystems. Fundamentally, then, environmental management is a political activity because those decisions - about resources, pollution and ecosystems - are never neutral or objective; on the contrary, they are value laden and they reflect the exercise of power by particular groups over others. Moreover, in general, it is naïve to conceive of environmental management as being about simply 'the management of the environment' in the sense of humans manipulating and controlling the components and processes of the earth system. Of course, humans do exert such influences on the earth system; but it is a fallacy to think that humans 'manage', for instance, populations of humpback whales. Instead, it is more accurate to suggest that humans may be able to make some progress towards managing human impacts on humpback whales. Ultimately, then, environmental management is more concerned with the management of human activities and their impacts than with the management of the natural environment per se.

Influencing the course of development

Nevertheless, some types of activity are common to environmental managers. Environmental managers attempt deliberately to steer the process of development in order to take advantage of opportunities; they attempt to ensure that critical environmental limits are not exceeded; they work to reduce and mitigate environmental issues; and they are concerned with increasing the adaptability and resilience of human societies in the face of environmental change, variability, unpredictability and hazards. From this point of view, environmental management may be defined as the system that anticipates and avoids, or solves, environmental and resource conservation issues. From another point of view, environmental management may be defined as a process concerned with human-environment interactions which seeks to identify:

Indeed, in many parts of the world (and arguably worldwide), environmental management is intimately linked with pressing issues of justice and even of survival. A further definition might suggest that environmental management is concerned with meeting and improving provision for human needs and demands on a sustainable basis with minimal damage to natural habitats and ecosystems. Thus the concept of environmental management is closely related to another important (and problematic) concept: that of sustainable development.