Environmental management: a thought-provoking read


Handmer, J.W., Norton, T.W. & Dovers, S.R. (eds) ( 2001 ) Ecology, uncertainty and policy: managing ecosystems for sustainability . Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, Essex. xv + 320 pp, figs, tables, index. Paperback: Price £26.99. ISBN 0130-16121-7 .

Environmental management is a relatively young academic discipline that draws on both the physical and the social sciences — on one hand it has elements of ecology, chemistry and physical geography, and on the other economics, politics and policy analysis. It is perhaps because of its multidisciplinary nature that environmental management has lacked a strong theoretical framework or apparatus. Handmer, Norton and Dovers’ book provides a useful and thought-provoking effort to redress this.

The first two chapters of the book, by Dovers, Norton and Handmer (1) and Norton (2) address theoretical issues relating to uncertainty (scientific, practical, legal, etc.). These are followed by a series of case studies looking at uncertainty in the context of environmental management. The penultimate chapter (by Walker) is an excellent overview of how science might be (mis)used in the political process, and the book concludes with a neat summation and synthesis of the wide range of issues raised in previous chapters. In what Handmer et al. (p. 299) refer to as ‘… the dominance of the science and the literature by a few northern-hemisphere countries …’ it is refreshing (especially to an Antipodean) to see a global selection of case studies, with examples from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the UK and North America all represented. Equally, it is good to see a wide range of systems and problems considered. The case studies range from those that might be expected in such a volume (e.g. global climate change — Boehmer-Christansen, and the management and assessment of marine fisheries — Rayfuse and Wilder) to those that are rather more novel in this context (e.g. managing the fire regime in SE Australia — Williams). Likewise, the authors are drawn from a broad cross-section of the environmental management community, encompassing university academics, government and NGO scientists and industry representatives amongst others.

The book is structured around the issue of uncertainty, whether it be scientific, legal or practical, and how best environmental management and sustainable development might proceed in this context. In particular the ‘precautionary principle’ is explored and used as a framework to examine the various case studies. The book is not about how to do environmental management from a practical perspective, although it does identify some potential solutions to the issues of uncertainty; instead it invites the reader to think more carefully about how ecology and the sciences might best contribute to management and policy formulation. As such it is a thought-provoking read. It asks some difficult questions — would having perfect knowledge of the environment actually change environmental policy? Is sustainability somewhat at odds with a democratic political system? — which perhaps are not considered by environmental scientists as often as they might be. I do not completely agree with all that the book says. In places it is implied that the fact that ecologists do not always agree about ecology has hindered the implementation of ecological science in environmental policy — I would argue that the problem is as much with how ecologists have (or have not) engaged with the public and the environment debate. It is interesting that currently both the British Ecological Society (BES) and the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) are exploring the public face and perception of ecology and how it might be improved. I was also surprised that scale was not mentioned more. Surely, a problem facing the integration of ecological science into a broader management context is a mismatch between the scales much ecological research occurs at (fine) and the s cales at which environmental management frequently takes places (regional to global). Nevertheless, these are only minor quibbles with what is otherwise a most interesting book. The diversity of approaches and case studies certainly strengthens the book and its message. It is well edited and, despite the range of material covered, it comes across as a cohesive and integrated whole. It would make an appropriate book for postgraduate students, from a range of disciplines such as environmental science, resource management or policy studies, and for those involved in research or practice in environmental management.