The need to improve environmental management in Australia is urgent because human health, well-being and social stability all depend ultimately on maintenance of life-supporting ecological processes. Ecological science can inform this effort, but when issues are socially and economically complex the inclination is to wait for science to provide answers before acting. Increasingly, managers and policy-makers will be called on to use the present state of scientific knowledge to supply reasonable inferences for action based on imperfect knowledge. Hence, one challenge is to use existing ecological knowledge more effectively; a second is to tackle the critical unanswered ecological questions. This paper identifies areas of environmental management that are profoundly hindered by an inability of science to answer basic questions, in contrast to those areas where knowledge is not the major barrier to policy development and management. Of the 22 big questions identified herein, more than half are directly related to climate change. Several of the questions concern our limited understanding of the dynamics of marine systems. There is enough information already available to develop effective policy and management to address several significant ecological issues. We urge ecologists to make better use of existing knowledge in dialogue with policy-makers and land managers. Because the challenges are enormous, ecologists will increasingly be engaging a wide range of other disciplines to help identify pathways towards a sustainable future.