A discussion of Sewell’s remarks on environmental managers

Published: 2019/12/09 Number of words: 2634

Nearly four decades ago Sewell (1975) is reported to have remarked that environmental managers “should be able to manipulate both social institutions and appropriate technology but must do so with the sensitivity of an artist, the insights of a poet and perhaps, the moral purity and determination of a religious zealot”.

In the following sections I shall give my thoughts regarding what motivated Sewell to make this extraordinary statement and highlight, if any, points of agreement and divergence with his reported comment regarding: the need to manipulate society and appropriate technology; sensitivity; insights, moral purity and determination in respect to what environmental managers do.

Firstly I believe Sewell in remarking that environmental managers need to be able to manipulate social institutions and technology was a tacit recognition of the role society and technology plays in causing environmental problems (though in certain aspects there are vociferous denials of this link) but also the potential and indeed the role it could play in addressing them. I agree with him on the notion that anthropogenic factors including technology have caused, but more importantly hold the key to the solving of the numerous global environmental problems. However, I deviate a little from his thoughts on the modus operandi as I believe manipulation is at odds with some key principles in environmental management, including the principles of procedural and areal equity, empowerment, social learning and the precautionary principle. Whilst it is in some instances necessary to skilfully move or handle preventive or remedial actions, Sewell’s comment on manipulation is borne out of a misguided opinion that an expert (in this case environmental manager) has all the answers and so does not need to learn from communities/society but should rather influence and maybe in some cases employ deceit so as to reach a stated objective. There is a wealth of scientific evidence against the use of manipulation, especially in social aspects.

That aside, such is the complexity in dynamics of environmental aspects that a manager handling them needs to not only be multi-talented but also skilful in employing those talents. I therefore believe Sewell had closely studied the challenges faced by environmental managers and the demands heaped on them hence his remark on the virtues of sensitivity, being insightful, moral purity and determination.

Sewell must have noted that the links between social institutions and the environment sometimes have sensitive cultural/social facets. But also that in some cases managers were having to run ecologically fragile ecosystems. It is therefore imperative that environmental managers act in such a manner so as not to distort the dynamics and the subject they deal with. Certain management interventions may also have the potential to cause very serious offence and could quite conceivably lead to social unrest. The onus is on environmental managers to approach such delicate issues where they exist with the importance they deserve and maybe at other times just stand back and not tamper with the subject. Crucially, managers should have the ability to not just understand and acknowledge the feelings and problems of the different societal stakeholders at play in the environment but should deal with them carefully. In such circumstances any rush interventions will be counter-productive. In that regard Sewell may have been calling for managers to carefully consider the implications of their actions and also their in-action, especially given the diverse nature of the area that they deal with. On the virtue of sensitivity, I very much agree with Sewell.

I also think Sewell was driven to observe the need for environmental managers to have the ‘insight of a poet’ in respect to the capacity of environmental issues to unexpectedly emerge or alter. In this case, Sewell was maybe reflecting on the ability of managers to clearly comprehend such changes, especially given the consensus on environmental issues being complicated. Environmental managers every now and then have to demonstrate the ability to recognise or at the very least prove that they understand the dynamic issues they deal with. Without this, they run the risk of being reactive rather than proactive in managing the challenges they face, and I am in agreement with Sewell on this. The concept of moral purity and its applicability to the field of environmental management in my opinion is fraught with grey areas. If Sewell’s remark to this effect was in relation to the insidious harm of corruption in management, then by all means he was right as managers need to adhere to the principles of what is right and avoid what is wrong in executing their duties. Corruption in management is frequently referred to as a cancer especially in the developing world where institutional frameworks to lessen it are either non-existent or weak. Moreover it is an established fact that there are hotly competing interests in the sphere of environmental management with skewed power centres, some of which are open to trying to compromise decision makers in their quest to derive benefits from either exploiting environmental resources or avoiding implementing policy suggestions or remedial action. Faced with corrupting influences, the conduct of environmental managers should be impeccable and hence in this regard I agree with Sewell. Obscurity arises when subjective interpretation of what is moral comes into play, so for example does a manager ignore what is set in laws and regulations and propagate what he believes is right on a particular issue? Maybe not, then again some issues have the potential to cause such disruption that at times managers have to ignore set guidelines and do what is right irrespectively. It then becomes a question of whether ones convictions are such that they are willing to potentially cause disharmony in an organisation whilst going forward with a different view or method of doing things. The danger however is that what is considered (moral) good to one set of stakeholder might be considered pure evil in the eyes of different stakeholders. Choosing which side to back in such situations introduces partiality into the process and yet in some cases environmental managers are obliged to be impartial. Not being open to different viewpoints as religious zealots are won’t do and could end up alienating sections of society (stakeholders) and stand in the way of building the partnerships needed to sustainably manage environmental challenges. If Sewell’s remark was in relation to this latter explanation, then my view is at variance to his.

Most if not all of the current global environmental issues fall under what Sandler (2010:167) calls ‘longitudinal collective action problems’ caused by summative ‘unintended’ activities of individuals, with solutions needing a vast array of people making seemingly insignificant input. It is quite a task convincing people to undertake behavioural changes that are necessary to address environmental problems especially when such action (as is always the case) obliges either sacrifice and/or cost which moreover is singularly deemed to be inconsequential (Sandler, 2010). I agree with Sewell that environmental managers in the face of enormous financial, organisational and behavioural challenges, including the problem of ‘inconsequentialism’, need strong determination to lobby, implement and co-ordinate corrective action. However, holding the kind of strong beliefs that religious zealots are famed for in environmental management can be counter-productive, because they could stand in the way of negotiation and the building of partnerships, especially with people who hold different viewpoints about a specific problem.

What then are the essential skills a successful environmental manager needs?

Successful management of the environment, which I understand to refer to sustainable management of environmental resources and risks, is by no means easy. For as Deere-Birkbeck (2009) argued, the backdrop to environmental management is a continuum of complicated natural resource and environmental challenges with worsening risk projections and complex connections between social and environmental problems, but also an acknowledgment that potential remedies can be derived from the interaction between the two.

Deere-Birkbeck’s characterisation of the setting in which environmental managers perform serves to highlight the need for effective managers of the environment to be multi-talented because not only do they have to contend with inherent challenges in the system itself, but they also have to manage multiple stakeholders in different social settings and technological interventions.

One of the most important core skills set required of managers is the ability to communicate well both orally and in writing. Especially, as argued by Wziatek-Stasko (2011), as communication pervades every sphere of life and is vital for interchange of perspectives besides being a driver for interaction across societies, families and organisations. The ability to communicate clearly and concisely is particularly pertinent in the case of environmental managers because of the presence of multiple stakeholders and complex interconnections between different variables at play at any one time. Good communication skills are essential in the building and maintenance of partnerships, resolution of conflicts, negotiation, advocacy, resource mobilisation and lobbying of authorities – all vital skills in their own right and still needed by successful managers.

In forestry management, for example, there has been a gradual shift in management philosophy away from publicly managed protection model to a number of new governance schemes with new institutional frameworks to boot (Hayes and Persha, 2010). The presence of multiple management agencies/institutions is not unique to forest management; parallels can be drawn in the management of other environmental resources/issues as well. To succeed in managing in such an area environmental managers need to have the skills to co-ordinate activities with various management bodies as well as advocacy groups and stakeholders. Co-ordination and collaboration skills are needed along with the ability to build partnerships, sometimes with organisations of a different mould that could in addition hold a hostile view to that of the manager’s.

Solutions to environment problems require appropriate allocation of financial resources; indeed Petersen and Sandhovel (2001) argue that the ability to marshal financial resources is essential to the achievement of sustainable management. Successful managers therefore need resource mobilisation skills especially given that the scale of the problems and the size of remedial or preventive initiatives almost always go beyond the capacity of individual organisation’s finances.

Equally important is the capacity to negotiate and build consensus, and when called upon the skill to resolve conflicting interests. As are the other generic skills including flexibility, time management, advocacy, the ability to work with a diverse range of people, financial management, supervision of subordinates and prioritising interventions and resources

Have the requisite skills changed in the past 30 years?

According to Elliot (2011) a seismic change in the area of environmental management took place after the 1987 Brundtland Commission report with the emergence of the new concept of environmental sustainability, the result being a global resolve towards transformation of the prevailing customs in politics, society and economics. The challenge he posits, is not in the articulation of the new concept but rather on the lingering doubt in not just individuals but also with organisations, governments and society regarding different facets of the environmental problems the world is faced with and crucially the solutions to the identified issues.

Quite clearly perspectives in all sectors, including those of consumers of resources, have changed as regards: the virtues of unlimited consumption; infiniteness of resources and the capacity of the world’s system to bear waste and pollution since the concept of sustainability took hold (Kotler, 2011).

The ‘determination’ (or lack thereof) in global and national governance to tackle environmental principles, introduction of new concepts and the further widening of those concepts, like the focus on ecological sustainability rather than just environmental sustainability, shifts in perspectives or rather conscience of the public and governments, increasing depletion of both financial and natural resources, lingering uncertainty and the challenges of dealing with environmental problems (that are by all accounts complex in nature) in a highly interconnected world, have meant that skills and expertise required of current environmental managers have changed and continue to change.

Managers now also have to grapple with competing inter and intra community, commercial, governmental and societal interests within and outside geographical borders, with phenomena like globalisation occasioning new threats and challenges that need attending to. In some instances they have to manage in the face of very strongly held personal perspectives and in some cases manage militant environmentalist stakeholders. Thirty years ago, a number of current environmental challenges were not apparent or if they existed have since gotten worse. It follows then that environmental managers have had to learn new skills in dealing with these issues. In Uganda for example, the National Environment Management Act 1994 and the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act 2003 empower managers in the environment sector in general and the forestry sector respectively to act as both adjudicators of environmental disputes as well as enforcers of regulatory and policies among other things. Suffice to say then that the situation in the past couldn’t have been more different.

Environmental managers also have to go beyond the scope of just managing historical and current environmental problems. They are having to put strategies in place to deal with emerging environmental risks, the consensus is that emerging risks are taxing conventional management approaches because they are multi-disciplinary, cut across borders and have uncertain dynamics (Smith and Fischbacher, 2009). I agree with the notion that conventional management practices have been found wanting as regards emerging environmental risk. Managers handling them have had to learn new skills and techniques giving further evidence to support the view that management skills have changed.

Further in the past, management philosophy took the so called ‘command-and-control’ model as a result of regulatory and policy frameworks. Managers then did not need to negotiate and co-operate with various stakeholders, lobby and build partnerships. That all changed when the concepts of collaborative and participatory management became popular, as these the new concepts required new skills.


Deere-Birkbeck C. (2009) Global governance in the context of climate change: The challenges of increasing complex risk parameters. International Affairs Vol. 85 Iss 6 pp 1173-1194

Elliot S. (2011) Trans-disciplinary perspectives on environmental sustainability: A resource base and framework for IT-enabled business transformation. MIS Quarterly Vol. 35 Iss 1 pp 197-213

Hayes T., and Persha L. (2010) Nesting local forestry initiatives: Revisiting community forest management in a REDD+ world. Forest Policy and Economics Vol. 12 Iss. 8 pp 545-553

Kotler P. (2011) Re-inventing marketing to manage the environmental imperative. Journal of Marketing Vol. 75 Iss 4 pp132-135

Petersen L., and Sandhovel A. (2001) Forest policy reform and the role of incentives in Tanzania. Forest Policy and Economics Vol 2 Iss 1 pp 39-55

Sandler R. (2010) Ethical theory and the problem of inconsequentalism: Why environmental ethicists should be virtue-oriented ethicists. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics Vol. 23 Iss 1/2 pp 167-183

Smith D., and Fischbacher M. (2009) The changing nature of risk and risk management: The challenges of borders, uncertainty and resilience. Risk Management Vol. 11 Iss pp1-12

Wziatek-Stasko A. (2011) Efficient communication between a manager and an employee as a way to sustainable development of the contemporary organisation-based on empirical research. Management Theory and Studies for Rural Business and Infrastructure Development Vol. 26 Iss 2 pp 265-270

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