Bold new book aims to reframe environmental thinking at pivotal point in time

Professors Peter Mulvihill and Harris Ali publish provocative new book on how to deal with today’s ecological crisis. They start with tearing down old paradigms.

Environmental management: Critical thinking and emerging practices by Peter Mulvihill and Harris Ali (Routledge, 2017). Cover image reproduced with permission of Routledge.

Positive leadership involves standing back from an issue, assessing the problem, providing a learned interpretation and delivering a rational and well-constructed vision for change or improvement. This is true in the academic world. Professors Peter Mulvihill (Faculty of Environmental Studies) and Harris Ali (Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies), have just released a new book, Environmental management: Critical thinking and emerging practices, which does just that. It’s especially pertinent because the issue is our dying planet.

The authors of this book  ̶  essential reading for academics, students, practitioners, policy- and decision- makers, and historians  ̶  believe that environmental management (EM) is facing a mounting ecological crisis. They emphasize that the full magnitude of this crisis is unknown and largely imponderable.

Time is of the essence; the planet is at a pivotal point in its history. “Current environmental management is not well equipped to handle the complex and uncertain implications of today’s ecological crisis,” Mulvihill states. “New approaches need to be comparatively more flexible and imaginative to address future environmental problems of a scale and severity previously unforeseen,” he adds.

Peter Mulvihill (left), Harris Ali (right)

EM is the best place to look for solutions. This field has evolved rapidly since the 1970s as a direct result of a variety of ecological issues that demanded policy and regulatory responses. Today, the field is very broad as it folds many closely related disciplines and approaches into the mix. It is also quickly changing. What started nearly 50 years ago as a reactive, compliance-based field has now matured into an expansive, interdisciplinary field of study primarily seeking sustainability.

Book aims to start fresh, introduce new and controversial approaches

In writing this book, Mulvihill and Ali provide a clear, intelligent and rigourous critique of what has been done to date and explore new ideas, some of which are considered by the mainstream to be markedly fringe or radical. They accomplish this, in part, by returning to fundamental questions, such as: What are the purpose, roles, scope and potential for EM?

In their return to basic principles, Mulvihill and Ali also provide a much-needed definition of EM. In fact, they devote several pages to a number of compelling definitions, but conclude that “Environmental management is a broad, collective, collaborative endeavor – it is nothing less than governance for sustainability.”

The authors believe new approaches need to be flexible and imaginative to address future environmental problems.

The authors believe new approaches need to be flexible and imaginative to address future environmental problems

Asking the tough questions

From the start, the authors are clear that they’re asking big questions. “It’s the deeper forms of sustainability that we are concerned with in this book,” Ali explains. “We’re interested in more powerful practices that are conceived explicitly to address the ecological crisis and deep, long-term sustainability. This means that the questions we should be asking about environmental management are profound and, to some extent, speculative or even unanswerable given the current state of affairs,” he adds.

Chapters move from describing the situation to pressing for change

Although Mulvihill and Ali say that the book is not an attempt to examine EM in an exhaustive way, they still cover a remarkable terrain, and do so in a logical and compelling fashion. The first four chapters provide the all-important context and examine the key forces influencing new directions in EM. These chapters also provide significant insights into conventional EM. Importantly, this sets the stage for the latter half of the book, which opens with chapter five profiling the current state of alternative EM – theory, practice, limitations and gaps.

Case studies involving climate change are undertaken in chapter seven, followed by disaster studies and more. Chapter ten hits home with the authors’ press for a philosophical reorientation in EM, while subsequent chapters consider experimental applications and prospects for alternative EM.

Mulvihill and Ali consider experimental applications and prospects for alternative EM.

Mulvihill and Ali consider experimental applications and prospects for alternative EM

This new book accomplishes four things particularly well:

  • Captures the transient nature of EM and the ever-changing moving parts: natural, social and economic conditions shaped by politics and the public;
  • Presents a healthy balance of theory, practice and connections to the real world;
  • Integrates insights from disaster management to ‘black swan thinking’ – a metaphor referring to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence, like an oil spill or high pollution levels, often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight; and
  • Formulates a timely call for a re-orientation in environmental thinking.

The book, Environmental management: Critical thinking and emerging practices, was published by Routledge in 2017. For more information about Mulvihill, visit his faculty profile. For more information about Ali, visit his faculty profile.

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By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,