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For environmental issues, conflicting views is the natural state

Press Release Published 10 Mar 2000 Last modified 13 Apr 2011, 09:55 PM

Copenhagen, 10 March 2000

For environmental issues, conflicting views is the natural state

A new report just published by the European Environment Agency challenges the way we solve environmental problems.

For many environmental problems, ranging from getting rid of oil platforms to climate change, facts are uncertain, values are disputed, stakes are high and decisions urgent. "Stakeholder involvement" is the key activity proposed by the authors* of Information tools for environmental policy under conditions of complexity to deal with these problems. They maintain that experts cannot arrive at environmental solutions by dealing with them in a traditional problem-solving manner, due to the complexity of these problems (the word ‘complex' is used in its scientific meaning).

The environment is a site of conflict between competing perspectives, values and interests, and the different groups and communities that represent them. A facilitator attempting to broker an agreement between these disparate interests should understand that diversity and possible conflict are not an unfortunate accident which could be eliminated by better natural or social science, but rather are inherent to the character of the complex system.

There is a widespread belief in the academic/scientific community that environmental problems can be solved only by the accredited expertise. However, this approach ignores the fact that, contrary to the impression conveyed by textbooks, most problems in practice have more than one plausible answer, and many have no answer at all. The authors of this Expert Corner report say even the methods used to measure the effects of policies on the environment are imprecise.

Advocating that a "post-normal science" approach be adopted, the authors introduce a number of alternative approaches to framing and solving problems. Common to these is a diversity of aspects and indicators, the use of multiple criteria and stakeholder involvement. As sustainability is not a purely physical property of simple technological systems, work is now needed to bring into practise the perspectives of this report.

Further information from Project Manager Peter Bosch,, phone +45 33 36 71 07

* Authors: S.O. Funtowicz, European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Systems, Informatics and Safety, Ispra (VA), Italy; J. Martinez-Alier and G Munda, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona Dept. of Economics and Economic History; J. R. Ravetz, The Research Methods Consultancy Ltd, London.

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