Out with the Old and in with the New

Lever II: Reforming Management Systems

Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.

Prevailing Thinking:

Current management systems (i.e. organizations, programs, government agencies and processes etc.) are largely products of past centuries. Their foundations are based on outdated thinking that prioritizes resource extraction and economic growth over environmental protection. Historically, decision-makers often addressed environmental problems only once scientific evidence pointed to the problem’s dominant cause and a straightforward solution. In the absence of definitive ‘proof,’ governments have been reluctant to constrain resource extraction in order to protect the environment. This thinking is often a product of misinterpreting ‘uncertainty’ in science as ignorance (see Clarification section).

Transformed Thinking:

The above frontier logic applied by institutions is misplaced in today’s highly interconnected world. Addressing the climate crisis requires coordinated, preemptive action to protect the environment. Actions also look beyond merely the present day and assess the needs of future generations and the environment. The uncoordinated efforts we see today often involve parties far-removed from the actual situation, which results in disjointed actions that can worsen the crisis.

In the face of complex problems such as the climate and biodiversity crises—which have many interacting causes, uncertain feedbacks, and no simple solutions—sustainable pathways require transformed management systems. These new and evolved management organizations and processes would (i) take adaptive action even without definitive ‘proof’ (proof is elusive in complex systems); (ii); foster resilience, thus serving to more effectively meet the needs of the present and the future even in the face of disturbances; and (iii) be integrated across sectors of the economy and across nations, states and regions.


Policies and governance often reflect an assumed, but false, linear relationship between human actions and environmental systems. They seldom consider how problems arise from an accumulation of effects (e.g., how floods result from the combination of clearing forests and wetlands, paving land, and climate change that increases the intensity of rain events). Moreover, ‘solutions’ to social and/or environmental problems often address only direct causes while ignoring the side effects they may cause (e.g., while building a dam helps control flooding, it can also disrupt vital migration routes for salmon).

Management systems are often hyper-focused on short-term decision making, making them vulnerable to sudden shifts otherwise preventable through preemptive action. This means that adaptive action is especially pertinent in today’s rapidly changing climate, as we face natural disasters of greater magnitude than what our current infrastructure can withstand.

All the above problems are exacerbated by gaps in responses between sectors and jurisdictions. For instance, farming and forestry both affect flood dynamics and fisheries in ways that are seldom fully accounted for. Meanwhile, the actions of cities, provincial or state governments, and nations affect other levels and neighbouring jurisdictions in ways that are not often considered. Individual sectors and jurisdictions rarely integrate the broader effects their goals will have on other sectors and jurisdictions. The resulting uncoordinated actions often heighten environmental degradation. Greater collaboration in environmental management across both jurisdictions and sectors is needed for a harmonized approach that addresses complex environmental problems.

Paths Forward:

Management systems can only be resilient to unforeseen changes if they recognize the nonlinear functioning of natural systems. Problems frequently result from multiple triggers, some of which can only be ‘proven’ after mitigation efforts have taken place. This requires precautionary approaches in decision making, i.e. if a particular action bears the potential for substantial ecological or social harm, steps can be taken early to reduce or even prevent the potential harm without waiting for definitive proof.

Adaptive management can increase resilience by acting early to prevent or mitigate lagged effects. This process continuously gathers information about the system and uses that new information to improve management. In the case of flood management, that would involve limiting the loss of forests and wetlands while simultaneously gathering information on the roles they play in regulating water flows. It also involves allowing systems to be dynamic, as in accepting that rivers will meander over years and flood seasonally.

Reformed management systems would rely heavily on cooperation and communication across jurisdictions, while also practicing greater inclusion in decision-making (stay tuned for Leverage Point 5, Justice and Inclusion in Decision-Making). Disconnected efforts between levels of government, or between sovereign states, may undermine each other. For example, protection of migratory species—e.g., birds—in only parts of their range are likely to fail if habitat is limited elsewhere, or if they face undue hardship on their migratory route. Enhanced cohesiveness of conservation initiatives and resource management might involve regulatory reform in multiple jurisdictions via coalitions and international agreements. This, coupled with robust domestic law and policy (see Lever 3: Strengthening Environmental Law), lays the foundation for generating a collective global push towards sustainability.


Vested interests often use ‘uncertainty’ as an excuse for inaction, as if uncertainty is synonymous with ignorance. These arguments often hold sway and evoke distrust among broader publics. However, in complex natural (and human) systems—which are themselves constantly changing—uncertainty is innate and inevitable. Often only management—or mismanagement—can improve understanding.

Furthermore, jurisdictional sovereignty is of course important. Every level of government has authority to determine preferred means of collaboration and communication across jurisdictions and sectors. This lever simply emphasizes that without improved collaboration, all parties are likely to lose in the long run.

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