Complex Environmental Problems

what they are and how they can be managed


Are dynamic

The fact that these issues can change from day to day makes them difficult to manage. Flexibility is needed from both the management of organisations and those working on the issues.

Both ecosystems and society are complex adaptive systems. Changes in one part of a system affect other parts. These changes often depend on other systems and are very seldom predictable. Unexpected changes can occur, so to speak, overnight.

As natural resource conflicts and other environmental problems involve both ecosystems and society, their management requires flexibility and openness. Attempts to use simple solutions to deal with these problems often result in them becoming both more complex and more conflictual. Flexible responses invariably involve the need to include stakeholders with different perspectives on the challenges that arise. An open response requires stakeholders to relinquish control and fixed positions, not only in respect of the concrete steps that need to be taken but also in regard to understanding the nature of the problem or challenge itself.

usually involve tension and conflict

Complex environmental issues often result in tension and conflict between stakeholders. Listening to, including and interacting with stakeholders counteracts tension and de-escalates conflict.


The tension, resistance and conflict that arise as a result of a complex problem are caused partially by a sense of marginalisation on the part of those involved or affected. This marginalisation is in turn caused by those with the power to make decisions acting unilaterally or excluding important parties. It also arises because stakeholders are reticent to relinquish their positions and pre-conceived ideas regarding the nature of the problem and the action that needs to be taken. This fragmentation leads to an escalation of tension. A third, related, cause of conflict is the absence of clear, transparent communication. This is often perceived as double messages: saying one thing privately and another publically or saying one thing and doing another.

Dialogue aims to counter marginalisation, fragmentation and double messages. A good facilitator or mediator is aware of these causes of escalating tension and actively creates a space for the inclusion of different points of view, emotions, values, world views and issues of identity. Such spaces may not always be comfortable but are necessary for dealing with the challenges arising from complex problems. It is both a skill and an art to managing both dialogue and larger processes to deal with complex challenges.

create confusion

It is not uncommon for those involved to become confused and unsure of how to take the next step. Dialogue, if skillfully conducted, brings clarity and results in better decisions.


The lack of clarity, or confusion, that arises when people attempt to deal with complex environmental challenges contributes in part to a sense of losing control. Feeling that one has some measure of control is a basic human need. Confusion and uncertainty often cause people to seek strong leaders, clear answers and deliberate (if not immediate) action. Ironically, this is just the opposite of what is needed to deal with a complex problem.

Dialogue aims to provide those participating, both directly and indirectly, to gain a more complete understanding of the complexity of the challenge and to explore ways of dealing with it together. Collective problem definition and action are both essential in dealing with complex problems.

are seldom resolved

It is rarely possible to solve a complex problem once and for all. Managing these problems aims at creating improvement over time and adapting to more sustainable ways of thinking and acting.


Because of the dynamic nature of complex challenges, solutions are time-bound. One might succeed in finding ways of dealing with a particular issue or conflict only to be confronted with a new set of problems. For this reason, it is commonly understood that one will not solve a complex problem once and for all, but, at best can hope for improvement rather than a deterioration of the problem or conflict.

Those who provide support in dealing with complex problems or conflicts are clear that no final solutions should be expected. Rather, they help stakeholders understand that changes should be assessed in terms of improvement or deterioration of a given situation. A sustained dialogue between the stakeholders has the purpose of constantly adjusting actions taken and reviewing the results. For those wishing for quick solutions this, of course, seems like a never-ending process and a reason to doubt the effectiveness of dialogue. A longer-term perspective however shows that collaboration and dialogue improve the situation over time and may lead to sustainable ways of dealing with seemingly irreconcilable forces and positions.

are often linked to other problems

Complex problems affect and are affected by other (often complex) issues. It is important to understand the linkages.


Understanding the systemic nature of complex problems and conflicts shows that no ecosystem or society exists in isolation. Changes in one part of a system or in a related and linked system result in changes in other systems. A simple example is how drought (the system of weather) affects agriculture which in turn affects society (the economic and social systems in any given place).

Any dialogue that purports to deal with complex problems needs to take into account the unpredictability involved. This is also why we emphasise that dialogue is not a single event but an ongoing activity that requires both clear and open communication and a dialogic mindset.