Purpose - To determine the human and environmental values that need to be protected at every ethical decision-making point, given that resources are finite and that the needs of future generations have no upper limit. Design/methodology/approach - A search was made of the Humanities and Area Studies Databases and Articles, the Philosophers' Index, RenDa Fuyin Baokan Ziliao (People's University reprints series), the Arts and Humanities Citation Index on ISI Web of Knowledge, the Arts and Humanities Data Service, the British Philosophy Database, Dissertation Abstracts International, the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (REP Online), ZETOC (Electronic Table of Contents) through MIMAS, and Academic Search Elite. Relevant arts and humanities journals were hand-searched, and reference lists examined for further relevant reports. Findings - Although decision making in environmental policy relies on logic, empirical fact and intuition, it does not make sense to have a "universal master plan" covering living persons, the unborn, and the non-human world when designing an environmental policy. Environmental policy options are meaningful in specific contexts; since each context has its own underpinnings and specific preferences on the basis of its own peculiar socio-cultural and economic circumstances, the necessity of narrative ethics in decision making becomes evident. Practical implications - As this review demonstrates, the initial concern in environmental matters may centre on the preservation of human health, clean health, clean air and water, endangered species, jobs and the needs of future generations. Decisions may then be reached through cost benefit analysis, which tends to be whether or not the chosen course of action produces greater balance, the greatest happiness to the greatest number. But there are difficulties in determining what constitutes "cost" or "benefit". Originality/value - It became evident from this study that, to stand the test of time, context-sensitive environmental paradigms should be capable of enriching themselves with ideas from other approaches to decision making such that, although problems may have a global dimension, the solutions to them must be context-sensitive. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.