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Taxonomy of the Future



Tellus Institute has been developing, quantifying, and refining a set of global scenarios since 1990. In partnership with the Stockholm Environment Institute, Tellus convened the influential Global Scenario Group in 1995, an international and interdisciplinary body for examining alternative futures and the requirements for a transition to sustainability. That process of exploration has continued on an expanded scale since 2003 through the Institute’s Great Transition Initiative. A simple “taxonomy of the future” organizes the possibilities.

The Three-fold Way

At the highest level of the taxonomy, three broad channels—Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions—fan out from the turbulent present into the imagined future (see graphic). These classes of scenarios represent, respectively, the archetypal notions of evolution, progression, and decline.

Conventional Worlds are governed by today’s dominant forces of globalization: economic interdependence deepens, dominant values spread, and developing regions gradually converge toward rich-country patterns of production and consumption.

Barbarization explores the very real risk that Conventional Worlds strategies prove inadequate for addressing mounting environmental and social stress, and problems spiral out of control, leading to a general crisis and the erosion of civilized norms.

Great Transitions examine worlds that transcend reform to embrace new values and institutions in pursuit of a just, fulfilling, and sustainable civilization.

Unpacking the Taxonomy

Needless to say, we can spin endless variations, and combinations, around the themes of Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transition. Here, we consider two variants each for a total of six visions.

Click on the images for a description and visualization of each vision.