Publications / Scenarios
The evolutionary paths of social-ecological systems comprise periods of structural continuity punctuated by moments of convulsive change. Various forms of systemic global shock could materialize in the coming decades, triggered by the climate crisis, social disruption, economic breakdown, financial collapse, nuclear conflict, or pandemics. The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic stands as a real-time example of an interruption of historic continuity. More hopefully, deep institutional and cultural shifts could rapidly usher in more resilient forms of global civilization. These plausible possibilities challenge scenario studies to spotlight discontinuous futures, an imperative that has not been adequately met. Several factors—for example, gradualist theories of change, scientific reticence, the lure of quantitative tractability, embeddedness in policymaking processes—have rendered mainstream scenario analysis ill-suited to the task. The emphasis on continuity fails to alert decision makers and the public to the risks and opportunities latent in our singular historical moment. A shift to a paradigm that foregrounds discontinuity is long overdue, calling for efforts to broaden the base of persons involved; devote more attention to balancing narrative storytelling and a broader range of quantitative methods; and apply and develop methods to explicitly consider discontinuities in global scenario development.
Published in Sustainability 15, no. 17 (2023): 12950, https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/15/17/12950.
How will today’s crisis alter the shape of tomorrow’s world? Which scenario—Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, Great Transition—has become more likely? How can we seize the moment to propel transformation?
Featuring opening reflections from Paul Raskin and comments from Kavita Byrd, Maurie Cohen, Herman Greene, Shalmali Guttal, Sahan Savas Karatasli, Jeremy Lent, Marcus Oxley, Kate Pickett, Mamphela Ramphele, John Robinson, Rob Swart, and Tim Weiskel.
Recovering a comprehensive perspective on the global possible can reinvigorate debate on the kind of transformation needed, broaden the action agenda, and stimulate innovative research for illuminating our indeterminate future.
Despite recent advancements in sustainability research, the study of the dynamics and prospects of co-evolving human and ecological systems, the discipline still lacks an overarching theoretical framework. Scenario analysis offers a promising integrative approach, and scenario methods have been improved by a wave of new studies. Still, these studies remain most compelling in their opening frames, where quantitative modeling can track unfolding trends, and their closing frames, where qualitative description can provide rich descriptions of long-term social visions. Not surprisingly, given the formidable uncertainties, the trajectories between now and then remain poorly specified, if addressed at all. This paper suggests ways of thinking about these pathways and pivots, the world lines through the terra incognita between current global realities and alternative futures.
Originally published in Ecological Economics 65, no. 3 (2008): 461-470.
We have entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization. Strands of interdependence are weaving humanity and Earth into a single community of fate—the overarching proto-country herein christened Earthland. In the unsettled twenty-first century, the drama of social evolution will play out on a world stage with the perils many and dark premonitions all too plausible.
Still, a Great Transition to a planetary civilization of enriched lives and a healthy planet remains possible. But how? What forms of collective action and consciousness can redirect us toward such a future? Who will lead the charge? What might such a world look like?
Journey to Earthland offers answers. It clarifies the world-historical challenge; explains the critical role of a global citizens movement in advancing social transformation; and paints a picture of the kind of flourishing civilization that might lie on the other side of a Great Transition.
In this pivotal moment, the odyssey to a different world is underway yet the ultimate destination depends on choices and struggles yet to come. Acting to prevent the futures we dread is where our work must begin. But the larger task is to foster the finer Earthland we and our descendants deserve.
In The Collapse of Western Civilization, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway depict a dystopian future resulting from climate inaction. But the constricted dramatis personae in their scenario stacks the deck against the social agents that could emerge to alter the narrative.
Global futures pioneer Gilberto Gallopín discusses the origins of contemporary global scenario analysis, the ways worldviews can influence our sense of the future, and how the scenario approach offers a powerful way to envision unconventional tomorrows and guide actions today.
Humanity confronts a daunting double challenge in the twenty-first century: meeting widely-held aspirations for equitable human development while preserving the biophysical integrity of Earth systems. Extant scientific attempts to quantify futures that address these sustainability challenges are often not comprehensive across environmental and social drivers of global change, or rely on quantification methods that largely exclude deep social, cultural, economic, and technological shifts, leading to a constrained set of possibilities. This article combines three previously separate streams of inquiry—scenario analysis, planetary boundaries, and targets for human development—to show that there are plausible, diverse scenarios that remain within Earth’s safe bio-physical operating space and achieve a variety of development targets. However, dramatic social and technological changes are required to avert the social-ecological risks of a conventional development trajectory.
This article introduces the special issue of Technological Forecasting & Social Change on “Backcasting for Sustainability.” It provides a background of backcasting and positions it within the wider context of future studies. It offers reflections on the diversity and variety of backcasting studies and experiments, as presented in the ten papers for this special issue, and concludes by formulating a future research agenda.
This study explores possible pathways to sustainability by considering, in quantitative form, four contrasting scenarios for the twenty-first century. The analysis reveals vividly the risks of conventional development approaches and the real danger of socio-ecological descent into a future of diminished human and ecological well-being. Nonetheless, the paper underscores that a Great Transition scenario—turning toward a civilization of enhanced human well-being and environmental resilience—remains an option, and it identifies a suite of changes in strategic policies and human values for getting there.
Preliminary report available here.
Technical documentation available here.
Originally published in Sustainability 2, no. 8 (2010): 2626-2651.
All cultures are infused with myths and prophecies that express humankind’s expectations and fears for the future. By the latter decades of the twentieth century, realization spread that without sustainable practices the human enterprise more and more compromised the ecosphere’s capacity to support future life. The project of sustainability invites us to collectively and self-consciously construct the future: to generate plausible images of the world decades from now, establish collective goals, and adapt current choices and behaviors for the journey. New methods like scenario analysis can help us to explore such possible futures as well as rekindle age-old hopes for an organic and interdependent global civilization, no longer as abstract hope, but as necessity for a resilient and livable future.
Originally published in Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, vol. 1 of The Spirit of Sustainability, edited by William Jenkins (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2009).
Sustainability or Collapse? is the report of the 2005 Dahlem Workshop, which launched the multi-year project IHOPE (Integrated History and Future of People on Earth). A thorough appreciation of the inherent limits of contemporary models and methodological strategies would require greater attention to such critical issues as the policy implications of deep scientific unpredictability; critical thresholds and uncertainties in the global transition; and the roles of human values, culture, agency, and political mobilization. Nevertheless, by formulating bold, on-point questions, even if grand answers may prove elusive, this book stands as a significant way station on the long journey to an adequate science and practice of global change.
Originally published in Ecological Economics 68 (2009): 1900-1901.
Bringing Global Thinking to Local Sustainability Efforts: A Collaborative Project for the Boston Metropolitan Region—Technical Report on Quantitative Scenarios
This report provides technical documentation for the quantification of scenarios developed by the Tellus Institute for the Boston Scenarios Project (“BSP”). It serves as a supplement to the BSP final report: Alternative Long-Range Scenarios for the Boston Region: Contours of the Future. The report analyzes three long-range scenarios for the Boston region (Business-As-Usual (BAU), Policy Reform, and Deep Change), presenting the quantitative inputs and assumptions used in developing the scenarios and projecting them out to the year 2050.
The Boston Scenarios Project explored long-range futures for the region within a larger global perspective. The scenarios span a spectrum of possible futures for the Boston region to the year 2050. The Project analyzed conventional scenarios that gradually unfold from current trends under the influence of various policy adjustments as well as a normative scenario of “deep change” in which sustainability, social solidarity, and global responsibility become major organizing principles for the cultural, economic, and social development of the region.
Technical documentation available here.
Looking at the concurrence of global crises, Paul Raskin provides a theoretical framework for analyzing structural change in human-ecological systems. He explores the possible forms and interactions of two key uncertainties—the aforementioned crises and human intentionality—in the landscape of the future, as well as the various paths that could result. He concludes by highlighting prospects and strategies for the formation of a global movement rooted in a planetary ethos.
Essay #16 in the GTI Paper Series: Frontiers of a Great Transition
Originally published in Futures 38, no. 9 (November 2006): 1027-1045, available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328706000541.
James Goldstein describes how the forces of globalization and urbanization have strengthened place-based identities while fostering broad recognition of the need for sustainable development. He identifies the key actors in efforts to ensure community sustainability and examines the limitations of such activities. He outlines the design of a sustainable city under the Great Transition and offers lessons from the Boston Scenarios Project to move us forward toward such a goal.
Essay #12 in the GTI Paper Series: Frontiers of a Great Transition
Paul Raskin surveys the landscape of a Great Transition future from the perspective of an individual living in 2084. He emphasizes the preeminence of a triad of values—quality of life, human solidarity, and ecological sensibility—and shows how they, combined with a sense of world citizenship, have permeated political, social, and economic institutions.
Essay #2 in the GTI Paper Series: Frontiers of a Great Transition
Mark Halle explores the assumptions underlying the architecture of the multilateral trade regime and how it has both delivered and failed to deliver on the various promises of trade theory. He argues that sustainable development can be achieved by a more rigorous enforcement of and commitment to—rather than abandonment of—the espoused principles. He concludes by analyzing how trade would function in the three archetypal regions imagined in the Great Transition.
Essay #6 in the GTI Paper Series: Frontiers of a Great Transition
This chapter reviews the historical context of scenarios, beginning with brief sketches of early scenario activity, from its post-World War II origins up to about a decade ago. It focuses in particular on the subset of environmental global scenario projects that have a public policy and scientific orientation, since these are of greatest interest to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Special consideration is given to the following post-1995 global scenario building exercises: Global Scenarios Group, Global Environment Outlook, Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, World Water Vision, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. These scenarios, despite their diversity, are rooted in a common set of archetypal visions of the future: evolution, progression, and decline.
This paper reviews global scenario research to provide historical context for the efforts of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). Taken together, the seven recent studies surveyed provide a useful platform for the MA by offering insight into the complex factors that drive ecosystem change, estimating the magnitude of regional pressures on ecosystems, sounding the alert on critical uncertainties that could undermine sustainable development, and understanding the importance of institutions and values. But these studies are only a point of departure. The integration of changing ecosystem conditions into global development scenarios, as both effects and causes, is at the cutting edge of scenario analysis. The paper concludes by identifying directions for this research program and suggesting ways that the MA can contribute to this effort.
Unsustainable tendencies in the co-evolution of human and natural systems have stimulated a search for new approaches to understanding complex problems of environment and development. Recently, attention has been drawn to the emergence of a new “sustainability science,” and core questions and research strategies have been proposed. A key challenge of sustainability is to examine the range of plausible future pathways of combined social and environmental systems under conditions of uncertainty, surprise, human choice, and complexity. This requires charting new scientific territory and expanding the current global change research agenda. Scenario analysis—including new participatory and problem-oriented approaches—provides a powerful tool for integrating knowledge, scanning the future in an organized way, and internalizing human choice into sustainability science.
Originally published in Global Environmental Change 14 (2004): 137–146.
Available for purchase here.
A letter to the editor in Science discussing a recent article, “Sustainability Science,” by Kates et al.
The letter argues that sustainability science will need to transcend the determinism and incremental responses to perturbation that still dominate much research on the dynamics of combined socio-ecological systems. It offers participatory scenario development as an approach for systematically addressing many of the core challenges the discipline faces.
Originally published in Science 297 (September 2002): 1994.
Through the Global Environment Outlook series, the United Nations Environment Programme provides a comprehensive assessment of the state of the global environment, a review of policy responses, and an outlook on the future. The first Global Environment Outlook (GEO-1) was released in 1997, the second (GEO-2000) in 2000, and the third (GEO-3) in 2002. This background paper for GEO-3 provides a scenario-based approach to illuminate the challenges and appropriate responses over the coming decades. It addresses environmental trends in an integrated framework that included economic, social, and cultural factors that ultimately shape the ways in which human activity impacts nature, and it places regional analyses in the context of global patterns.
Eliminating poverty is an overriding objective of World Bank policy. Closely associated with it is the goal of achieving environmentally-sustainable growth. This study considers whether these goals can be achieved with current policy approaches. In particular, the study examines a key hypothesis implicit in the Bank’s present strategy: Is economic growth consistent with environmental goals and alone enough to reduce poverty, or are other strategies likely to be required?
The PoleStar System provides a flexible and user-friendly framework for building and assessing alternative development scenarios at regional, national, and global scales. It is an adaptable accounting and model-building framework designed to assist the analyst engaged in sustainability studies—not a rigid model reflecting one particular approach to environment and development interactions. With PoleStar, analysts can customize data structures, time horizons, and spatial boundaries—all of which can be expanded or altered easily. They can also introduce new variables, indicators, and relationships to match their needs. The system can synthesize information generated from formal models, existing studies, or any other sources upon which the user wishes to draw.
The transition to sustainable forms of development will be a long and complex process. The objective of this project is to help launch that process in West Africa, focusing on the countries in the UEMOA region, the Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest-Africaine. The study is the first to assess current patterns of development and resource use in the region, with a view to evaluating the sustainability of current practices into the future.
One way to gain insights into the uncertain future is to construct what are known as scenarios. This article explores a wide range of long-term scenarios that could unfold from the forces that will drive the world system in the twenty-first century by considering six contrasting possibilities. The scenarios were developed by an international and interdisciplinary group of 15 development professionals called the Global Scenario Group. This scan of the future illuminates the perils and possibilities before us and, more importantly, helps to clarify the changes in policies and values that will be required for a transition to sustainability during coming decades.
Originally published in Environment 40, no. 3 (April 1998): 6-11, 26-31.
This paper analyzes the prospects for sustainability within the confines of Conventional Worlds scenarios. The shift to more sustainable forms of development must at least begin at this level, although we will likely need more fundamental social changes to complete the transition to a sustainable global society. The paper introduces social and environmental targets as well as strategic policies for reaching them. It shows both the great potential for progress and the daunting challenges within a growth-driven development paradigm.
Technical documentation available here.
Originally published in Energy Sources 20 (January 1998): 363-383, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00908319808970067.
This paper introduces scenario methods and a framework for envisioning global futures. It depicts contrasting world development scenarios, all compatible with current patterns and trends, but with sharply different implications for the quest for sustainability in the twenty-first century. The paper focuses on three broad scenario classes—Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions—which are characterized by, respectively, essential continuity with current patterns, fundamental but degenerative social change, and fundamental and progressive social transformation.
This chapter looks at just how fast energy needs might grow under conditions of both limited and rapid growth in Africa’s agricultural production. It examines the energy-agriculture nexus in several case study countries: Cameroon, Mali, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Scenarios are then developed for the last three countries to depict possible levels of agricultural activity and their energy use implications through the year 2010.
Chapter 4 in Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Future Energy Requirements for Africa’s Agriculture (Rome: FAO, 1995).
The U.S. electric sector contributes about 35 percent to the nation’s total annual carbon dioxide emissions. Modeling climate change policies in the electric sector, however, poses a number of challenges. This report uses PCNEMS (1995 Version), a computer model constructed and applied by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), and ancillary analyses to assess several policies designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in this sector, including extension of EPACT renewables credits, system benefits charges for sustained orderly development of renewables, carbon taxes and caps, accelerated deployment of new technologies, and incentive financing.
Conventional development wisdom generally assumes the long-term continuity of dominant institutions, along with the expansion of resource intensive consumption and production patterns in industrialized countries and their gradual extension to developing countries. However, the growth orientation of conventional development strategies and resource-intensive lifestyles produce risks and unacceptable deterioration of the biosphere, as well as social and economic instability. The limitations of the conventional development paradigm suggest the beginnings of an outline for a strategic agenda for sustainability.
This inquiry summarizes global water resources and patterns of use, applies indicators of water sustainability in order to identify areas of water stress, and examines prospects for water sustainability in the twenty-first century. It introduces a long-range conventional development scenario based on a vision of the future in which the values, consumption patterns, and dynamics of Western industrial society will be progressively played out on a global scale. The scenario helps clarify the constraints of a conventional picture of water development and provides a useful point of departure for examining alternative long-range scenarios and their implications for water and development policy.
Originally published in Natural Resources Forum 20, no. 1 (February 1996): 1-15, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1477-8947.1996.tb00629.x/abstract.
This report aims to clarify the requirements of sustainable energy development. It begins by describing and contextualizing current patterns of global energy use, production, and resources. It then presents a global long-range Conventional Development Scenario for energy to the year 2050 assuming mid-range population and economic projections, gradual evolution of human and natural systems, and global convergence of technological, institutional, and cultural processes. The report identifies potential environmental, resource, and social stresses related to the conventional development path and explores the implications and limitations of such a path.
This report projects agricultural production and demand, as well as land use, patterns to 2050 rather than 2010, the standard time horizon for such projections. This longer time scale is necessary to capture crucial, slow-acting trends or long-delayed situations which nevertheless bear heavily on the visions and actions which we need to adopt today. These include probable reductions in the growth of population and per capita food consumption, widening disparities between regional food demand supply capacities, impending biophysical limits to the continued expansion of cultivable land, and possible production constraints due to other natural resource problems. This study is part of a wider systematic exploration of sustainable futures in the PoleStar project.
Recent years have been characterized by a major transition in public policy regarding economics, the environment, and human well-being—particularly, the application of economic principles to environmental policy and the insertion of ecological principles into economic affairs. This article explores the evolutionary character of this transition and the contention in which it is often embroiled, such as debates over externalities valuation, discounting, and monetization. It then describes the PoleStar project and how it addresses the complex social, economic, and ecological interactions that will underpin human development in the twenty-first century.
Originally published in Olav Homeyer and Richard Ottinger, eds., Social Costs of Energy: Present Status and Future Trends (New York: Springer, 1994), 373-404.