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Global Discontinuity: Time for a Paradigm Shift in Global Scenario Analysis

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,