Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"

Segment #2:   Is our Planet In Trouble?

Part III: Some Future Scenarios

          A technique frequently used prior to planning in business and government is to develop alternative scenarios and then play them out. Scenarios are stories about the future that can foster strategic thinking and learning, and can help mitigate uncertainty and guard against potential problems. There are too many variables and unknowns to rely entirely on model building or mathematical projections for effective planning. We all know horror stories about how experts have herded themselves around the wrong solution to a given problem--with sometimes disastrous results.

          What is sometimes forgotten in plan development are: (i) incorporation of many different points of view; and (ii) insight into how different elements might interact with unexpected results. Scenario development is one way of trying to find a more out-of-the-box way of thinking.

          This article briefly describes some scenarios that have been developed by individuals and organizations.

A.    The following six alternative scenarios for our global futures are based on work initially done by Gilberto Gallopín1. Study these scenarios.

  1. Adrift: The values and socioeconomic arrangements of the industrial era continue to evolve. Competitive markets and private investment remain the engines of economic growth and wealth allocation. The consumer culture permeates the globe via electronic media resulting in an increase in homonegeneity despite fundamentalist, ethnic, and nationalist backlashes. The economies of developing countries grow more rapidly than first world nations. The shift from manufacturing to services continues. New technology leads to more efficient use of energy and resources. Nonetheless, CO2 emissions, habitat destruction, species loss, and accumulation of toxins continue. Heightened pressure on natural resources increases economic and social conflicts. The persistence of large scale poverty and inequality within and between nations undermines social cohesion, encourages migration and stresses security systems. Social breakdown breeds conditions for authoritarianism and for ethnic and religious conflicts.

  2. Reform: As in the previous scenario, the values and socioeconomic arrangements of the industrial era continue to evolve. Competitive markets and private investment remain the engines of economic growth and wealth allocation. The consumer culture permeates the globe via electronic media resulting in an increase in homonegeneity despite fundamentalist, ethnic, and nationalist backlashes. In this case, however, efforts are made to implement a comprehensive global action agenda to begin to bend the curve of development towards sustainability. Consequently, population growth is slower as efforts are made to increase equity by improving the lives of the very poor and increasing education--thus reducing fertility. Growth with equity becomes the prevailing development strategy. Energy intensity improves as global efforts begin to be successful in moving towards renewable energy sources, and reducing carbon emissions. The shift is gradual, but not overcome by cataclysmic events.

  3. Breakdown: As before, current global economic forces remain the driving force. Conventional institutions are unable to manage the resulting change and ultimately unravel. The numbers living in poverty increase, and the gap between rich and poor grows. Social concerns are downgraded as governments gradually lose relevance relative to multinational corporations and global market forces. A large disaffected youth culture emerges with consumerist and nihilist tendencies, reinforced by entertainment programs and advertising which reaches every corner of the planet. Unfettered expansion of market-based economies leads to increases in air and water pollution, soil degradtion, and deforestation. Already brittle fisheries collapse, which combined with climate change results in large-scale famine and increased mortality rates. Social tensions, resource conflicts, ethnic and religious differences all increase as civil order breaks down leading to a general global collapse of of the market economy along with social, cultural, and political institutions. The breakdown persists for many decades as the population eventually declines due to increasing mortality, infrastructure decay, and resource degradation.

  4. Fortress: This is similar to the Breakdown scenario except that the well-off elite flourish in protected enclaves while the majority remain mired in poverty and without basic human rights. The elite place strategic reserves of all kinds of resources under military control, and use technology to maintain their own environment. This continues for decades until the "have not's" eventually revolt and overthrow the elite producing a descent into general chaos similar to the Breakdown scenario.

  5. Community: A widespread spiritual rebirth gradually arises and results in a global rejection of current material values. An ethic of voluntary simplicity and local autonomy dominates global human values. A network of largely self-sufficient communities replaces the old interdependent institutions of the current world which have collapsed and fragmented. Consumption levels fall, and urban pressures relax as more people resettle rural areas.

  6. Adaptive: In response to the widely perceived threat to the biosphere, a balance develops between the cosmopolitanism of global outlook and a strong sense of community, egalitarianism, and environmentalism. New scientific insights lead to greater public awareness of the risk of massive and irreversible changes in climate and life-support systems. A new international polity emerges and begins to be effective in solving global and regional conflicts through negotiation, collaboration, and consensus. Consumerism gives way to an emphasis on education, service, arts, and spiritual pursuits. Values, institutions, and the idea of a good life undergo a huge shift. Technology is directed to the widespread use of renewable resources, and experiments with alternative forms of governance proliferate. A fully developed Internet provides powerful channels for communication, education, and participative governance

B.     The UN Environment Programme produces an annual Global Environment Outlook. Here's what the most recent outlook (GEO-3 in 2002) has to say:

"The next 30 years will be as crucial as the past 30 for shaping the future of the environment. Old troubles will persist and fresh challenges will emerge as increasingly heavy demands are placed upon resources that, in many cases, are already in a fragile state. The increasing pace of change and degree of interaction between regions and issues has made it
more difficult than ever to look into the future with confidence. GEO-3 uses four scenarios to explore what the future could be, depending on different policy approaches. It is now generally accepted that scenarios do not predict. Rather, they paint pictures of possible futures and explore the differing outcomes that might result if basic assumptions are changed. The GEO-3 scenarios, which span developments in many overlapping areas including population, economics, technology and governance, are described in the boxes that follow." [Note that these descriptions are taken verbatim from the report.]

Markets First
Most of the world adopts the values and expectations prevailing in today’s industrialized countries. The wealth of nations and the optimal play of market forces dominate social and political agendas. Trust is placed in further globalization and liberalization to enhance corporate wealth, create new enterprises and livelihoods, and so help people and communities to afford to insure against — or pay to fix — social and environmental problems. Ethical investors, together with citizen and consumer groups, try to exercise growing corrective influence but are undermined by economic imperatives. The powers of state officials, planners and lawmakers to regulate society, economy and the environment continue to be overwhelmed by expanding demands.

Policy First
Decisive initiatives are taken by governments in an attempt to reach specific social and environmental goals. A coordinated pro-environment and antipoverty drive balances the momentum for economic development. Environmental and social costs and gains are factored into policy measures, regulatory frameworks and planning processes. All these are reinforced by fiscal levers or incentives such as carbon taxes and tax breaks. International ‘soft law’ treaties and binding instruments affecting environment and development are integrated into unified blueprints and their status in law is upgraded, though fresh provision is made for open consultation processes to allow for regional and local variants.

Security First
This scenario assumes a world of striking disparities where inequality and conflict prevail. Socioeconomic and environmental stresses give rise to waves of protest and counteraction. Discord becomes increasingly prevalent, the more powerful and wealthy groups focus on self-protection, creating enclaves akin
to the present day ‘gated communities’. Such islands of advantage provide a degree of enhanced security and economic benefits for dependent communities in their immediate surroundings but they exclude the disadvantaged mass of outsiders. Welfare and regulatory services fall into disuse but market forces continue to operate outside the walls.

Sustainability First
A new environment and development paradigm emerges in response to the challenge of sustainability, supported by new, more equitable values and institutions. A more visionary state of affairs prevails, where radical shifts in the way people interact with one another and with the world around them stimulate and support sustainable policy measures and accountable corporate behaviour. There is much fuller collaboration between governments, citizens and other stakeholder groups in decision-making on issues of close common concern. A consensus is reached on what needs to be done to satisfy basic needs and realize personal goals without beggaring others or spoiling the outlook for posterity.

C.     Richard Heinberg wrote a book in 2004 entitled PowerDown - Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. In his book, Heinberg offers four scenarios summarized in our words below.

Last One Standing
War is increasingly used as a tool for economic competition with dismal results for most of humanity, the environment, and many living species. Competition for remaining oil and gas resources, for ground-water and ocean resources, and for agricultural land increases. Growing inequities lead to ever more violence and destruction. Leaders demonize opponents in attempts to keep power and wealth, social norms break down, and widespread rage erupts as the bulge of young males in the population become increasingly uncontrollable.

Waiting for a Magic Elixir
Denial of the problems facing humanity leads to a widespread belief in the power of techno-fixes. Economic growth is seen as the greatest good, and oil for energy use and materials production is expected to be replaced with as-yet undiscovered sources and methods. Humanity's cleverness will, as in the past, save itself from pending disaster. Inertia, false assumptions, and denial use up valuable lead time and current problems only intensify. Energy shortages lead to economic turmoil, power blackouts, and political chaos as societies become too disorganized to make meaningful responses.

Visionary leaders are able to achieve an unprecedented degree of internal and international cooperation. The US and other countries mobilize with wartime speed to switch to sustainable energy usage patterns, reduce consumption, and overcome the effects of climate change, soil erosion, ocean degradation, and water-table depletion. Economic theories are drastically revised as monetary and political reforms are effected. Education overcomes cultural blocks to self-limiting behaviors.

Building Lifeboats
Individuals give up on the political process as a way for humanity to avoid manifest global disaster. They self organize into small groups, adopt limiting behaviors, and start to build self-sufficient communities that can survive the coming Dark Age. They work to preserve the best from human cultural experience so far, as well as the genetic inheritance of the diversity of life on the planet.

          Think About

    1. Are potentially significant trends or events missing from the scenarios described above? If so, what are they?
    2. How might the scenarios change if such missing elements were factored in?  
    3. Could a more likely scenario be devised? Is there a more desirable scenario?
    4. What might these be?

Next: Perspectives on Change


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