Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Four Futures

July 29, 2008

By Erik Ness

Illustration ©Michael Gibbs

“There was something strange about my new job offer,” said the young Indian. He looked nervously at his hands, caressing the scab on his knee. “Five months’ pay for one month’s work. Even if it was far away, it just seemed odd. But how could one resist?” Life had been hard enough already. The harvest had failed yet again this year, the sacred grove was long since cut. AIDS ran unchecked in the province, but the public health nurse hadn’t been seen in years. Like most village kids, he’d been booted from school at age 7. A little steady work—no matter how strange—was progress. “For the first time in two years, I could eat twice a day. The sore on my knee even started to fill in,” he explained. “They taught me how to light fuses and how to use a gun. By the time the armed motorcade came to cross the bridge, I was ready.”

How many died? How had he survived? We will never know precisely. The young mercenary lives in the future, circa 2050. And although nothing about his story suggests a double life as an environmental indicator, that’s his role: as a character in one of four scenarios of the future that give an intriguing twist to the colossal state-of-the-planet report known as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA).

It took four years and more than 2,000 scientists and technical specialists to complete the MA, which the United Nations began unveiling in March 2005. The MA may be the most exhaustive attempt to quantify benefits from the earth’s myriad ecological services and what kind of shape they’re in. And, not surprisingly, the trend lines point downward.

So who needs another round of depressing statistics? If there is a single problem bedeviling scientists, conservationists, and well-meaning citizens, it’s the challenge of finding a path through this apparent endgame of global decline. Science alone is not up to the task. Natural systems are too poorly understood, too complex, and too closely intertwined for us to predict changes over the long term.

Recognizing this, the MA leaders assigned nearly 100 ecologists and economists from all over the world a very unusual job: Tell us stories about the future. Invent Indian mercenaries and African entrepreneurs and see the world through their eyes. It’s a far older technique than using computer-driven models. It’s not precisely reproducible. But it has the potential to be an extremely powerful conservation tool.

The scenario team used their best educated guesses about where certain forces such as climate change, economic growth, and technological development might take us and then developed a series of scenarios to explore a wide range of plausible futures (see box, right). And despite our inability to predict what’s next, these four scenarios prepare us for the unexpected twists in the road ahead. The essential problem is that devastation of the sort regularly forecast by the scientific community is so extreme as to be unimaginable and thus its prospect is almost incapacitating. And yet we must be able to imagine it—and to imagine paths around and through it—to be strategically prepared for the fight.

“People are very forward-looking animals,” explains Steve Carpenter, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin and co-chair of the scenarios team. “We make a lot of our daily decisions and longer-term decisions based on our expectations of what’s going to happen. If we expect that something bad is going to happen, we behave very differently than if we expect something good could happen.”


Scenario building has its roots in war gaming after the Second World War, particularly with respect to the macabre and complex tactical challenge of atomic weapons. From the 1970s through the 1990s, scenarios matured in the business world, notably at Royal Dutch Shell, where on-staff futurists foresaw both the possible rise of a monopolistic cartel like OPEC and the dramatic decline of oil prices in the 1980s. During this time, Shell became the second-largest oil company in the world, and the company believed that scenario planning had helped cultivate a nimble, flexible corporate culture. In 1992, they hired Betty Sue Flowers, a respected poet and now director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, to help strengthen the narratives. “While forecasts can sometimes lull us into thinking we can predict the future, scenarios mirror the unpredictable, world-changing events we must be ready to face,” say the authors of the 1992 scenarios in their introduction.

In the 1990s, Shell decided to stay in South Africa during the divestment furor that preceded the end of apartheid. It also dispatched its scenario team, which brought representatives of the apartheid government, the right-wing separatist movement, the militant African National Congress, and the Inkatha to the table. Four scenarios were created with an ornithological flourish: Icarus was a quick climb, then a crash; Ostrich had its head in the sand; Lame Duck was a lengthy and indecisive transition; Flight of the Flamingoes had everyone taking off slowly, but together, and ultimately flying quite high. These story lines generated widespread conversation in churches and on the radio, in wealthy enclaves and poor townships. “The power of stories is their coherence,” said Flowers. “Stories have coherence and harmony, and that can actually make things happen in the world in a way that laws cannot . . . It was important to see how a language of story could appeal so much and become a language that all levels of society could enter into for the sake of democratic discussion.”

Scenario work has become relatively common in business and politics, but it has lacked ecological perspective and been neglected as a conservation tool. To make that connection, the MA scenarios team began by interviewing 59 leaders from all over the world and with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. They then matched the interviewee’s subjective opinions about the state of the world to a number of previous scenario archetypes. Using that as a starting point, the team set out to integrate ecological drivers such as habitat change, climate change, species invasions, and overexploitation with social, political, and cultural patterns.

Their scenarios were particularly suited to imagining alternate futures and coping with surprises. And surprises seem to have become the order of the day. In fact, the scenarios team was shifting into full gear just before September 11, 2001.


Two weeks after 9/11, Elena Bennett, a coordinating author of the scenarios now at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, found herself on an almost-empty airplane heading to South Africa for her first meeting with the MA scenario team. At the time, the nature of the American response to 9/11 was still largely unknown. Four years later, however, Order from Strength looks eerily familiar. “When I present the scenarios in the U.S., people say, ‘Obviously we’re in Order from Strength . Why bother with the rest?’” But she never hears that elsewhere. “The belief about which scenario we’re in is much more split outside of the U.S.”

In fact, Order from Strength is not intended strictly to mirror current events. Previous scenarios explored similar trends—one of Shell’s 1993 scenarios was called Barricades. Nevertheless, Order from Strength was a crucible of sorts for the MA. In almost every way, the scenario is the most disastrous environmental performer. Its traction in the U.S. is troublesome because of the disproportionate role of the U.S. in global politics and consumption.

Order from Strength , however, does not stand alone; the scenarios vary in two key ways. Order from Strength and Adapting Mosaic rely on local and regional approaches, whereas TechnoGarden and Global Orchestration are more global. Order from Strength and Global Orchestration react to environmental challenges, whereas Adapting Mosaic and TechnoGarden are more proactive.

The strength of scenarios is their ability to push people to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. Consider what happened to Prabhu Pingali, an agricultural economist for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome and scenario co-chair with Steve Carpenter. He could have been forgiven if he had thought the scenarios project doomed after the first meeting. “The economists and the ecologists in the room did not talk to each other after the second day,” he recalls. “Complete worlds apart.”

Pingali was naturally drawn to the macroeconomic ideas behind Global Orchestration . “My view of the world was very much shaped by neoclassical economics, by this idea that markets work, and the more integrated a global market is the better it is,” says Pingali. What the ecologists brought to the table was knowledge of how ecosystem services critical to human well-being were largely ignored by markets. As it evolved, Global Orchestration gained ecological savvy, replacing an unrestrained trust in the power of markets with open trade balanced by significant investment in public goods.

The ecologists, meanwhile, found that the scenario most closely allied with their world view had its own problems. “ Adapting Mosaic is a world that a lot of environmental, anti-globalization, social justice people would initially find very attractive,” explains Garry Peterson, a scenario author also at McGill University. In this world of local control, it is too easy to make decisions that favor localities but trash the global commons. And it is easy to see how it could shift toward Order from Strength .

While the storytellers were weaving their tales, the modelers were doing their best with those variables that could be modeled. There was continual dialogue and argument about the plausibility of various paths as each team refined its work. A key realization was that the models were particularly poor at representing human adaptation. “The storyline people would come back and say, ‘Wait a minute, your models are imagining that people are vastly more stupid than the evidence would suggest they are,’” says Carpenter. “’Aren’t people going to adapt and change the way they operate well before things get as bad as the model says they’re going to get?’”

A lot of things remain the same across scenarios: declines in natural habitats between now and 2050, growing demand for marine protein, and increases in species invasions and nutrient deposition. Drylands are at high risk for desertification. Food security is not possible by 2050, although it is a U.N. goal for 2015. Water demand will almost surely outstrip availability within the next 50 years. Extinctions are expected to increase.

But the scenarios do shed significant light on the kinds of choices we face. An Adapting Mosaic path shows improvement across the board for all kinds of ecosystem services in both industrial and developing countries but fails to deal with larger-scale issues such as nutrient pollution and greenhouse gases. TechnoGarden shows even more potential for provisioning in the developing world, but at a loss of connection to nature. Global Orchestration also increases provisioning, but we lose both cultural connections to nature and regulation of ecosystem services. Order from Strength is the best bet to control invasive species, but virtually all ecosystem services decline in industrial nations and plummet in developing countries.


None of these worlds will come to pass. Yet in reading these tea leaves, it is easy to imagine how bits and pieces may be cobbled together to create the future. The job of the scenarios is to help us think clearly—outside the box of our own world view—about what may be coming. Well-constructed stories should help us avoid pitfalls and seize opportunities.

“This was not an optimization exercise,” says Carpenter. “A hybrid set of policies might have performed better than these scenarios.” Indeed, the scenarios certainly helped Carpenter appreciate what can be accomplished with serious investments in education and technology. “I thought the problems were huge, and I was worried that there wasn’t much we could do about it,” he says. But the scenarios show that changes in policy can make a difference. “Every policy that’s built into the scenarios is happening somewhere in the world today. The bad news is that nobody is doing them at a global scale.”

“Business uses scenarios as wind tunnels,” explains MA director Walter Reid. As a starting point, conservationists can throw their own plans and problems into these stories, just to see what happens. The MA itself was strengthened by the scenarios’ consistent warning of environmental surprises.

And surprises are likely to come in abundance. “During the course of the scenario development, we saw the world become more focused on national security and the possibility of a less connected world emerge,” reflects Steve Cork, a principal author of the scenarios and a staff scientist at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. “This underlined how quickly things can change.” Initially sympathetic toward the use of force to maintain world order, Cork soon saw how difficult it would be to face myriad environmental problems. “An uncooperative world has no chance of dealing with these challenges.”

“I used to believe that science had the answer to everything and that preparing for the future is about predicting on the basis of scientific analysis,” concludes Cork. “The seeds of the future are to be found in the extremes of the present, so our wildest ideas are the ones that give us insights into the possible surprises of the next few decades.”



Driven by a system of property rights and valuation of ecosystem services, technology provides or improves ecosystem services. People push ecosystems to their limits, enabled by advancement beyond today’s environmental engineering and by the fact that multiple needs can be met by the same ecosystem. Provision of ecosystem services in this scenario is high worldwide, but flexibility is low due to high dependence on a narrow set of optimal approaches. In some cases, unexpected problems created by technology and the erosion of ecological resilience lead to vulnerable ecosystem services, which are subject to interruption or breakdown. This success can also undercut the ability of ecosystems to support themselves, which leads to surprising and damaging interruptions or even collapse of some ecosystem services. Economic growth is initially relatively high and accelerates, whereas population is in the midrange of that for all the scenarios.

Global Orchestration

Global economic and social policies are the primary approach to sustainability. Because many pressing global problems seem rooted in poverty and inequality, trade barriers and subsidies are removed to improve the well-being of those in poorer countries. It’s also assumed that prosperity will create both the demand for and the means to achieve a well-functioning environment, which means environmental problems are dealt with largely as they arise. Some progress on global environmental problems such as greenhouse gas emissions and depletion of pelagic marine fisheries occurs, while local and regional environmental problems are exacerbated. Although human well-being is improved in many of the poorest countries (and in some rich countries), a number of ecosystem services deteriorate by 2050. Economic growth in this scenario is the highest of the four, whereas population growth is the lowest.

Adapting Mosaic

Declining faith in global institutions, combined with increased understanding of the importance of resilience and local flexibility, favors experimentation and local control of ecosystem management at the regional and watershed level. Some regions do a better job than others. Good communication and a drive to improve lead regions to compare experiences and learn from one another. Gradually, the number of successful experiments begins to grow. Although global problems are ignored initially, later in the scenario they are approached with flexible strategies based on successful experiences with locally adaptive management. However, some systems such as marine fisheries and coastal shelves suffer long-lasting degradation. Economic growth rates are initially low but increase with time, whereas population growth is nearly as high as in Order from Strength.

Order from Strength

Protection through boundaries becomes paramount. The rich protect their borders, attempting to confine poverty, conflict, environmental degradation, and deterioration of ecosystem services to areas outside those borders. But these forces often disregard borders. Protected natural areas are not sufficient for nature preservation or for maintenance of ecosystem services. Economic growth is the lowest of the four scenarios and is particularly low in developing countries, where population growth is highest.

For More Information

The report Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Scenarios, Volume 2: Findings of the Scenarios Working Group is available at the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment website ( and in print from Island Press (

Information about the Shell scenarios is available at

The Global Business Network provides worldwide scenario and strategy consultanting .

Adam Kahane discusses the Shell scenario-building process and other scenario-building exercises he has participated in (

About the Author
Erik Ness writes about science and the environment for a variety of publications including Discover, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, and OnEarth from his home in Madison, Wisconsin.

What to Read Next