Category Archives: Scenarios

Tim Daw on ecosystem services tradeoffs

  • In the video below Tim Daw, from the University of East Anglia’s School of International Development and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, explains his project Participatory Modelling of Wellbeing Tradeoffs in Coastal Kenya. The project, in which I’m also participating, has examined tradeoffs between social wellbeing and ecological conservation in small scale fisheries in Kenya using a combination surveys, models, scenarios, and participatory workshops.

For more information on the project is available on the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s website. The project is funded by the UK’s Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation programme. and there is more information on the ESPA website.

For more on poverty and ecosystem service tradeoffs see:

  • Bennett, E.M., Peterson, G.D. & Gordon, L.J. (2009) Understanding relationships among multiple ecosystem services. Ecology letters, 12, 1394–404. DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01387.x
  • Daw, T., Brown, K., Rosendo, S. & Pomeroy, R. 2011. Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being. Environmental Conservation, 38, 370–379. DOI: 10.1017/S0376892911000506
  • Raudsepp-Hearne, C., Peterson, G.D. & Bennett, E.M. 2010. Ecosystem service bundles for analyzing tradeoffs in diverse landscapes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107, 5242–7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907284107

Forty years of Limits to Growth

The first presentation of the influential environmentalist book Limits to Growth was on March 1 in 1972 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, four decades ago.

The study was both hugely influential and hugely controversial, and the authors were quite strongly attacked, often for analytical flaws that their study never said or did.  However, after two followup books, and renewed discussions of peak oil (etc) & planetary boundaries, there has been an increased appreciation of Limits to Growth.

After 40 years it seems that:

  1. Limits to Growth was a pretty good first stab at a global model (look at the number of models based on it)
  2. That the scenarios in Limits to Growth were fairly reasonable  (see here and here, here)
  3. That humanity has avoided some really bad trajectories, but could have done a lot better
  4. And that today, global civilization is pushing up against all sort of boundaries and we require more and more innovation to keep going and
  5. We probably need to have a major societal transformation to create a good Anthropocene.

For more on this, see Australian corporate environmentalist Paul Gilding‘s book Great Disruption, just is based on a similar assessment of the world – and he just gave a TED talk based on the book.

Various Limits related events have been timed for this 40th anniversary.

First, the Smithsonian is hosting Perspectives on Limits to Growth – which will feature two of the original members of the team that wrote Limits.  They describe the seminar:

The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet are hosting a symposium on March 1, 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits. Forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges as when the book was first published.

The morning session will start at 9:00 a.m. and will focus on the lessons of Limits to Growth. The afternoon session will begin at 1:45 p.m. and will address the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet. The symposium will end with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for building a sustainable planet.

The meeting will be live-streamed and video archived on the internet at Perspectives on Limits to Growth.

Second, coinciding with the with anniversary is the release an interesting report Life beyond Growth 2012.  Alan AtKisson, author of Believing Cassandra and colleague of many limits authors, wrote the report for the Japanese Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society.

Life Beyond Growth is the product of a year of research and reflection, during which the world experienced tumultuous changes, ranging from the Arab Spring to the Great East Japan Earthquake to the “Occupy” movement to the near-meltdown of the Eurozone.

Despite all the economic and political turmoil, a revolution in economic thought continued to gain steam. From “Green Economy” to “Gross National Happiness” to the more radical notion of “De-growth,” governments around the world have continued to explore new ways to frame, and measure, the idea of national progress. Most recently, the United Nations has formally joined the dialogue, with its own high-level panel calling for “new ways to measure progress” in advance of the Rio+20 global summit.

And third, one that was not planned to coincide with the anniversary, but is importantly connected Victor Galaz and many other have a new paper Planetary boundaries’ — exploring the challenges for global environmental governance, which is not freely available, in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2012.01.006).  The article (from the abstract):

… provides an overview of the global governance challenges that follow from this notion of multiple, interacting and possibly non-linear ‘planetary boundaries’. Here we discuss four interrelated global environmental governance challenges, as well as some possible ways to address them. The four identified challenges are related to, first, the interplay between Earth system science and global policies, and the implications of differences in risk perceptions in defining these boundaries; second, the capacity of international institutions to deal with individual ‘planetary boundaries’, as well as interactions between them; third, the role of international organizations in dealing with ‘planetary boundaries’ interactions; and fourth, the role of global governance in framing social–ecological innovations.

Development with Fossil or Solar Energy?

The price of solar power has been rapidly decling over the past several decades (~ 7%/year decline in US$/watt or a cost halving every 10 years ).  This drop , combined with peristently high oil prices is producing some interesting dynamics. New Scientist has an interesting article on the rapid drop in the price of solar power in India.  Where many people and unconnected to the power grid, and for those that are the brittleness of the grid means that many people rely on generators:

Recent figures from market analysts Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF)show that the price of solar panels fell by almost 50 per cent in 2011. They are now just one-quarter of what they were in 2008. That makes them a cost-effective option for many people in developing countries. .. Now [India's] generators could be on their way out. In India, electricity from solar supplied to the grid has fallen to just 8.78 rupees per kilowatt-hour compared with 17 rupees for diesel. The drop has little to do with improvements in the notoriously poor efficiency of solar panels: industrial panels still only convery 15 to 18 per cent of the energy they receive into electricity. But they are now much cheaper to produce, so inefficiency is no longer a major sticking point. …The one thing stopping households buying a solar panel is the initial cost, says Amit Kumar, director of energy-environment technology development at The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India. Buying a solar panel is more expensive than buying a diesel generator, but according to Chase’s calculations solar becomes cheaper than diesel after seven years. The panels last 25 years. Even in India, solar electricity remains twice as expensive as electricity from coal, but that may soon change. While the price drop in 2011 was exceptional, analysts agree that solar will keep getting cheaper. Suntech’s in-house analysts predict that, by 2015, solar electricity will be as cheap as grid electricity in half of all countries. When that happens, expect to see solar panels wherever you go.

A similar article about the USA, was recently in the business magazine Fast Company.

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints

Following up on my comments on William Gibson‘s discuss of his science fiction where I wrote that “Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints”

Futurist, scenario planner, and co-founder of WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio writes on his weblog Open the Future about Living in a Scenario:

There’s something of a rule-of-thumb among professional futurey-types: scenario elements that sound plausible are almost certainly wrong, while scenario elements that sound utterly implausible are very likely on-target. That’s generally true, although it applies more to the disruptive aspects of a scenario than to the everyday aspects. (That said, a scenario that said “most people in the West continue to live quiet lives, using their barely-sufficient income to pay for disposable commodity goods and overly-processed food,” while both plausible and very likely on-target for the next decade or three, is more depressing than illuminating.) Good scenario disruption points should be things that, in the here-and-now, would make you say “oh, crap” if you heard them in the news.

Oh, crap.

Nanotechnology researchers in Mexico, France, Spain, and Chile have been targeted by a terror group calling itself “Individuals Tending Towards Savagery,” and claiming to be inspired by the Unabomber.

Unabomber-copycat terror cell hits nanotech researchers in the developing world and Europe — I’m not sure anything could sound more like a headline from a scenario exercise.

William Gibson does not think our present was anyone’s future

David Wallace-Wells has a long interview with William Gibson on the Art of Fiction in the Paris Review.  The interview concludes

Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?

GIBSON

No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it’s barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are those major plot drivers?

GIBSON

Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

INTERVIEWER

And you haven’t even gotten to the technology.

GIBSON

You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints.

Participatory Scenario Development Approaches

Participatory scenario development is a process that involves the participation of stakeholders to explore the future in a creative and policy-relevant way. For an example see the 2008 paper Making Investments in Dryland Development Work: Participatory Scenario Planning in the Makanya Catchment, Tanzania, which Elin Enfors wrote with me and two other colleagues.

Two recent reports present lessons learned from the World Bank’ Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change project use of participatory scenarios.  Such reports are important as the tools and techniques that people need to use are difficult to adequately describe in papers, and have too narrow audience to be worthwhile to describe in books.  The reports are freely downloadable from the World Bank.

Approaches for Identifying Pro-Poor Adaptation Options (PDF, 3.7 MB).  By Livia Bizikova, Samantha Boardley, and Simon Mead

The first report presents lessons learned from the application of participatory scenario-based tools within the World Bank’ Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change project. The authors illustrate how such tools provide opportunities to increase the usability of information on climate change impacts when developing adaptation responses and explore linkages between development, projected climate change and relevant adaptation responses.

Pro-Poor Adaptation: Capacity Development Manual (PDF, 4.0 MB) By ESSA Technologies Ltd and International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD)

The second report is based on the experiences of the authors in designing, developing and delivering participatory scenario workshops as part of World Bank’ Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change project.  It focuses on providing ‘how to’ information for people to apply participatory scenario approaches.

Murakami on fiction for an unreal world

One of the problems with scenario planning is that it requires plausible scenarios, but that reality is behaves in ways that are implausible.  This is another way of describing what Nassim Taleb named Black Swans, significant unexpected events, that change the course of events in unlikely ways.

In an article in the International Herald Tribune magazine, well known Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, author of the Windup Bird Chronicle and many other books, about how he believes that ‘realistic’ fiction is now incapable of capturing the present.  In his article Reality A and Reality B Murakami writes:

Over the past 30 years, I have written fiction in various forms ranging from short stories to full-length novels. The story has always been one of the most fundamental human concepts. While each story is unique, it functions for the most part as something that can be shared and exchanged with others. That is one of the things that gives a story its meaning. Stories change form freely as they inhale the air of each new age. In principle a medium of cultural transmission, stories are highly variable when it comes to the mode of presentation they employ. Like skilled fashion designers, we novelists clothe stories, as they change shape from day to day, in words suited to their figures.

Viewed from such a professional perspective, it would seem that the interface between us and the stories we encounter underwent a greater change than ever before at some point when the world crossed (or began to cross) the millennial threshold. Whether this was a change for the good or a less welcome change, I am in no position to judge. About all I can say is that we can probably never go back to where we started.

Speaking for myself, one of the reasons I feel this so strongly is the fact that the fiction I write is itself undergoing a perceptible transformation. The stories inside me are steadily changing form as they inhale the new atmosphere. I can clearly feel the movement happening inside my body. Also happening at the same time, I can see, is a substantial change in the way readers are receiving the fiction I write.

There has been an especially noteworthy change in the posture of European and American readers. Until now, my novels could be seen in 20th-century terms, that is, to be entering their minds through such doorways as “post-modernism” or “magic realism” or “Orientalism”; but from around the time that people welcomed the new century, they gradually began to remove the framework of such “isms” and accept the worlds of my stories more nearly as-is. I had a strong sense of this shift whenever I visited Europe and America. It seemed to me that people were accepting my stories in toto — stories that are chaotic in many cases, missing logicality at times, and in which the composition of reality has been rearranged. Rather than analyzing the chaos within my stories, they seem to have begun conceiving a new interest in the very task of how best to take them in.

By contrast, general readers in Asian countries never had any need for the doorway of literary theory when they read my fiction. Most Asian people who took it upon themselves to read my works apparently accepted the stories I wrote as relatively “natural” from the outset. First came the acceptance, and then (if necessary) came the analysis. In most cases in the West, however, with some variation, the logical parsing came before the acceptance. Such differences between East and West, however, appear to be fading with the passing years as each influences the other.

We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11had never happened — or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).

Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?

What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?

…In that sense, at the same time that fiction (story) is presently undergoing a severe test, it possesses an unprecedented opportunity. Of course fiction has always been assigned responsibility and questions to deal with in every age, but surely the responsibility and questions are especially great now. Story has a function that it alone can perform, and that is to “turn everything into a story.” To transform the things and events around us into the metaphor of the story form and to suggest the true nature of the situation in the dynamism of that substitution: that is story’s most important function.

Biologist and British science fiction writer Paul McAuley, author of the very good the Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, reflect on how science fiction has largely failed to engage the world Murakami evokes but has the potential to do so in his response to Murakami’s article:

As a science-fiction writer, I find Murakami’s ideas incredibly interesting. And hopeful. Or rather, potentially hopeful. For something similar should have happened to science fiction, shouldn’t it? After all, catastrophes and sudden shifts in perception are part of its stock in trade. But instead of confronting Reality A, the genre has, in the first decade of the 21st century, too often turned to its own comforting version of Reality B: retreating into pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history. Meanwhile, they grumble, ‘mainstream’ writers are grabbing ideas from the genre and doing terrible things to them without acknowledging the source. As if permission could be somehow given, or withheld.

I prefer the point of view of William Gibson, who has pointed out that the only way to tackle the place we’re in now is to use the science-fiction toolkit – the tropes, images and metaphor developed from the crude flint hammers of pulp by decades of cooperative effort and argument. If other writers are using the science-fiction toolkit to evolve new kinds of stories in the present’s different air, that’s exactly what we should be doing, too. Forget the past. Especially the pasts of all those great glorious science-fiction futures, lost when it all changed. Look again at the future. Embrace change. Let go. If only. If only.

Need for new utopian stories

Following up on the previous post’s William Gibson quote, another science fiction writer with interesting ideas about the future is Scottish writer Charlie Stross.  On his weblog Charlie’s Diary, he writes about something I think is important, the need for new positive visions of the future.  He writes:

It seems to me that one of our besetting problems these days is that there’s a shortage of utopias on offer.

… it seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus … is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, “will it make things worse?” This isn’t a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we’re immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what’s good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.

Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Pattern recognition

I quoted William Gibson‘s book Pattern Recognition in a workshop on Expertise for the Future the other day.  Gibson wrote:

… we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.

In the novel the words are spoken by Hubertus Bigend a smart, but creepy public relations media entrepreneur,suggesting that while it is an insightful comment on some of the current problems of thinking about the future, maybe we shouldn’t take it as the last word.