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Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios

If you even come close to the sustainable blogosphere (as I increasingly see it called) today, you know that the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report is out. The vast majority of news reports about the Assessment emphasize its dark, "sobering" presentation. This isn't surprising -- the planet's environmental systems are under a lot of stress, and if things don't change, we're in for disaster. But that's an important caveat -- if things don't change.

What most readings of the Assessment have so far seemed to miss is that the listing of the ways in which we're harming the planet is not all the report contains. The report also includes a chapter on scenarios of what the next fifty years might hold (Chapter 5, pp. 123-141, for those of you reading along at home). They're more summaries than fully-fleshed out scenaric worlds, but even so, they dispel the notion that the MEA is just about how bad things are and how much worse things can become. In fact, of the four, only one could be called openly pessimistic, and the remaining three have distinctly WorldChanging overtones.

(A quick summary of the MEA, for those of you who have missed out on the fun. A multi-year study involving over 2,000 scientists from 95 countries, the Millennium Assessment Report is a broad survey of environmental indicators. Overall, the story isn't good. Of the 24 key "services" provided by the environment, 15 have "degraded over the last 50 years--most notably fresh water, fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of climate, natural hazards and pests. Only four have been enhanced, and three of those pertain to food production." The MEA website is here; the available synthesis reports are here; they key report is here (6 MB PDF); and (for those of you not wishing to read the full 200+ page document) a "popularized" summary site is here.)

The MEA team included the scenarios as a way of giving greater context to how the snapshot of the planet fits into society's changes. In the report, present conditions are contrasted to the state of the planet fifty years ago; in the scenarios, the team looked at how things could be fifty years hence. As the report itself puts it:

The scenarios are not predictions; instead, they were developed to explore the unpredictable and uncontrollable features of change in ecosystem services and a number of socioeconomic factors. No scenario represents business as usual, although all begin from current conditions and trends. The future will represent a mix of approaches and consequences described in the scenarios, as well as events and innovations that have not yet been imagined. No scenario is likely to match the future as it actually occurs. These four scenarios were not designed to explore the entire range of possible futures for ecosystem services—other scenarios could be developed with either more optimistic or more pessimistic outcomes for ecosystems, their services, and human well-being.

The four scenarios break down as shown here:

World Development

The MEA summarizes the scenarios thusly:

Global Orchestration – This scenario depicts a globally connected society that focuses on global trade and economic liberalization and takes a reactive approach to ecosystem problems but that also takes strong steps to reduce poverty and inequality and to invest in public goods such as infrastructure and education. Economic growth in this scenario is the highest of the four scenarios, while it is assumed to have the lowest population in 2050.

Order from Strength – This scenario represents a regionalized and fragmented world, concerned with security and protection, emphasizing primarily regional markets, paying little attention to public goods, and taking a reactive approach to ecosystem problems. Economic growth rates are the lowest of the scenarios (particularly low in developing countries) and decrease with time, while population growth is the highest.

Adapting Mosaic – In this scenario, regional watershed-scale ecosystems are the focus of political and economic activity. Local institutions are strengthened and local ecosystem management strategies are common; societies develop a strongly proactive approach to the management of ecosystems. Economic growth rates are somewhat low initially but increase with time, and population in 2050 is nearly as high as in Order from Strength.

TechnoGarden – This scenario depicts a globally connected world relying strongly on environmentally sound technology, using highly managed, often engineered, ecosystems to deliver ecosystem services, and taking a proactive approach to the management of ecosystems in an effort to avoid problems. Economic growth is relatively high and accelerates, while population in 2050 is in the mid-range of the scenarios.

Click the links in the table above for a bit more detail on each scenario. The MEA report Chapter 5 goes into more detail still, including charts showing how the various key report issues fare in each of the worlds. I'd quibble about some of the pathways they describe for each of the four worlds, but all are robust scenarios.

I am told by one of the MEA participants (and a WorldChanging reader) that a longer, more detailed document specifically covering the scenarios will be out in June. In the meantime, I strongly encourage WorldChangers to take a close look at Chapter 5 of the Assessment. They're worth discussing in greater detail here, but I wanted to get this up today in order to help move the conversation about the Assessments in the right direction.

There's a point where terribilisma becomes "world-ending." The doom and gloom of the majority of news reports and blog posts about the MEA feeds the all-too-common perception that things are so bad that there's nothing that we can do about it. The people whose political oxen would be gored by aggressive shifts towards foresight, sustainability and bright green industries have everything to gain from the rest of us giving up. The scenarios give us ways to imagine solutions -- multiple solutions, with different choices and benefits -- to the very real problems we face; in short, they give us reasons not to give up.

The Millennium Environmental Assessment doesn't give a detailed, step-by-step set of instructions as to how to achieve the more positive futures they lay out. That wasn't the point of the exercise, or even of the scenarios. They just needed to remind us that the future remains in our hands.


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Comments (4)

Which of these 4 worlds would you most want to live in?

In the March 30th Nature there is a Commentary from the Co-chairs and Director of MA Confronting the Human Dilemma.

It has a bit of a different presentation than the news articles. At the end of the commentary they summarize what they think can be done.

They write:

What we can do
The drivers of change in ecosystems and their services will continue in direction and intensity. So how can these trends be reversed to achieve sustainability and to relieve the negative impacts of the loss of services to society, particularly to the disadvantaged? New pathways and approaches can and must be taken. But these are major initiatives, which will mean profound changes in the way global society operates. As learned in the Millennium Assessment, favourable responses need to take place at all levels, from the local to the global. Global mechanisms do not necessarily solve local problems, yet are an important part of the overall solution. At the same time, local players and solutions can feed into regional and global approaches. The players at these different levels address different decision-makers, who can collectively put in place the major changes that are needed for ecosystem sustainability.

The Millennium Assessment examines the merits of options for mechanisms and policies, to accomplish the goal of maintaining and enhancing the delivery of ecosystem services to society. Some of these require major reorganization in the way we do business. At present, our organizational structures address separately the issues of a single resource, such as agriculture, fisheries or the environment. There is little interaction within and between each issue, and much less again with trade and the treasury bodies. The lesson of the Millennium Assessment is that all these resource issues are interrelated: action on one issue has consequences for another. It is crucial to address how to minimize the trade-offs (biodiversity or clean water for agricultural yield), either on-site or by managing landscapes. One important example of how this process can work is the EU system of directives for nitrate accounting on landscapes.

Some institutional innovations are moving towards more integrated views of issues and responses to them. For example, Britain has a government department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. These are all closely interrelated domains, but in other countries are often handled by competing agencies. Elsewhere, interagency groups are evolving to address central issues such as climate change, but their effectiveness is hampered by competitiveness and politics. We need new kinds of institutions in better positions to achieve sustainability of ecosystems that provide for human well-being.

We must also try to improve the economics. Although provisioning services are enmeshed in the local (and increasingly global) marketplace, regulating services are not. We must accelerate our ability to value ecosystem-regulating services at the national level, as well as the ecosystem services that provide crucial cultural amenities, and ensure that these values are considered in decision-making.

Some progress is being made. Costa Rica has established a system of conservation payments, under which contracts are brokered between international and domestic 'buyers' and local 'sellers' of sequestered carbon, biodiversity, watershed services and scenic beauty. On a global scale, the Ecosystem Marketplace consortium is beginning to track transactions, pricing trends and buyers' requests on the carbon, water and biodiversity markets. It is predicted that the global carbon market will reach US$44 billion by 2010.

We need to eliminate the subsidies that promote the excessive use of ecosystem services and evaluate more carefully the trade incentives that damage ecosystem services. We must work harder to educate the public on the strong links between sustainable ecosystems and the lives of humans. The role of new technologies in more efficient use of natural resources is crucial and needs more incentives.

There is plenty that can and needs to be done to deal with the crisis that has already enveloped us. The path is open for scientists to quantify, to a much greater extent, the way in which the operation of ecosystems is directly linked to human well-being, and hence model the course of human activities on future outcomes of the delivery of these services. The Millennium Assessment is certainly providing a strong stimulus for such studies.

I worked a similar set of scenarios a few years ago. They can be found at


The reactive side was more sinister: on the global side fascism and on the regional side local mafias. The interesting part was that what is here called technogarden (the corporate-government proactive combiantion) is led by people - most of the world's professinals - who want to live in a more Jeffersonian small town community way, more like the adpating mosaic. The lesson was, don't let the two proactive sides - corporate and garden, fight because that drives towards the reactive side, with the tendency to violence, security and police state.

The MA scenarios were designed to explore different styles of ecological governance. But in talking to a number of academics about the scenarios, I have heard many people complain that one scenario was clearly the best - interestingly - they often thought a different one was the best.

Despite many individual differences there was a pattern to these preferences.

Economists and agricultural scientists tended to prefer Global Orchestration.

Ecologists and geographers liked Adapting Mosaic.

Engineers and global modellers liked TechnoGarden.

No one I've spoken with wanted to live in Order From Strength, but many worried that, right now, the world is heading towards it.


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