Future Scenarios


In the first post of this social ecology series we looked at the connection between democracy and ecology. We also explained why social ecology is a particular strand within what is more broadly called political ecology, and touched upon the issue of what the environmental crisis looks like where we live. In this post we are looking to the future, to get a perspective on the choices that our communities and regions face.

Predicting the future

Why make predictions about the future? Well, one reason for doing so is to avoid ill-founded assumptions about the future and to avoid getting stuck with one stereotypic genre when thinking about it. In general we have a tendency to imagine  that everything stays the way things are, or that everything goes to hell no matter what we do. Or perhaps we enjoy the thought that new technologies will solve all of our problems. If we explore multiple future scenarios more carefully, however, we are better equipped to understand the choices ahead of us.

To begin with we will look at the work of Great Transition Initiative (GTI). This is an initiative that has emerged from The Global Scenario Group who for a long time has developed future scenarios for the UN environmental organ UNEP and other institutions. The work of GTI aims at studying contemporary trends, as well as analyzing the preconditions for the social transformation we desire.

Video: Take a look at this short presentation of the GTI’s way of seeing the future and the forces that shape it.

Video: Look also at this somewhat slower clip where Paul Raskin explains how they think in more detail.

You can read more about the scenarios presented by the Great Transition Initiative here (NB! Click on the images to read more about the respective scenarios).

What makes the future?

Before we proceed with another future scenario study that focuses on the future of cities, it is fitting to reflect on what forces that decides what future we get. The image below summarizes the Great Transition Initiative’s view on this. They separates forces into proximate and ultimate drivers.

Social change happens through changes of both the proximate and ultimate drivers. Much of present day politics is limited to only the proximate drivers. In order to achieve a  “great transition,” on the other hand, deep changes that not only deals with the direct drivers, but also the ultimate drivers, are required - we have to change values, culture, understandings, and not the least power structures. The question how we do this will be following us throughout this series of posts on social ecology.

The future of cities

The question of social change and how to achieve a  “great transition” become more concrete when we approach it from a local perspective: How do the problems that we face look at the local level -- in our cities and municipalities? As food for thought on the future of cities we will now turn to Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change by Peter Newman, Timothly Beatley and Heather M. Boyer.

Take a look at the chapter ”Four Scenarios for the Future of Cities: Collapse, Ruralized, Divided, or Resilient City”

As the title indicates, the book is about how cities can relate to and handle not only climate change, but also “peak oil” (when oil production peaks globally and thereafter shrinks). 

The authors’ point of departure is that these changes challenge cities in a number of ways. Cities can act forcefully according to these predictions and thereby handle the challenges, or they can fail doing so and become victims of rising oil prices and an altered climate and face all the consequences that comes with this. To put it simple, the authors of this book envision a future with cities marked by either fear or hope. Those cities that are marked by hope are those that succeed to rise to the challenges and build resilience - that is, a city life that endures the pressures that will be caused by the decline of cheap fossil fuels and a more or less altered climate.

The text is also a contribution to the discussion about what constitutes a sustainable transition. To what extent do the transition require large, common, municipal and regional efforts in combination with lifestyle changes, and to what extent is it reasonable to focus more unilaterally on incremental improvements on the household and individual level? 

The authors don’t discard the work for improvements on the household and individual level, but they argue that a one-sided focus on such changes leads to fragmented landscapes: with enclaves of a few neighborhoods that thrives, and a majority of neighborhoods that live with all the more difficulties because of peak oil and climate change.

The conclusion from a social ecology perspective is that addressing power structures and pushing for comprehensive changes on a political and economical level have much better chances to create a just and ecological city.

This is the second of a series of posts that was originally written for a study group on social ecology in Sweden. If you want to organize a study group on this series yourself, here are some questions you might discuss based on the material in this post.


  • Use your local horizon as a point of departure and think about the following questions: what speaks in favor of the respective scenarios described by the Global Scenario Group and in the book on Resilient cities? What forces dictates the development where you live?
  • What kind of future social development do you want to see? What do you think that you can do in order to makes this real?
  • How do you think it is possible to change the proximate and ultimate drivers of the place in which you live?