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Visions of Alternative (Unpredictable) Futures and Their Use in Policy Analysis

Robert Costanza, University of Maryland, Institute for Ecological Economics

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Abstract

The most critical task facing humanity today is the creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all of humanity, to other species, and to future generations. Recent work with businesses and communities indicates that creating a shared vision is the most effective engine for change in the desired direction, yet most effort in "futures modeling" has focused on extrapolating past trends rather than envisioning alternative futures. Science and economics as applied to policy are in conflict more often over alternative visions of the world than purely "scientific" disagreements. Likewise, governance has gotten bogged down in mediating short term conflicts between special interests rather than its more basic role of creating broadly shared visions that can guide dispute resolution.


This paper addresses the question of what policies are most appropriate for society now, given alternative visions of the future and the enormous uncertainty about the reality of the assumptions underlying these visions. Four specific visions are laid out as being representative of the major alternatives. For each vision the benefits of achieving the vision, the assumptions that would have to be true in order for it to be achieved, and the implications of it being attempted but not achieved are explored. It is argued that dealing with uncertainty about the nature of the world, its carrying capacity for humans, the impacts of climate change, and other aspects of its future can best be done at this level of future visions and assumptions, not at more detailed levels (like the parameter uncertainty in models). Application of this vision/uncertainty analysis can help us both to design the future society we want and to maximize the chances of our getting there safely.

Key words

alternative futures, change process, envisioning, public judgment, public policy analysis, uncertainty
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087