Keynote at Leverage Points 2019: Elena Bennett

Elena Bennett was our second keynote speaker this morning. Elena spoke of the role of “narrative” in bringing about societal transformation. Narratives should be inspiring and plausible – and they need to help us link tangible actions to ambitious targets.

Science at its best, Elena argued, needed to tell a good story about how the world works. One branch of science, Elena argued, had been particularly useful in this context, namely the branch of “scenario development”. Scenario approaches have been influential in many sustainability contexts by now – Elena mentioned, for instance, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, as well as scenarios developed around the lakes of Wisconsin. Scenarios work on the notion of “what if” … getting people to think about how things might turn out under different circumstances.

Despite scenario work having been prominent and powerful in numerous sustainability contexts, Elena highlighted three possible weaknesses. First, scenarios to date have mostly focused on a small number of drivers, including technology, addressing questions such as whether technology will save us or cause more problems than benefits. Second, scenarios have often highlighted single solutions, rather than addressing multiple interconnected challenges. Third, scenario work to date has often focused on the “end point”, e.g. in 30 years, without much guidance for stakeholders as to how we might get there.

So, narratives and visions of the future are powerful, but there is more to be done.

A new method for scenario development advocated by Elena is to start with the positive things already happening today. These positive incidences of change already taking place are what Elena terms Seeds of Good Anthropocenes. Many hundreds of such seeds (i.e. real-world narratives) have now been collected by her and her colleagues, and Elena detailed a couple of examples in her presentation.

Seeds, as they are being mentioned and analyzed by Elena, can teach us many different things. They teach us about what is wrong about the world today; they show us that some kinds of approaches are useful for tackling specific problems; while others are useful for tackling a whole range of interconnected problems. We might learn how context influences whether a given local initiative takes off or not; and indeed, we might learn from such positive seeds how to generate new, forward-looking scenarios for the future.

A new technique advocated by Elena was the “three horizons method”, recently discussed in depth in Ecology & Society by Sharpe et al.. This method, Elena argued, seemed more suited to drawing out some of the deeper issues that past scenario work perhaps could not get to; it also enabled users to directly see pathways towards the future, rather than simply focusing on an endpoint.

Hope and story telling, Elena concluded, could be very powerful leverage points for a better future.

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