Taking the long view, in stories

Post by Steve Carpenter

Environmental thinking is long-term thinking—important things change slowly, and the environment is slow to forget the actions we take. For example, water quality problems in the Yahara Watershed started in the late 1800s, when Euro-American settlers began to farm the region. Agriculture’s legacy of high phosphorus levels in Yahara soils could last more than a century into the future.

But taking the long view does not seem to be easy or natural for people. Short-term demands—of today’s activities, quarterly business targets, annual budgets, and election cycles—seem to take up most of our energy, leaving little time to think about long-term changes in the natural processes that sustain our lives and livelihoods.

How can we improve our ability to plan for the long-term future?

One solution is to begin with stories that connect us with future generations. This idea lies at the heart of the Yahara 2070 scenarios, WSC’s project to tell stories about the Yahara Watershed’s future.

“The universe is made of stories not atoms,” said poet Muriel Rukeyser. Of course, in reality our understanding of the universe involves both stories and atoms—scientific mechanisms are also important. But the stories come first.

Since the dawn of our species, humans have been using stories to understand long spans of time. We use myths, history, and art to understand the past. We use many forms of art, such as science fiction, to think about the future. Stories about the future, or scenarios, can help people organize and think through the pathways they choose for themselves and the planet.


There are many worldviews and many ways to tell stories about the future.

Despite all that science has accomplished, the future remains unpredictable. Environmental change has inherent instabilities which make predictions complex and confusing. We also don’t know enough about the current state of the world—there are still many discoveries to be made and mysteries to solve. What’s more, the future involves human volition, which frequently surprises us.  Anyone who has raised a child is deeply familiar with unanticipated fluctuations in human behavior. So, we must expect the unexpected.

Nonetheless, we must also make choices. By telling stories about the future, which help us ponder the choices and potential consequences, we can prepare for the unexpected.

Stories and Atoms for the Yahara Watershed

Yahara 2070 is WSC’s attempt to tell stories about the future of the place where we live: the 536 square mile area that is the Yahara Watershed. But we did not begin these stories with our own perspectives, rather with those of people with whom we share this home.

WSC researchers conducted in-person interviews and workshops with a diverse cross section of watershed residents to collect ideas about the region’s future. These perspectives—of which there were many—provided the stories’ building blocks. We clustered the perspectives and condensed them into the four Yahara 2070 scenarios.


Why four? It comes down to the rule of hand. It is important to have fewer than five scenarios, because people can best compare about five things at a time—enough for one hand. It is important to have an even number of scenarios, because otherwise people will pick what seems to be the middle one and forget about the others, which defeats the purpose of comparison. Therefore, we ended up with four.

Each of the Yahara stories starts in 2010. The stories diverge down different paths that are based on a particular set of human choices and biophysical events, such as weather events influenced by climate change. These different choices and biophysical events lead to four very different situations by 2070.

What about the atoms—i.e., the scientific analysis and understanding?

While the narratives frame the worlds of the scenarios, computer models can work out some important details about these worlds. Examples include the state of food production, flood control, groundwater, lake levels, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and the quality of our air, soil and water.

The scenarios—both their stories and atoms—have an important role in scientific research. They challenge our existing models and force us to create better ones that can handle the challenges we may face in the future.


The most interesting questions about the future cut across the scenarios.

Which Way Forward?

There is no “best case” or “worst case” among the Yahara 2070 scenarios. Each story, like life itself, is a mix of the goods and the bads. But the stories can help us build a future that has more goods and fewer bads.

Together, the four scenarios raise important and challenging questions. In fact, the value of the scenarios lies in the questions asked by their readers and users. What good things do we want to carry with us into the future? And what bad things do we want to leave behind?


What kind of future do we want?

Science fiction writer Terry Pratchett observed that we are shaped by the stories we know and create. Therefore, our choices are also shaped by our stories.

WSC developed stories to help us think about the future of the watershed and frame our research in more useful and relevant ways. But we also hope the stories will inspire people in Yahara to build their own stories about the watershed’s future.

The stories that all of us build will shape the real world of 2070.  But what kind of world do we want? What kind of world can we get? And what should we do now to get the world we want in 2070?

Thinking about these questions is the point of the Yahara 2070 scenarios. Ultimately, the health and wealth of the watershed and ourselves depends on the choices we make to determine the path to 2070 and beyond.

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