Changing our tune for a good Anthropocene

Post by Jenny Seifert

The barrage of dystopian images in our culture may capture our imaginations, but it can also make the future look grim. Mass extinctions, violent storms, poisoned waters, destruction and chaos seem to dominate the stories we tell, visions only perpetuated by the latest dystopian film or the gloom-and-doom of some environmental campaigns. Such stories may dampen our hope for a better future.

But what if we changed our tune to something more upbeat? Could we achieve a more positive future?

An international team of scholars is probing this question with a new initiative called “Bright Spots: Seeds of a Good Anthropocene.” Their mission is to identify the good things that humans do today that we could take with us into tomorrow and steer the world onto a brighter path.

“People aim for what they envision. A project that envisions a positive future can give us something positive to aim for,” says Elena Bennett, the initiative’s lead scientist and a professor at McGill University in Montreal. While Bennett thinks there is some truth to the gloomy visions, she says it’s not the only useful way to think about the future.

For better or worse, the Anthropocene has baggage. The term refers to what some scholars believe is our current geological epoch, an era in which human activity (hence, “anthro”) has caused a great deal of change, much of it negative, to the Earth’s natural systems. In other words, through the likes of agriculture, urbanization and industry, we have altered the atmosphere, polluted our waterways and decimated half of the world’s wildlife populations.

For better or worse, the Anthropocene has baggage. Image by vadim.tk

The idea of a good Anthropocene essentially turns human influence from risk into opportunity. It recognizes the good things that can come of our ingenuity and suggests it may be possible to transform human activity from destruction and disruption to renewal and resilience.

But the project is not an attempt to paint utopias. Instead, the intent is to identify humanity’s existing qualities, or its bright spots, that could enable a more sustainable existence on the planet.

“If you look at the resilience literature, every time there are big transitions, there are elements of the existing world that stay in place,” said Bennett.

The project, which will launch in January 2015, will entail gathering the “seeds” of a good Anthropocene from diverse global leaders and the general public, the latter of which will be reached through social media. The ideas collected will help the project team develop a clearer definition of a “good” Anthropocene, as well as a more optimistic outlook for the future.

Bennett hopes that, by sharing positive ideas about what we can already do to make for a good Anthropocene moving forward, the project can inspire more ideas that will support a resilient future. Notably, this goal resonates with that of the Yahara 2070 scenarios, WSC’s endeavor to envision possible futures for the Yahara Watershed.

“The goal of Yahara 2070 is to inspire new thinking about how to make our watershed better by 2070,” said Steve Carpenter, one of WSC’s lead scientists, who also happens to be part of the Bright Spots team.

While the Yahara 2070 stories are organized around technology, government and values, the point is to go beyond the stories and invent new practices that will improve the resilience of the Yahara region against the backdrop of global change, Carpenter explained.

Another commonality between Bright Spots and Yahara 2070 is that they encourage a sense of agency over what humanity’s future could be—yes, we can make the future brighter. As a trained environmental communicator, I often get frustrated by the stories the environmental community tells. While scary dystopias can make for an interesting story, merely terrifying people is not effective, a concern shared by Bennett.

“The environmental community is struggling with how to get across this message that action is urgently needed,” she said.

In fact, the communication literature urges that scaring people into action doesn’t really work (see Moser 2009, O’Niell and Nicholson-Cole 2009, Feinberg and Willer 2010, and Norgaard 2011, for example). Fear appeals, especially about climate change, can overwhelm people and cause them to shut down, tune out or retreat into denial.

I think highlighting our positives and telling stories about what we want for the future can help to empower us to act on making what we can imagine a reality. We have the ability and potential to create a better future.

Or, as another Bright Spots teammate, New York Times blogger and Pace University professor Andrew Revkin, expressed earlier this year, “The first step, I do think, is for humans to start to integrate that we are at a time in our history as a species when the world is more than ever what we choose to make of it.”

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4 thoughts on “Changing our tune for a good Anthropocene

  1. Peter F. Cannavò, Associate Professor of Government and Director of Environmental Studies at Hamilton College says:

    The construction of positive narratives for the future is something I am very much interested in! I am an environmental political theorist and Director of Environmental Studies at Hamilton College. I also grew up reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, so I am interested in speculative (but realistic) visions of the future. I have two teenage daughters and one of them is very interested in Hunger Games-type dystopian literature. I find that this literature raises provocative political and social questions but it also contributes to a growing sense of despair about the future. Climate discourse is also largely about avoiding disaster rather than building a better society (one exception may be the emerging Transition movement). I would be very interested in getting more involved in this issue of creating a more positive discourse around a greener future. Please keep me posted!

  2. A significant collaboration between Canadians and Americans (Great Lakes Futures Project) produced multiple scenario papers in a recent special issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research. We beat the Yahara folks by a few years (;)), creating four divergent but plausible scenarios for 2063 rather than 2070, and across the entire Great Lakes basin as opposed to a single watershed. Informed by the drivers of change in the basin over the past 50 years, we imagined future histories that would lead us into each quadrant of a coordinate plane whose axes were “human capacity for change” and “environmental/economic balance.” I was one of the authors of a paper describing the good environmental/economic balance yet poor capacity for change quadrant, a seemingly counter-intuitive yet very useful thought experiment and narrative exercise. We called our paper “Living on the Edge: How We Converted Challenges Into Profitable Opportunities,” very much in the vein of the type of storytelling you suggest here. While the papers appear in a scientific journal, they are meant to inspire a collective vision for the basin and inform policy, and I would encourage you to read them. Dr. Irena Creed at Western was one of many leaders driving the scenario effort if you are interested in learning more. Cheers!

    • Thanks for the heads up about your project! We will definitely give it a look and will let you know if we’d like to connect to learn more. Glad to hear of other scenarios projects out there!

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