Research Q&A: Whose stories do scenarios tell?

Post by Jenny Seifert

Scenarios are gaining popularity as tools to anticipate how the future could play out for people and the environment. These so-called “social-ecological” scenarios, since they examine the interactions between humans and ecosystems over time, can help facilitate community dialog, advance scientific research, and inspire solutions to current or possible future challenges.

But whose stories about the future do scenarios tell, and how well do they align with the ways individual people perceive how change occurs? Answers to these questions are crucial to the credibility and legitimacy of scenario projects.

A new study by WSC researchers published in the journal Ecology and Society opened up the black box of scenario development to help answer these questions. By looking at where our own scenarios, Yahara 2070, came from, the study offers insight into the creative, logistical, and community-based factors that shaped these stories about the future of the Yahara Watershed, as well as how they compare with other social-ecological scenarios.

Yahara 2070 integrates local and global perspectives on future change. The four narratives draw on ideas from local stakeholders gathered during interviews and workshops and from the academic literature on global change and scenarios. This approach was intended to help us achieve our goals to spark creative discussions about the region’s future and to improve scientists’ ability to anticipate how changes at multiple scales could impact ecosystems, using computer modeling.

Below, the study’s lead author, graduate student Chloe Wardropper, explains the team’s findings and how they can inform scenarios work moving forward.

What was your main finding?

CW: The Yahara 2070 scenarios contain several themes of how future change happens that are commonly used in other scenarios projects, and which local stakeholders frequently mentioned in the interviews and workshops. Those themes were social values change, market forces, and policy reform.

However, local stakeholders were less likely to mention one possible driver of future change that is important to Yahara 2070 and other scenarios projects—institutional or societal breakdown, which is the storyline of Yahara 2070’s Abandonment and Renewal scenario.

How could your study affect how researchers and practitioners think about and develop scenarios?

CW: There are lots of ways to develop scenarios. Groups could adopt a top-down approach if they have specific questions about, for instance, how a 25 or 50 percent increase in urban development would impact water quality in a region. Alternately, groups might take an entirely community-led approach, basing their narratives on what they want to know about possible futures.

In this study, we try to make the point that scenario practitioners and researchers, regardless of their approach, should be transparent about their data sources, analytical modes, and project objectives and constraints. This should be done not only as a service to the public, particularly if the scenarios are meant to be public decision-making tools, but also as a means of improving academic research. As researchers increasingly use narrative scenarios to simulate future climate and ecosystem conditions through modeling, we need to fully understand what goes into constructing the narratives that shape future options.

What do you think was most surprising about your study?

CW: I was surprised by the extent to which people, at least those in this region, believe social values will be instrumental in future change. It’s a pleasant surprise. I’m glad so many people we spoke with believe in the power of social movements and human values.

You found some interesting differences in how different groups of people think about the future and long-term change. Can you talk about that a bit?

CW: There were several interesting findings from our interview analyses regarding which groups of people were more likely to think one type of change would be more influential in the future over another.

Women were more likely to cite societal collapse narratives than men. This result is consistent with our expectations, given literature suggesting that women often perceive environmental and other risks as more worrisome or problematic than men.

Second, people who worked in sustainable agriculture were more likely than others to cite localism, or factors that stem from grassroots efforts, as an important change theme. This difference makes sense given that the sustainable agriculture community tends to emphasize the value of local, grassroots efforts, rather than national policies and markets, to drive the future of American agriculture.

These findings speak to the importance of inviting perspectives from men and women, as well as from representatives across major regional sectors. This can ensure scenarios incorporate more diversity of opinion regarding how change might occur.

In the end, you recommend that scenario development processes incorporate more transparency between researchers and stakeholders. What do you mean by this, and how can transparency be maintained?

CW: Scenario developers should be open about both the goals of their effort and the tensions that arise along the way. Every scenario project has a different set of goals. Yahara 2070’s goals were to create plausible yet provocative stories of the future that could incite dialog and drive ecological computer modeling.

The final products of Yahara 2070 demonstrate tensions in presenting stories that are both relevant and provocative for local readers. For example, there are elements that not everyone might think would happen, such as a deadly strain of algae that kills thousands of people, but that bring up a “what if” situation that people have to work through. There are also narrative elements that are important for achieving scientific modeling goals, such as extreme changes in climate, that were not necessarily represented in the interviews and workshops we did to gather ideas for the scenarios. Anyone using these scenarios needs to understand the tensions involved in storyline development.

Scenario projects can be transparent through outreach and communication, to help people understand what goes on behind the scenes, how certain ideas are represented, and why other ideas might be left out. For example, the Yahara 2070 project has tried to maintain transparency by holding public talks and workshops and publishing blog posts and academic papers throughout the scenario and model development process.

Seifert is the science writer/outreach coordinator for the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate project.


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