A Methodological Challenge
The quest for a Great Transition challenges us to stretch our imaginations and enrich our understanding. Envisioning a holistic shift to a sustainable and livable civilization—and the paths for getting there—requires a systemic, long-range, and multi-scale perspective. This means weaving together social and environmental themes into an integrated analytic panorama; adopting a timeframe that arches over decades to connect "now" with "then," and zooming across levels of spatial resolutions to focus on global, regional, and local aspects of the Earth system.
The Scenario Approach
Conventional analysis contributes to understanding this challenge by illuminating discrete aspects of the problem. But the accretion of fragmented knowledge does not take us to the integrated, long-term understanding we need. Moreover, deep uncertainties about the drivers of change and about future human choices sharply limit the predictive capacity of standard models. Rather than predictions, scenarios are stories about how history might unfold. Beginning with contemporary trends and driving forces, each scenario embodies different assumptions about plausible developments and human response. They are thought experiments rooted in science for stimulating the imagination, alerting us of dangers, and inspiring corrective action.
Scenarios at Tellus
Since the inception of Tellus Institute in 1976, the scenario approach has been central to our research and scholarship. We have pioneered methods of integrated analysis that blend vision and science, qualitative and quantitative features, and a systemic socio-ecological perspective. We have conducted hundreds of scenario studies in partnership with stakeholders in communities, river basins, regions, and nations throughout the world. Over the past two decades, our emphasis has turned to the planetary scale in order to illuminate the global future and the prospects for turning toward a Great Transition. The places and issues may vary, but the overarching aim has been constant: the rigorous exploration of long-range alternative in order to identify strategies for redirecting development toward environmental stewardship, human well-being, and social equity.