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SCENARIO INCASTING: Four Environmental Futures for USA, 2008
scenarios written by Wendy Schultz and Chris Jones

Background and instructions:
For the next hour, we will explore scenarios portraying four different future environmental policy contexts. YOU HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED ONE OF THESE SCENARIOS. These four scenarios emerge from slightly different emphases given current trends of change and emerging issues. They are differentiated on three primary axes: regulatory regime, attitudes of/towards business, and definition of “sustainable development.”

In this context, any one of the four scenarios described is possible. DO NOT DISCUSS ITS RELATIVE PLAUSIBILITY OR PROBABILITY; SUSPEND YOUR DISBELIEF -- a context exists; simply consider how you would cope most successfully. After reading your scenario, address the following discussion questions:

  • what challenges and opportunities does your scenario present to policy-makers, business leaders, and communities?
  • who in your community would gain the greatest advantage in the context of your scenario? who would be marginalized?
  • what "vision" (preferred future) might you try to bring about, given this context?
  • does your scenario require a leader have certain qualifications or a specific knowledge base to lead successfully? would conditions require coordinated leadership by several people with different skills?
  • what skills would most contribute to successful leadership -- that is, organizing transformative change -- in your scenario?


Federal funds for environmental initiatives decreased over the last decade, mirroring the decrease in overall national budget, yet federal environmental regulatory regimes are still in place. However, the slow public value shift towards heightened environmental awareness had continued and in fact strengthened during the millennium celebrations. Perceiving this change in consumer attitudes, business culture and practices gradually adjusted to match it: environmental ethics and good corporate citizenship are highly salable commodities in this first decade of the 21st century.

Local communities, thrown back on their own regulatory resources and fed up with erosion of the quality of life throughout the 80’s and 90’s, enacted stricter local usage regulations, engaged in more “mountain to shore” integrated planning, and explored the use of innovative “natural system” approaches to controlling pollution [e.g., artificial wetlands and marshes, water hyacinths and other natural filters for sewage and polluted water].

Community and regional voluntary organizations and NGOs now link up with international grass-roots organizations to trade information and expertise, and to sensitize businesses with local branches. Local support has increased for environmentally-friendly changes in workstyle, such as teleworking and “green campus” business districts.

  • Regulatory regime: intermixed state and local jurisdiction stronger than increasingly underfunded federal programs.
  • Attitudes of/towards business: grudging admission that environmental ethics not only sell, but can save money; more community-business partnerships.
  • “Sustainable development” means doing the same with less [especially the EPA].


Technological innovations have changed not only the way people work, live, and govern themselves, but changed their relationship to the environment as well. Planetwide communication/computer networks enabled fast distribution and access to environmental data, as well as greater public access to policy and planning debates. These networks revitalized national coordination of environmental regulations and policies while enhancing their flexibility vis-a-vis particular local conditions. Unfortunately, they are also prone to “waves” of environmental rumors. The entire political environment is more fluid due to increased information flows and interpersonal connectivity.

Bio-engineering, nanotechnologies, and artificial intelligence “experts” have blurred past distinctions between what’s “natural” and what’s “artificial.” For example, landscapers may now choose among various species of decorative plants which fix nitrogen in damaged urban soils, and glow in the dark, marking paths and emergency services. Nanotechnologies -- microscopically small filters, manipulators and robots -- speed up garbage decomposition and materials sorting and re-use in landfills and control weeds and pests, aided by gene-engineered insect species. We have lowered our chemical inputs into the environment, but many people question the long term impacts and risks involved in such pervasive changes to natural systems, and the possibilities of molecular and “virtual” pollution.

Nonetheless, many people’s homes are computer controlled, mini-biospheres -- tailored to their personal climate and ecological choices. Communities plan and manage regional ecologies by tailoring and “weeding” plants and animals for local conditions. More and more, people fear the fragility of these complex, synthetic natural systems with potential risk of system shutdown/breakdown, as well as their vulnerability to international terrorism.
  • Regulatory regime: a revitalized, more “porous” command and control featuring high levels of public input and interaction via enhanced Web technologies, and innovative ombudsman initiatives that take advantage of recent developments in artificial intelligence.
  • Attitudes of/towards business: environmental monitoring, designing, tailoring, and sustaining are entrepreneurial growth areas [“Ecosystems R Us,” “Nanotech biocontrol,” etc.]
  • “Sustainable development” means resource substitution and micro-precise efficiency of use.


The worst ENSO in history, back in 97-98, and its resultant droughts, storms, and floods, was followed by increasingly erratic weather and accelerating symptoms of global warming. Storm surge, subsidence, and sea-level rise brought new health problems on coastlines and in delta areas. Local climate changes encouraged the migration of insect species and brought new disease vectors to communities. Initially, the public demanded --and got -- increased federal spending on environmental disaster initiatives.

That, however, represented merely the first barrage in public outrage and backlash over environmental problems: the second round of demands addressed non-point source pollution and contaminants [fed, no doubt, by a bumper outbreak of pfiesteria piscicida]. Increasingly, the public’s perception of the risks was more important than scientific assessments. International impacts also led to international initiatives, by equally outraged non-OECD publics, who felt buffeted by environmental impacts caused by global business activities predating their own industrialization efforts. In the US, the public pressured the government to enact regulations paralleling the Rio Agenda 21 initiatives, and regulations were passed which sharply curtailed business impacts on the environment.

Local communities were hit hard by the economic shifts: environments were given a chance to recover at the cost of fewer jobs, as businesses went where countries had carbon emission “rations.” Tree-planting has become a civic duty required of every citizen; Americans have finally faced up to the kind of gas taxes Europe had paid for decades -- and created some new local jobs with innovative mass/rapid transit strategies; and eating habits have shifted radically since the “environmental luxury” tax was levied on beef as well.
  • Regulatory regime: thou shalt not.
  • Attitudes of/towards business: Scramble within economy for new, low-impact products and services simultaneous with movement of high-impact industries “off shore” where possible; public impatience with any lingering efforts to “externalize” environmental costs.
  • ”Sustainable development” means doing more with less, and minimizing impacts.


The “four tigers” of Asia’s economy became, in the transition to the 21st century, a veritable herd of economic predators, who were contending more and more often with a revitalized and slowly strengthening European Union. Afraid of any signs of economic weakening, the panicked US government significantly loosened environmental and resource regulatory strictures on business. Impact penalties were lightened, and permitting processes eased for resource use and extraction in parks, preserves, and the coastal zone. The “command and control” regulatory regime was, in essence, dismantled: an era of “business self-regulation” began. It was, in essence, a time of “environmental backlash” mirroring the affirmative action backlash and related regulatory turn-around that occurred in the late 90’s.

At the community level, people have become willing to trade off costs to community of business activities -- water use, longer phase-in of emission standards, etc. -- in order to assure job availability. Some businesses have traded off specific community benefits -- playgrounds, new health centers, educational donations -- for less restrictive operating practices. Unions continued their long decline -- most employees were desperate to ensure the continued health of their current employer.
  • Regulatory regime: “command and control” dismantled; restrictions and processes loosened.
  • Attitudes of/towards business: entrepreneurialism is king; “virtual corporations” and development teams today’s business heroes; growth of anti-multinational corporation feelings.
  • “Sustainable development” means more jobs

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15 February 2003. Email IF.
Copyright © 2003, Wendy L. Schultz
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