In early June I was invited to participate in a special three day workshop that was held on an island in the Stockholm archipelago in Sweden, with the rather unusual title of ‘Seeds of a Good Anthropocene’. This was a collaborative project organised by faculty members from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and was designed to develop scenarios for positive futures for humanity as we move forward in what is now being termed the Anthropocene epoch.
The Anthropocene has recently been adopted to define a new division in the geological record of the Earth, in recognition of the fact that humanity is now influencing the future of all life on the planet. The change that this entails is comparable in scale and impact to the other boundaries that geologists have recognised in the fossil record that delineate major periods in the Earth’s history, such as the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the end of the last Ice Age. That latter event marked the end of the Pleistocene epoch, and the start of the Holocene, which after 10,000 years has now given way to the Anthropocene epoch.
This was the second such workshop that the organisers had put on, following one in South Africa in November 2016. The aim was to bring together leading thinkers and representatives of projects that are already demonstrating key elements necessary for a positive future to map out possible scenarios for what a ‘Good Anthropocene’ could look like for the world, and particularly for northern Europe in this workshop. The premise for this is that there’s an urgent need for positive visions that can offer inspiring alternatives to the conventional depictions of the future, which tend to be negative, with the impacts of environmental degradation, climate change, increased war and violence etc giving rise to dystopian societies.
The participants who were invited to take part in this workshop came from a range of different countries, including Brazil, Spain, Finland, the UK, USA and the Netherlands, as well as those represented by the organisers themselves – South Africa, Sweden and Canada. The people came with a diverse set of skills and life experience, and included an astrobiologist, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Environment Outlook unit, a Finnish man working on a project for indigenous sovereignty in northern Europe and Asia, a woman who writes science fiction novels, and the founder of a project that is saving Borneo’s rainforests by providing high quality affordable health care for the local people there.
The workshop got off to a very auspicious start for me, as the first person I met when I arrived at the venue was one of the other participants, Dr. Kinari Webb, and within a couple of minutes we discovered we had met before – 23 years previously, in 1994! On that occasion we’d both been in Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. Kinari subsequently went on to found the charity Health in Harmony and although we hadn’t been in touch since 1994, she had made a visit a couple of years later to the Caledonian Forest in Glen Affric as a result of hearing about Trees for Life from me.
One of the missions of the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene project is to identify some of the positive ‘Seed’ projects that are underway in the world, and unbeknownst to me, they had picked Trees for Life as one of those. In fact they have already been using our project as one of their examples in talks and presentations they give about their own work. This underlined for me the fact that Trees for Life is having an increasing influence out in the world, often in more ways than we know of …
After some introductions and an overview of the workshop, we were divided up into four groups that had been pre-selected by the organisers. Each group was given three ‘Seeds’ to use as a starting point for the envisioning process, with the instruction that we should imagine what a future would look like with these Seeds fully implemented to their maximum potential. The three Seeds in the group I was in were Massive Small (a movement committed to transforming the way we understand and work with cities), gene-splicing (as a technique to save species from going extinct and possibly to bring back recently-extinct species) and Trees for Life.
Using hexagonal sticky pieces of paper that fitted together like the cells in a bee hive, we created a ‘Futures Wheel’ from each of the seeds, with the core being the key theme to emerge from the seed, and the surrounding stickies highlighting the related effects and impacts it would have, with secondary impacts further out still. Once we had each Futures Wheel mapped out, we then had to show how the three themes linked together by using lines to connect stickies in each Wheel that related to those in the other two Wheels. This was a time-limited exercise, and created a visually interesting image of some key elements of what a positive future could look like.
The next stage was to populate a ‘Three Horizons’ scenario with the key elements we’d identified so far. In this, the upper horizon (the top level in the chart in the photo here) represents the dominant features of human society. At present those are mostly negative (the blue stickies in the top left) and over time those need to decline and disappear, leaving just a few in the future (lower right) that will persist because of their inherent longevity (for example, plastic waste in the oceans, or redundant concrete in cities etc). The pink stickies in the lower left represent the positive ‘Seeds’ and they are at the low horizon just now, but need to grow to become the predominate features of a positive future (represented by the green stickies in the top right). The critical area therefore becomes the central region of the chart – the third horizon – where the decline of the old has to occur in parallel with the growth of the Seeds, to give birth to a positive future.
In the central area we had to put up some thoughts on what would help with the transition from the current situation to one in which the ‘Seeds’ could flourish and enable the transformation to a positive future to take place. In particular we had to highlight what we thought were the key ‘tipping points’ that would facilitate the process of change. We wrote these down on bright orange star-shaped stickies, so that they would stand out, and they were: “Decrease in consumer culture”, “Political shift and new governance structures”, “Education systems become holistic, systemic & environmentally aware”, and “Overcome the human/tech/nature divide and create appropriate technology that works with nature”.
Once we had completed the Three Horizons scenario, the final part of the workshop was for each of the groups to create a short performance piece about the positive future they had developed, to be acted out for all the workshop participants. This was a really creative (and fun) part of the whole process, as each group came up with an innovative and unique way of conveying their vision for the future. One group acted out a series of television news broadcasts, each spaced about 20 years apart and which highlighted some of their key elements of a positive future society.
My group chose to do our performance outside, amongst the native forest surrounding the conference centre, and we called our future vision ‘Link-Lorien’, inspired in part by Lothlorien (from Lord of the Rings) and with the ‘link’ indicating an interconnected society. This symbolised the fact that our future society would blend in so much with nature, as to be almost inconspicuous from a distance. Each member of the group then spoke briefly to a key theme in the culture we envisioned. My theme was about education, and the statement was: “Education for us is a life-long experience of learning, in which we are all teachers to each other. Education is intergenerational, with the elders sharing their knowledge and wisdom with the young, and vice versa. Our classroom is nature, and life itself. The focus of education is drawing out the highest potential within each person and enabling them to fulfil their life purpose, whilst simultaneously serving the greater good of the planet.”
What was most remarkable were the similarities between the different future scenarios that each group came up with. There were many common themes, which included decentralised decision making, no more nation states, a high degree of personal empowerment, significant levels of rewilding, stronger individual connections with nature and networks which linked people up around the world. To me it was a great affirmation of my own feeling that we all have an inner intuitive sense of how much better our world could be, with a positively-focused human culture living in harmony with nature and with a shared goal of enabling each person to achieve their full potential.
Each of the four groups had a dedicated note-taker, recording all that was said, and a summary of each scenario is being produced. Each participant was also interviewed on video about their experience of the event, and their vision for a positive future. An artist who attended some of the workshop sessions is producing an illustration for each scenario, based on the input we gave him, and an integrated final report will be prepared for the whole event. A report from the first such event, held in South Africa in November 2016, can be accessed here and provides a indication of what the report from this workshop will be like.
I came away from the workshop feeling very inspired, both by the work we had done together, and with the knowledge that there are people from such different backgrounds and walks of life who have similar hopes and visions for the future. There was a lot of positive energy in the whole event, and although different opinions were expressed at various times, there was never any negativity or criticism of others during the days we spent together. As such, the workshop itself was a good role model in a microcosm for how a positively-oriented human culture could function, with everyone able to express themselves and make a meaningful contribution to a shared outcome.
Nature was palpably present throughout the event, as the conference venue was surrounded by natural forest, with Scots pines, birches, aspen, juniper and various other trees. It was very suggestive of what the Highlands of Scotland could look like if we can restore more of the land to forest again. We were graced with wildlife too, as a red fox appeared outside the venue’s dining room two nights in succession, and during one of my group’s sessions we saw a red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) right outside the window of our room.
The event finished at 3 pm on Friday afternoon, and as my flight back to Scotland didn’t depart until later the following day, I had some time to myself, during which I walked in the forest surrounding the conference venue. I was inspired to see how much aspen (Populus tremula) in particular there was in the woodland there, as the species is under-represented in Scotland, because it is so palatable to red deer (Cervus elaphus). Here, in a more balanced ecosystem, it was much more abundant, and was supporting a range of invertebrate species.
I noticed several different types of galls on some of the aspens, including some bright red ones on the leaves that I hadn’t seen before. Interestingly enough, a week after I returned from Sweden, I was out in the native pinewoods in Glen Strathfarrar, and saw the same galls on a young aspen there – how much of a synchronicity was that?! I was able to identify them from a search on the Internet as being caused by a mite (Aceria varia). So, although this trip had been very much focused on the workshop, I also increased my knowledge about aspen trees and all the life they support – an unexpected bonus!
I felt very honoured and privileged to take part in this workshop, and also that Trees for Life is featured as an exemplar ‘Seed’ project by the organisers. I hope this will lead to further support and publicity for our work in Scotland, and that my participation in the workshop will make a contribution towards creating a positive future for the world.