Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What Will the Future Look Like?

From assembling a shopping list for a weekend party to building a house or growing a business, there are dozens reasons to want to know what the future will bring. Yet, uncertainties abound. People forget to RSVP; paperwork gets held up; construction is delayed due to weather. Under normal circumstances, we predict the future by thinking about the past, whether recalling our own experiences or drawing on the lessons of others. But how do we plan when the world itself is changing? As our society grapples with the social, economic, and environmental changes of the 21st century, more creative approaches are required.

Planning natural resource use in New Hampshire is no exception. To try to tackle this problem, my collaborators and I use a variety of tools to develop educated guesses about how New Hampshire's changing landscapes will affect quality of life for New Hampshire residents. Computer simulations are essential, but no computer can predict how human behavior will change. To answer that question, our team arranges conversations with a broad variety of New Hampshire residents. By talking to people today, we hope to develop narratives about alternative futures: different stories of how land use might change in the century ahead.

The ways that human activities will shape New Hampshire landscapes depend not only on the state's economic growth and movement of people into or out of the state, but also on individual values and goals. Some prioritize conservation and tourism. Others want to ensure local food production to maximize resilience to global disturbances and minimize fuel consumption associated with transporting food over long distances. Still others focus on ways to increase energy independence through expanded use of biomass, wind, and hydroelectric sources of power. All of these visions have merit, but the question remains open of how the 6 million acres of New Hampshire will be allocated over the century ahead: choices must be made about the degree to which each piece of land will be used for food production, energy production, housing, manufacturing, recreation, conservation, or other purposes we might not now foresee.

Credit: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Wikimedia CommonsCredit:

In addition to the diversity of values shaping land use change, we must also consider ways that the future many people hope for could be made more or less possible by a range of external economic, political, and environmental factors. For instance, although some conservationists and some entrepreneurs may hope for higher density urban centers to attract businesses and reduce the impact of suburban sprawl, this style of development would require a sea change in municipal zoning policies in most New Hampshire communities. Similarly, expansion of the ranges of plant pests and diseases due to climate change could limit both conservation and food production, while the decline of winter sports could reduce the number of tourism-related jobs and ultimately limit resources available for growth. On the other hand, at the continental scale, people might choose to relocate from areas of the United States strongly affected by droughts and heat waves to cooler and moister states, including New Hampshire, and the resulting population increase could stimulate growth and development.

As our team works to develop plausible alternative scenarios for future land use in New Hampshire, we hope to incorporate both human desires and external constraints into our narratives.  We hold open discussions with groups representing the diversity of New Hampshire residents, including developers, planners, and conservationists, as well as representatives of state agencies and a variety of businesses likely to shape and/or be affected by future changes in land use.  In these discussions, we ask participants to respond not only to the question of what they hope the future of New Hampshire will be like, but also what they expect and what they imagine might happen as a result of external drivers.  Through these questions, we tap into not only their values, but also their expertise.

The narratives we develop will serve as input for computer simulations, which in turn will provide a basis for decision-making by businesses, organizations, government agencies, and individuals, including many of the groups whose perspectives we are soliciting.  Just as importantly, our questions about what the future could look like and our simulations of how alternative futures could affect ecosystem services serve as a starting point for discussions about how we as New Hampshire residents can shape the future of the state.  By having these conversations now, we help to ensure that the New Hampshire landscape in the century ahead will continue to provide for the needs of safe, beautiful, vibrant communities, including clean water, affordable energy, and beautiful surroundings.

Posted by Alexandra Thorn, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Earth Systems Research Center, University of New Hampshire

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