Picturing a Future Wrought by Climate Change

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"From the ashes of catastrophe, life somehow manages to rise again. This thought hung on Daisy’s mind, sweat pouring down her face, as she uttered a reassuring click to Bud and Betsy, the pair of Belgian draft horses drawing the plow.”

Daisy plowing
Illustration by John Miller

You wouldn’t expect those opening words from a story set six decades from today. But those kinds of surprises abound in the tales told in “Yahara 2070.”

The project is part of an intensive study of the land, lakes, and rivers incorporating and surrounding Madison, Wisconsin, a thousand-square-kilometer area known as the Yahara Watershed. To engage community thought and discussion, “Yahara 2070” uses illustrated stories set in the year 2070 to explore four distinct imagined futures for the region’s environment and society, each with its own descriptive title and logo.

IDaisy_Iconn “Abandonment and Renewal,” from which the lines above are taken, the population is unprepared for a dramatic rise in temperature.  Government is unable to manage ecological disaster and the area begins to return to the wild, including animals, like elephants, who have escaped the local zoo.  Brave settlers have returned to the area, joining those who were unable to evacuate, and together they work to carve out a new way of life.

In another scenario, “Accelerated Innovation,” technology provides the path away fromAccelerated_Icon environmental ruin. Agricultural automation optimizes water use, reducing runoff, and ecologically destructive cattle raising has been replaced by genetically engineered, “motherless” meat created in laboratories.


PrintWhile the Robert Frost line may read that good fences make good neighbors, in “Connected Communities,” neighbors have removed fences, creating space for community gardens and parks. This symbolizes a societal shift in values toward cooperation, community and sustainability.

Nested Watersheds” takes an idea first proposed by 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell that our largely arbitrary state boundaries be redrawnNested_icon around watersheds. More water-centric forms of governance are adopted after years of drought and water scarcity,  placing a premium on conservation, and rewarding farmers for practices that regenerate groundwater while preventing runoff and erosion.

Land cover map for abandonment scenario

Based on extensive data

While the stories are futuristic science fiction, they are grounded in present-day scientific fact. Background for the scenarios comes from extensive data collection on land use in the Yahara watershed. Modeling how present trends could play out over the coming decades informs the conditions that become the setting for each story. The projection seen above shows the abandonment scenario, with a large swath of green representing a return to forest and grassland after depopulation.

Hearing hopes and fears

The quantitative approach of data and projection is combined with qualitative methods of interview and discussion. “We began this project by interviewing a large number of people and conducting workshops with about a hundred people in the watershed to hear what they think about the future. What are the stories in their head about the future? What are their fears, their hopes for the future?” explained Steve Carpenter, “Yahara 2070” leader and director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology.

Putting thought to paper

Synthesizing those hopes and fears with the background of a changing environment into narratives fell to project writer Jenny Seifert. Unlike producers of all too many high-concept Hollywood science fiction films, Seifert didn’t forget to create stories on a human scale.

“I created characters for each story,” she said. “So I really think about these moments in time for these characters. Focusing on these moments really was my way of trying to help people connect with the stories and kind of see themselves and see what their life could be like.”

Felix swimming in lake with elephant in backdrop
Illustration by John Miller

“Felix heard a loud rustle on the shoreline that startled him into alertness. Cougars are known to stalk these shores, and even though he knew the odds that one would bother to jump in after him were miniscule, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread as he eyed the distance between himself and the pier, where his machete lay. Then, a trumpet-like noise bellowed from the trees, and the mammoth head of an elephant emerged. Phew, thought Felix. Just an elephant.”
-  Excerpt from “Abandonment and Renewal”

Imagining and imaging

Deciding what life could be like, or look like, was a special challenge for the project’s illustrator, John Miller, particularly with the technology involved in some of the scenarios. Contemplating his iPhone, Miller said, “You take a look at something like this and it’s just so different from the original phone that if I were to create something, to invent something, nobody would know what I’m showing.”

Asking “What if…”

The team makes clear they are not trying to invent the future, or even predict it. Rather, the use of scenarios is a tool to help prepare for what the future may bring.

“The idea of the scenarios is to develop stories about the future that organize our thinking. Carpenter explained, “and also provide guidance to us as scientists about what we should be learning to simulate in order to understand the future.”

Which of these scenarios seems most likely? Will pachyderms prowl the prairie? Will Wisconsin’s beloved bratwurst be petri-dish-processed before hitting the grill? Both the good and bad parts of each scenario are worth contemplating as we all collectively create the future.