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Possible futures for the forests of Eastern Victoria

Stephen Atkinson
April, 2018


Discover the possible future scenarios of the timber industry and the conservation of native flora and fauna in the forests of Victoria, Australia.

For decades, the forest industry in Victoria, Australia, has been characterized by intense friction and conflict between timber industry companies, trade unions, and nature conservationists. In 2015, the Victorian state government established a Forest Industry Taskforce comprised of key stakeholders from the industry, the union movement, and forest conservation groups. For the first time in history, this diverse group came together to attempt to provide consensus recommendations to the state government about the future of the timber industry, including job protection, economic activity, and protection of the unique and threatened native flora and fauna in the region.

Not unexpectedly in such a polarized situation, the actors saw the world largely from their own standpoints and through stories passed down from those before them—logger to logger, conservationist to conservationist. In the past, interactions across stakeholder groups were limited largely to violent clashes in the forest or through legal actions in the courts of law. For these reasons, participants could not agree on a common history, let alone a shared future. Even statistical data and scientific research were contested as inaccurate or biased. Not being able to “see” together made it almost impossible for stakeholders to “act” together. The only perspective they shared was the feeling of uncertainty: uncertainty about the future of the industry, about the future of the workers, and about the future of the threatened flora and fauna. Each actor felt as though they were continually losing to the others.

To help the taskforce make sense of a complex and changing environment and better understand and see the situation together, they agreed that, within a broader program of work, they would develop a set of future scenarios for the forest industry. These scenarios that were not visions about what should happen or forecasts about what will happen,rather stories describing alternative plausible futures and how they might come about. The stories were designed to challenge the conventional world views of the actors, shine a light on the situation from multiple perpsectives, and be logical and systemic enough that they could plausibly happen. Based on the methodological approach outlined in Adam Kahane’s book, Transformative Scenario Planning, Working Together to Change the Future, the scenarios were designed such that the actors could “see” themselves in these different futures and figure out actions to not only adapt to a particular future should it unfold, but to actually shape the future. 

Possible Futures

The Forest Industry Taskforce developed four possible scenarios of the future, represented by the shaded boxes in the image below. The image depicts a logic tree based on the way the forest stakeholders understand the situation they are in and on their readiness, capability, and willingness to take actions that shape the future to be more sustainable for all. The image depicts the binary decision points that (consciously or unconsciously) influence the degree of uncertainty or durability for the future of forests and relationships between forest stakeholders.  The term “durability” was a word prefered by stakeholders to describe the longer-term certainty of upholding their values, positions and preferences and ensuring there is a healthy future for all.


Scenario 1: Calm Before the Storm

In this scenario, the majority of stakeholders believe that nothing will significantly impact the status quo in the foreseeable future. The next hundred years will be much the same as the last hundred years. Stakeholders continue with “business as usual” and do what they’ve always done. They feel they can do little to influence the future, so they do not try. Individuals and organizations are either ignorant about or unconcerned by larger forces that may impact their world. They focus on what is directly in front of them by immersing themselves in their day-to-day work.

The first few years seem pretty much the same as they’ve always been, yet government authorities reduce the amount of wood available for harvesting year by year. Droughts and unpredictable forest fires put further pressure on the industry, job viability, and community cohesion. Nature conservation values are eroded further, and certain businesses begin to shut down in the wake of increased competition for fewer resources, leading to the loss of jobs. Industry, conservationists, and unions are by and large caught off guard by these changes, and “business as usual” suddenly no longer seems viable. A different and seemingly unpredictable future is suddenly a reality.

Scenario 2: Parts Against the Whole

In this scenario, stakeholders generally understand that significant change is inevitable and unpredictable, and that they need to take action to right wrongs and influence the future. Just “letting it happen” is not good enough. In this scenario, different stakeholders are motivated to respond to the situation by using familiar tools at their disposal to influence the outcome, namely power and force. Stakeholders strive to “win” by digging in and fighting to get their way.

Stakeholder groups largely see the world as right and wrong, black and white, “us versus them.” Constituent groups believe their needs are superior to those of all others and actively work to get those needs met, regardless of the costs and consequences to others. Actions include cutting secret deals with governments and authorities, and undermining opponents through competitive, aggressive, manipulative, unethical, illegal, or violent actions. Emboldened individuals and organizations combine forces with their local collaborators to attack and defeat. Enormous mental and emotional energy is spent. Combative actions are increasingly more intense, more forceful, and more aggressive. The focus of this scenario is on “not losing more” AND “not letting others win.”

Even so, wins are temporary, victories are short lived, and divisions amplified. People feel increasing insecure about their own futures and those of the next generation. In the words of political philosopher John Gardner, this scenario is “a war of the parts against the whole.” 

Scenario 3: Toe in the Water

In this scenario, stakeholders believe that both avoidance and force are insufficient to create a better future. They sense the need for something new and different, even though it is likely to be difficult, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable.

Stakeholders come to realize that it is not enough to work alone or with colleagues and supporters. However unattractive and inconvenient it may seem, they recognize the crucial need to work constructively and collaboratively with opponents and rivals. They accept that no one holds the single truth, and that multiple realities co-exist. Stakeholders know that rethinking and reframing long-held positions and worldviews is difficult, frightening, unfamiliar—and necessary.

In this scenario, many stakeholders gradually and willingly learn to listen to others and build new capacities for understanding, dialogue, and relationship-building. They begin to consider alternatives that benefit both the parts and the whole over the long term in the hope of decreased uncertainty and fighting.

This work is difficult, and real progress is slow. It takes time for stakeholders to master the new capacities for working together. Mistakes are made, patience frays, and the temptation to revert to old habits of force are too great for some to bear. The process of coming to agreement becomes protracted. Cynicism takes hold, and newfound trust is tested. The impatience for “results” overwhelms the sustained effort needed for a lasting outcome. The personal toll of this new type of work becomes too much for many, and people fall back into old patterns of behavior. While people feel disappointed and sad, they also have a sense of hollow relief that the familiar comforts of past habits and ways of working have “returned to normal.”

In this scenario people say, “Oh well, we tried, and it didn't work.”

Scenario 4: Building New Traditions

In this scenario, stakeholders understand that to shift the long history of adapting, forcing, or fighting change, they need to commit to a a sustained, long-term recalibration. They recognize that they must learn to work together over time and face challenges with unprecedented perseverance to overcome old habits and build new ones.

This way of working does not seek to prevent individuals or organizations from acting in assertive ways. Rather, it slowly and consistently builds new patterns of behavior that counteract the “war of the parts against the whole.” Through this approach, stakeholders create new traditions and stories that unleash energy and creativity  and enable conservationists, businesses and workers, unions, and forest users to see hope for the future. As they consider new viewpoints and images of a sustainable future, stakeholders begin to address the “whole package” of problems rather than fix their individual needs at the expense of others.

Failures and setbacks take place. Factions of militant stakeholders committed to the past and fearful of change feel threatened by the challenges to the status quo. There are conflicts and acts of sabotage between stakeholders as well as forest fires, droughts, and other unexpected impacts on the forests. Fortunately, failures are treated as valuable lessons that provide new knowledge with which to recover and try again. People recognize that a “set-and-forget” strategy is inadequate and unworkable. Key parties and the majority of stakeholders become even more determined to persist in building new traditions that provide a more sustainable future for all. In establishing these new traditions, there is no clear path ahead. They commit to creating it as they go.

These scenarios were seen by the stakeholders as plausible futures that could unfold. Each senario presented its own challenges, benefits and implications for the stakeholders, their future success and relationship and the health of the forest ecosystem and those it supports. Over the next two articles, we will shift the focus to explore the experiences, learning and challenges of the multi-stakeholder group in working together to co-create these scenarios.  We will also examine the implications and impacts of this Transformative Scenario Planning work to date.


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