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The bright spots: Global examples of a thriving social-ecological future


There is indeed no lack of stories that document climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality and other examples of unsustainable development around the world. Efforts to envision what better futures could actually look like seldom receive the same attention. But now researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre have gathered hundreds of examples of such positive initiatives.

Stockholm Resilience Centre

There is indeed no lack of stories that document climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality and other examples of unsustainable development around the world. Efforts to envision what better futures could actually look like seldom receive the same attention. But now a group of researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, together with colleagues from around the world, have gathered hundreds of examples of positive initiatives.

They publish their results in an article entitled “Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene” in the October issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The title refers to the new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, which recognizes that humans are profoundly altering the functioning of the Earth’s climate and ecosystems.

In addition to Albert Norström, Oonsie Biggs, Per Olsson, Garry Peterson and Victor Galaz contributed from the centre, and they did it in a joint project together with researchers from Canada, South Africa, US, UK, the Netherlands, Brazil, Germany and China.

READ/WATCH: Seeds of a good Anthropocene

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100 seeds analysed

In total, the researchers have analysed 100 of the more than 500 projects that have been contributed to goodanthropocenes.net, the website they have created for the project. These seeds of a good Anthropocene range from projects designed to create healthier school lunches in California to biodiversity conservation in South Africa, and forest conservation in Scotland. The group of researchers believe that there are aspects of these projects that can be used either alone, or in combination with one another to build a better, more sustainable future.

“As scientists, we tend to be very focussed on all the problems, so to look at examples of the sustainable solutions that people are coming up with – and to move towards asking, ‘what do the solutions have in common’ is a big change,” says Elena Bennett, from McGill’s School of the Environment in Canada, who is the lead author of the paper.

The paper is also a move away from the typical academic perspective of looking at things in a top-down way, where the scientists come up with the definitions. Instead, the authors encouraged the people involved in the projects to define what makes a project ‘good’. This was also done because the scientists didn’t want to be driven only by their Northern European or North American sensibilities and rather wanted to see a variety of ideas about what people actually want from the future.

“Most visions of the future are extrapolations of the world of today, and do not capture the changes needed to create an ecologically sustainable, fair, and prosperous world,” adds Garry Peterson.

Six main themes identified

The group of researchers have identified six main overarching themes from the projects that were submitted:

1) “Agroecology”: Projects that adopt social-ecological approaches to enhance food-producing landscapes. One example is the Satoyama Initiative in Japan where urban residents are working with rural people to revive underused rural lands through farm stays and volunteer work along with financial support.

2) “Green Urbanism”: Projects that improve the liveability of urban areas, e.g. New York City’s Highline Park, where native species have been planted on abandoned railway lines to create urban spaces where art, education and recreation are accessible to all.

3) “Future Knowledge”: These are projects which foster new knowledge and education which can be used to transform societies. One example is Greenmatter, a programme in South Africa to provide graduate-level skills for biodiversity conservation.

4) “Urban Transformation”: These are projects that create new types of social-ecological interactions around urban space. One example is the Sukhomajri village in the Himalaya’s where the community has come together to stop Sukhna Lake from silting up and initiate harvesting of rainwater.

5) “Fair Futures”: Efforts to create opportunities for more equitable decision making. One example is City of the Future Lüneburg 2030+ – a project that aims to envision the future city of Lüneburg, Germany in a way that it turns into more sustainable, livable and fair place.

6) “Sustainable Futures”: Social movements to build more just and sustainable futures, e.g. the US based Farm Hack project who share new ideas online to increase the resilience of sustainable agriculture and rural economies. One example is a bicycle powered root washer.

More seeds wanted

The publication in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is by no means the end of the project to identify good seeds of the future. Now, the researchers encourage people around the world to go to the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene website and contribute more examples of sustainability projects of various kinds.

“Seeds of a Good Anthropocene” is a collaboration led by McGill University in Canada, the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University in Sweden, and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. It forms part of the initiative “Bright Spots – Seeds of a Good Anthropocene,” a Future Earth funded project, which is co-led by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).

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READ/WATCH: Seeds of a good Anthropocene

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