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Source: ChatGPT/Dall-E prompted by Wendy Schultz

People often ask why so many catastrophe movies exist, and so few utopian/protopian (positive preferred futures) movies. It’s the drama: collapse offers so much more narrative weight. 

Every set of scenarios should have at least one collapse scenario, of course -- they are iconic and archetypal. Collapse is represented in the original Hawai’i archetypes and is still included in the more limited set of the current Hawai’i Four Futures (Dator). 

Collapse archetypes are inscribed as well in decks and methods such as The Thing from the Future (Candy, SitLab). So, to join in this festival of dystopian drama, I thought I would contribute a collapse scenario from a current project.  


As part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH), we (Jigsaw Foresight) helped WOAH identify critical emerging changes, from which we built five challenging, exploratory scenarios. The most dire was driven by three possibilities: Can AI do everything?; Synchronised harvest failure; and New powers in the world. It begins with a drift into dissolution:

Coming out of the twenties, global politics slowly fragmented. Shifting economic centers created new power blocs vying for influence over global markets and trade.  Border conflicts increased, especially where strategic resources were in play.  Global actors -- old powers and rising powers -- could no longer rely on ‘how it’s always been done’. “

Turbulence increases, driving destabilization, pushing the world into postnormal times: “an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.’’  

People, communities, organizations, and societies innovate to adapt to the accelerating climate crisis and to mitigate its impacts -- but the adaptive responses useful in the short-term drive feedback through the system that accelerates the downward spiral in the long-term:

Increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) applications in veterinary services and throughout the global animal production and food chain helped manage rising risks due to environmental challenges, and also offered advanced approaches to disease and pest monitoring and detection…

But the costs for installation and upkeep of these systems worsened inequalities among livestock farmers and businesses throughout the global food chain. The intense energy needs of AI agricultural monitoring systems meant only those systems installed alongside extensive green energy infrastructure could avoid making climate change worse.“

Innovations, of course, do not stay in the lanes for which they were designed. People find new uses for them -- in play, in art, in leisure, in crime. 

Strategic mineral and food resources were redirected to different players on the global stage, resulting in shortages in some places. Grey and black markets flourished for scarce goods. Those markets put AI systems to use for fraud, misinformation, and bioweapons development. Regional conflicts along borders shifted government budgets to the military and military technology, and away from international science.”

And if the innovations actually have minds of their own, they might begin comparing notes. Automated, distributed diversity of perspective might generate insights that their human clients could still manage to deny.

We didn’t pay attention in 2035 when separate national, academic, and NGO eco-sensor AI arrays in Latin America, the Arctic, Eastern Europe, mid-Africa, the Pacific Ocean, and low Earth orbit all warned of rising probabilities of ecosystem tipping points. The glaciers melted, and rising seas infiltrated freshwater tables along many coasts. Rainfall patterns shifted randomly from year to year. But experts thought conditions would stabilize. So, the synchronized harvest failure of 2037-2038 caught farmers, distributors, consumers, and world leaders by surprise.”

World food trade went from merely fragmented to total chaos, whether for feedstocks, crops, or animal production. Hunger drove people to use contaminated feed for their animals -- and then for themselves. As feedstock for animals disappeared, those animals died; the animal production collapsed. The hungry turned to wildlife for alternative sources of protein -- and as a last resort, to pets. A new wave of extinctions followed. 

Entire communities were abandoned to the dead and dying, and people moved in search of food, with no attention to borders -- border skirmishes became conflicts, and conflicts became wars. Food supply chains were failing all around the world. Disease vectors and disease transmission chains were opening up new channels for zoonotic transfer, as people searched ecosystems for sources of protein, or migrated through them in search of safe places to live.”

Now I’m not going to share the full scenario, but I can assure you that in the end people work together to address these crises and build towards a more hopeful future from the ashes. 


That was the darkest of the five WOAH scenarios, with the most pervasively catastrophic outcomes. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that each of our five scenarios contained a collapse:

  • Eco-Revolution Rising -- a food system disrupted by innovation: collapse of the traditional;

  • In WOAH We Trust -- a food system disrupted by misinformation: collapse of truth;

  • Hangry Games -- a food system disrupted by the polycrisis: collapse of the food chain;

  • Animal Health from the Bottoms of the Oceans to the Stars -- a food system transformed by value shifts: collapse of the ordinary; and

  • Farming for Resilience / Whole Health -- a food system transformed by wellbeing: collapse of centralization and monoculture.

Indeed, any transformation by necessity encompasses a collapse -- something must give way, something must be eroded or destroyed for transformation to occur. The liminality of change always discards something.

Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad suggests this. A Tetrad examines change, especially innovations, by asking us to think first about what capabilities the change enhances and what it re-enables or retrieves. The Tetrad then asks us to consider how the change will reverse or obsolesce items, behaviors, assumptions, or values that we currently take for granted and may hold dear: 

  • Enhance -- What does the change amplify or intensify?

  • Reverse -- When the change hits an extreme, what values flip to their opposites and what is the result?

  • Retrieve -- What previously discarded item, behavior, assumption, or value re-emerges?

  • Obsolesce -- What item, behavior, assumption, or value does this change replace, reduce, erode, or remove?

Every innovation ushers some previous innovation off the landscape of our lives: a specific, localized collapse.

Richard Lum’s Verge General Framework poses the same critical question. After asking people to reflect on how an emerging change might affect how we define ourselves and our reality; how we relate to each other and the world; how we connect and transmit meaning; how we create new goods, services, and roles; and how we consume or inhabit those goods, services, and roles, Verge poses a final question. How does this emerging change affect what we destroy -- what we choose, or are forced to destroy? What do we need to destroy to free space for change or transformation? What must collapse to create a liminal space in which a more positive future can be born?


The Hawai’i scenario archetypes were identified via content analysis of the futures and foresight literature. These generic futures were used for “incasting” -- exploring the future of anything, based on how a given “anything” might transform in the context of each archetype scenario. The original set included continued growth; collapse; discipline; green; and high-tech transformation. This set was expanded during discussions facilitated by Chris Jones as part of his doctorate research to add in high spirit transformation. In using these archetypes for incasting various topics, as well as for futures workshop warm-ups, it became clear over time that something of a ‘collapse du jour’ dynamic existed. 

Different eras fear different types of collapse. This suggests that collapse is simply the Janus coin opposite face of the ‘regular’ archetypes. The different flavors of collapse depict a future that would be feared by those comfortable in a specific archetype. For example:

  • Continued Growth; Nightmare: Economic Collapse

  • Environmental Sustainability (Green); Nightmare: Ecological Collapse

  • Ideological Exclusionism (Discipline); Nightmare: Anarchy (collapse of rule of law)

  • High-Tech Transformation; Nightmare: Infrastructure/System Collapse

  • Spiritual Transcendence (High Spirit Transformation); Nightmare: Anomic Collapse

All our futures, whether exploratory or normative, contain a seed of our fear of the nightmare scenario - and all our fears contain a seed of hope.


Wendy Schultz has been engaged in futures research and participatory foresight for over forty years, designing futures research projects for NGOs, government agencies, and businesses. Her recent work includes a scenario building for the World Organization for Animal Health; expanding the NGFS climate model forecasts into scenario narratives using the Deep Transitions conceptual model; and the Law in the Emerging Bio Age report for the UK Law Society.

Wendy is Director of Infinite Futures and Co-Founder at Jigsaw Foresight.  She currently teaches futures studies in the Masters Program in Strategic Foresight at the University of Houston; is a Fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy; a Senior Fellow of the Center for Post-Normal Policy and Futures Studies; a member of the Association of Professional Futurists; a Fellow of the World Futures Studies Federation; and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

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