The long-range outlook for the world's ecosystems depends on the course taken by global development in the coming decades. Current global trends and ecological dynamics are consistent with very different outcomes, defined by alternative assumptions about the technological, economic, demographic, geopolitical, and social aspects of development and the ways in which institutions, personal and public values, and natural systems may be expected to respond to historically novel stressors. Recent advances in scenario analysis have addressed the dual methodological challenge of exploring these uncertainties in an organized way and determining what would be needed to make the transition to sustainability. This paper reviews global scenario research, setting current efforts in a historical context. It focuses on seven recent studies that are comprehensive, regionally disaggregated, and narratively rich-and thus of greatest relevance to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). It summarizes their social visions and the level of quantitative detail used in these exercises. Taken together, this suite of global scenario studies provides a useful platform for the MA by offering insight into the complex factors that drive ecosystem change, estimating the magnitude of regional pressures on ecosystems, sounding the alert on critical uncertainties that could undermine sustainable development, and understanding the importance of institutions and values. But these studies are only a point of departure. The integration of changing ecosystem conditions into global development scenarios, as both effects and causes, is at the cutting edge of scenario analysis. The paper concludes by identifying directions for this research program and suggesting ways that the MA can contribute to this effort.
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