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Future ready: The advocate for a better Anthropocene

McGill’s Elena Bennett wants you to imagine a radical, inspiring, and realistic future for our planet

Elena Bennett, ecosystem ecologist

When you think of the Earth 50 years from now, what do you see? Do you imagine desolate cities, scorched forests, dead oceans, lost biodiversity? Elena Bennett wants you to know the future doesn’t have to be bleak.

“We can achieve a good Anthropocene — a future that is more just, prosperous, and sustainable than our current world,” says Bennett, an ecosystem ecologist jointly appointed to the McGill School of Environment and the Department of Natural Resource Sciences in McGill’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Bennett believes it’s crucial to rewrite the usual dystopian narratives. As a society, we’re bombarded in the media and popular culture with visions of a catastrophic future. “Stories and images create our reality,” she says. “So, it’s important to tell positive stories. Otherwise, we risk creating the very future we’re projecting.”

Bennett is co-founder of the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project, an international collaboration of scientists collecting examples of real-life, on-the-ground successes. These “seeds” can be social initiatives, new technologies, economic tools, or even organizations, movements, and new ways of acting.

Bennett notes that many seeds are successful thanks to “radical listening” — the ability to go into a community with humility, listen deeply, and synthesize a novel, realistic, and inspiring solution. She cites one project in Indonesian Borneo that helped solve a deforestation problem by providing low-cost health care to marginalized communities, so they wouldn’t have to log to pay for medicine. “The solution was to reconnect forest health with human health,” says Bennett.

Seeds of Good Anthropocenes seeks to develop better scenarios for the future, based on these kinds of emerging ideas, projects, and ways of living. Scholars around the world now have access to the more than 500 success stories in the project’s database.

“These seeds help us better understand how transformation takes place in social-ecological systems,” says Bennett. “They illuminate realistic pathways for change and show us a different place for humanity on the planet — as a humble part of a bigger biological community.”

Germinating a career in ecology

Bennett can’t pinpoint a specific time in her youth when she decided to pursue environmental science. “It was always there,” she says. “I was always outside, climbing trees, exploring my surroundings.”

It helped that she had close female role models. Her mother (now retired) was a pharmacist, her maternal grandmother a mathematician, and her paternal grandmother a chemist. “I never thought about doing anything that wasn’t science-related,” Bennett recalls.

In 1994, she earned her BA in Biology and Environmental Studies from Oberlin College, and then an MSc in Land Resources in 1999 and a PhD in Limnology and Marine Sciences in 2002, both from the University of Wisconsin.

As a postdoctoral researcher, Bennett provided scientific and technical support to the Scenarios Working Group of the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a landmark report published in 2005 that looked at the impact of humanity on the environment.

She arrived at McGill in 2005 to take up the position of assistant professor. Appointed to a full professorship in January 2020, Bennett was also inducted into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists in 2017, and was awarded the Canada Research Chair, Tier 1, in Sustainability Science in January 2020.

Preparing for the future

Research in the Bennett Lab at McGill centers on questions relating to ecosystem services — the many benefits people get from nature. Some of these benefits might include the food we eat, the places where we recreate, and the ways in which the natural world regulates threats such as floods and diseases.

“Canada is a country rich in both natural and human resources,” says Bennett. “It’s really important for current and future generations that we learn how to manage these resources equitably and sustainably.”

Her lab’s research themes encompass urban, agricultural, and aquatic ecosystems, human impacts on nutrient cycling, and the next generation of ecosystem services modeling.

Recent research projects have included: a study of Indigenous peoples and reservoir aquaculture in Sri Lanka; an exploration of potential futures of a rapidly changing marine region of the Canadian Arctic; and a collaboration with community members in Bristol and Pontiac, Quebec, to brainstorm how the management of multifunctional landscapes can improve the relationship between people and nature.

Jim Fyles, Tomlinson Chair in Forest Ecology, was Bennett’s mentor when she first arrived at McGill. He describes her work as “the next phase of natural resource sciences.” Rather than focusing on only one resource at a time (to the potential detriment of others), the Bennett Lab looks at managing and balancing the full range of ecosystem services.

Fyles also credits Bennett for her skill in bringing together stakeholders across multiple disciplines. “That’s how society as a whole needs to be thinking about these big, complicated issues we’re dealing with,” says Fyles. “In terms of preparing us to be ‘future ready’, Elena is one of the key people pushing things forward in that direction.”

Expect the unexpected

Research in the Bennett Lab also explores what would make a good Anthropocene. (Not yet a formally defined geological unit, “the Anthropocene” is a term that denotes the period of Earth’s history during which humans have had a profound influence.) “There’s no debate that humans are altering our ecosystems,” says Bennett. “The Anthropocene is a useful term, because it helps us remember we’re living in a world and a time dominated by people.”

Bennett and her colleagues work to be future-ready through something called “scenario development.” She explains that scenario developers don’t try to predict the future — it’s more about preparing to expect the unexpected.

She uses the analogy of an athlete on the field facing an oncoming opponent. The player doesn’t know what will happen next or where the ball will go. They get up on their toes to move quickly in whatever direction is needed. “The process of scenario planning is a lot like that process of getting up on your toes,” Bennett says.

She notes that traditional scenario development has often focused solely on an end goal, rather than exploring realistic pathways to arrive at that destination. As well, global scenarios are often too similar to the world in which we already live, and they tend to rely on the same broad drivers: for example, population growth, how people use technology, and changes in the way we consume.

“These drivers are all very important, but these kinds of scenarios lack the surprises and the rich detail of how history actually unfolds,” says Bennett. “In our scenario development, we uncover many other things that are equally important — like the role of gender dynamics, or how people conceive of time and work, or how we find and make meaning of our lives.”

An experiment in the real world

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a timely, real-life example. Bennett notes that the pandemic has helped to highlight many less quantifiable, but equally vital, drivers for change.

“We’re learning that in a crisis people reach out to their neighbours. They’re helping them get their groceries. They’re driving by and honking on birthdays. We’re connecting online with friends and family for Friday night dinners and to celebrate holidays, when normally we might not have made time for that.”

In their scenario development work, Bennett and colleagues look at how crises can lead to transformations and help us reflect on what’s important. “It’s interesting to think about how we make ourselves future-ready in a world that can throw us these complete curveballs like COVID-19.”

And what about the conversation across social media that the pandemic is helping to solve climate change? Bennett is careful to note that, while there has been some reduction in pollution and greenhouse gases, it is still a drop in the bucket. (According to the U.N. Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2019, we would need to reduce carbon emissions by 7.6 per cent each year for the next decade — that means halving our current emissions — to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree temperature goal by 2030.)

However, Bennett notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly the world can act. “If we have to, we’re capable of moving a lot more quickly than we thought we could. And that is pretty interesting.”

Mentoring the next generation

Matthew Mitchell earned his PhD in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, co-supervised by Bennett, in 2014. “I chose McGill specifically because of Elena,” he says. “Her research really spoke to me.”

For his doctoral thesis, Mitchell worked with Bennett on the Montérégie Connection Project. Multiple investigators and policy makers worked together to construct scenarios that probed how the development of the area would impact biodiversity. The research helped to educate community members on how small decisions can have larger and sometimes surprising outcomes that could affect the community’s long-term environmental future. The project won the Alice E. Johannsen Award of Excellence from the Mont Saint-Hilaire Nature Centre.

“Elena’s research not only connects across ecological systems, but also social systems,” says Mitchell, now a research associate at the University of British Columbia. “This helps us think about how to balance the needs of people with the needs for biodiversity.”

To date, Bennett has supervised 28 graduate students, 13 undergraduates, and 10 independent students. She received the Macdonald Campus Award for Undergraduate Teaching Excellence in 2012 and the Carrie M. Derick Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision and Teaching in 2013.

Catalyzing science communication

In 2015, Bennett received the Catalyst Award for Staff Contribution to Sustainability for her contributions to the sustainability movement at McGill. Other honours include: a Leopold Leadership Fellowship with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in 2011-12; a Trottier Public Policy Fellowship with McGill’s Trottier Institute for Science and Public Policy in 2013-14; and a E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in 2016.

She has published more than 116 peer-reviewed articles, and has lectured widely, including at the Summer Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China in 2012. From 2014 to 2019, she served as co-chair of ecoSERVICES, an international research project of Future Earth.

And in 2019, Bennett and her Seeds of Good Anthropocenes colleagues won the “Innovation in Sustainability Science” Award from the Ecological Society of America for their study “Bright Spots: Seeds of a Good Anthropocene.”

Studying landscapes from coast to coast

Bennett is now lead Principal Investigator on a national research project that will study six of Canada’s working landscapes and the critical ecosystem services they provide. Launched in September 2019, NSERC ResNet brings together 26 co-applicants from 11 universities, 30 collaborators, and 17 partner organizations. The five-year project is funded by a $5.5 million NSERC grant, along with contributions from McGill University and other partners.

Statistics Canada is an in-kind supporter. “It was an easy decision to advise my managers to support the project,” says François Soulard, Chief of the R&D Section in the Environment and Energy Statistics Division. The new project closely aligns with his own team’s work at Statistics Canada, and he also credits the reputation of Bennett and her team.

“Projects like this are more important than ever to understand our connection to the environment,” says Soulard. He emphasizes the vital importance of gathering data that is compatible across the entire country, using common terminology and concepts, minimizing duplication, and producing better information for policymakers to make more informed decisions about our reliance and impact on the environment.

Soulard commends Bennett for her ability to organize a large group of collaborators and generate enthusiasm for ResNet. “People are involved from the heart,” says Soulard. “They are emotionally connected to the work.”

Planting seeds for a better tomorrow

“A future Good Anthropocene will probably be radically different from the world in which we are currently living,” writes Bennett on her lab’s website. “It will require fundamental changes in values, worldviews, relationships among people, and between people and nature.”

But how to get there? Bennett is more than aware of the scope and scale of the problem. She contributed as a lead author to chapter three of the IPBES Global Assessment, published in May 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

The report made headlines with its finding that one million plant and animal species are now facing extinction, many within decades. It also stated that greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980, and the global goals for 2030 and beyond “may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political, and technological factors.”

With her work in the Bennett Lab and the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project, Bennett is dedicated to finding solutions, by articulating the radical changes needed for that transformation.

“If we want to create a better planet, we need to find positive stories about the future — stories that are inspirational but that remain fundamentally grounded and realistic,” she says.

“We start from the seeds of today to get to a better tomorrow.”

This article originally appeared on McGill's Research and Innovation website.