1. Maintaining and protecting biodiversity for the future under changing environmental and socio-political conditions is a major challenge. Scenarios are used as decision-making aids for natural resource management at local to global scales. Scenarios are underutilised by conservationists at a local level, where they can be highly effective for anticipating change.
2. People’s values and attitudes are crucial in determining the future, yet they are rarely placed at the centre of scenario exercises. Novel methods have been developed to fully integrate people’s worldviews into scenario planning. The ethnographic futures framework focuses on how changes occur through human agency and how they will be felt by society in the future. The three horizons approach considers how different ideas and paradigms become more, or less, dominant in society over time.
3. Natural England (NE), the statutory adviser to the UK Government on the natural environment in England, carried out a scenario planning process using these novel approaches. The scenarios consider a wide range of global and local factors and investigate their impact upon the natural environment in England, to 2060.
4. A set of four contrasting scenarios was produced. Despite their differences, nature was always highly valued in some form; ultimately, the state of the natural environment was determined not by natural forces but by societal choice.
5. Synthesis and applications. Scenario planning allows the development of key visions for the future. These can be used to establish, and influence, the direction of future trends and their impacts on the natural environment, particularly in the context of a shifting basis for conservation policy that seeks to enhance ecological resilience. The scenarios are being used within NE to help local communities shape the future of their natural environment; this process can be utilised by governments or environmental agencies elsewhere. This study demonstrates that across a range of scenarios the future state of the natural environment is very much a matter of societal choice. Decision-making frameworks for environmental conservation must take proper account of ecological knowledge, societal values, foresight and complexity.