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Study finds the sweet spot—and the screw-ups—that make or break environmental collective actions

Posted June 18, 2013
A group of residents monitor the forests of China's Wolong Nature Reserve for signs of illegal logging. Credit: Michigan State University

A group of residents monitor the forests of China’s Wolong Nature Reserve for signs of illegal logging. Credit: Michigan State University

Sustainability programs are a Goldilocks proposition – some groups are too big, some are too small, and the environment benefits when the size of a group of people working to save it is just right.

It has long been debated how many people working together can change the world. Whether it’s joining forces to conserve gas, save a forest or stave off climate change, arguments have been made for the power of a dedicated few or the strength of numbers. It also has been a mystery what tips a group dynamic from powerful to unproductive.

Scientists at Michigan State University (MSU) have found that there is a sweet spot – a group size at which the action is most effective. More importantly, the work revealed how behaviors of group members can pull bad policy up or drag good policy down. The work is published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This paper finds that group size does matter – and the answer is right in the middle,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, who holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and is director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS). “Collective action is of growing importance as the world becomes more interdependent. Think about big problems like climate change and conservation. One person cannot solve the problem. One country can’t solve the problem. It’s important to understand how collective action works if we want programs that are effective.”

Wu Yang, an MSU-CSIS doctoral student, and his colleagues studied how groups in the Wolong Nature Reserve worked to participate in China’s massive Natural Forest Conservation Program. That program pays all of the 1,100 rural households there to monitor the forest on which they rely to enforce logging bans intended to allow forests to recover. Since it’s mostly local residents who chop down the trees for firewood or to build homes, enlisting locals has been identified as the best way to increase forest cover.

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