In facing up to environmental problems, we assume that getting more people involved leads to better action. Mass movements are generally thought to be better than mid-sized movements. But could there be an optimal size for groups, somewhere between too small and too big?
That’s the conclusion of interesting research just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Based on a long-term study of a large forestry conservation project in China, it finds that there is a clear “sweet spot” where groups are most effective.
The study focuses on the Wolong National Nature Reserve, in Sichuan Province, which is home to about 10% of the world’s giant panda population. Since the 1970s, the area has been threatened by illegal logging. So, since 2001, authorities have paid 1,200 local households to monitor about a third of the forest, handing over cash when tree cover increases, and taking it away when trees are felled.
The idea behind the program is that local people are best situated to deal with the problem. They are closer to the problem physically, and also responsible for it: Most of the illegal logging is committed by the residents themselves. And so it has been: Over the last 12 years, tree cover in the area under community management has thickened significantly.
What interest the researchers, however, is that some groups of households–there are 16 in total–have been more successful than others. The paper finds that the improvement spikes among teams of between eight and nine households (15.8% improvement since 2001), with effectiveness trailing off gradually and consistently for groups both smaller and larger.
The study was led by Wu Yang, a doctoral student at Michigan State, along with chair of sustainability Jack Liu. They suggest that bigger groups create “free rider” problems (where individuals get benefits without any contribution), and have more difficulty communicating. Smaller groups, meanwhile, are simply undermanned, and overwhelmed.
How relevant is a project in a remote forest for other environmental issues? Yang says it “may have broad implications for almost all, if not all, collective action and common-pool resource management situations,” including student class projects, watershed conservation, and climate change mitigation.
Which must surely be true. We know, for instance, that companies become harder to manage as they get bigger. What goes for commercial management could well be relevant for the environment as well.