Lesson 2: Don’t just research stakeholders – think like them

Jack Liu talks to a storekeeper in the Wolong Nature Reserve

Science is all about data points, but insight comes from not just doing research – but living it.

In Wolong, the research team has dissected what motivates people to act in the best interest of the environment and questions such as the role money plays in sustainability – when it motivates, when it doesn’t and when other things matter more.

Yet data alone does not fully give insight that helps strike a successful balance between people and the environment.

Pandas – and their extreme cuteness -- are an easy side to take.  To balance that, the team has steeped themselves for two decades into the lives of generations of Wolong residents. They’ve gained an understanding of the reality of every-day choices -- Do I chop down this tree and make it hard for a panda, or do I pay for my child’s school? Cook them breakfast? When is money enough of an incentive? How much do I care about what my neighbor’s think?

Combining the insight with research has helped them parse out why people react the way they do to conservation policies. It’s helped them craft productive questions – as to how much social norms matter when making decisions about pro-environmental behaviors (quite a bit).  Whether money alone is a motivator (only to a point).

Being on the ground also helps make sense when surprises arise.  For instance, paying households to switch from firewood to electricity to heat their homes and cook seemed like an environmental win. Until, that is, multigenerational households recognized the fiscal benefits of breaking up into more family units and using more natural resources in the process.

Informed empathy makes data come alive, and therefore more useful at the very core of sustainability.

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