Project Aids Environmental Decisions in the Face of Complicated Trade-offs

MSU researchers aim to help sort out today's complex problems such as energy shortages, climate change, and pollution.

October 2, 2009

Joe Arvai

Energy shortages, climate change, pollution -- some of the world's most pressing problems weigh on the shoulders of some of the world's most hard-pressed people. Michigan State University researchers aim to help them sort out such complex problems.

International development programs have long sought to improve quality of life for people living in developing regions of the world, said MAES scientist Joe Arvai, a faculty member in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies (CARRS). Development agencies now recognize the need to include environmental sustainability as part of their missions, he said, but difficult trade-offs often are involved, and they?re typically weighed by individuals and groups with differing needs and preferences.

Should developing nations clear forests for fuel or to plant crops? Apply more fertilizer and pesticide to boost yields? Develop large or small plantations? If minority or otherwise marginalized farmers are even asked their opinions, will they matter?

"What I'm really interested in is people when they're making decisions, how they confront trade-offs across objectives," Arvai explained. "People find it difficult to confront a number of objectives at a time."

Many considerations tend to fall by the wayside, he said, and emotional responses to fundamental concerns usually dominate decision making.

Opinion surveys tend to take the form of multiple-choice polls, but those don't always get to the bottom of people's concerns or help them work through complex issues, Arvai explained. He's interested in testing such methods against a more in-depth and open-ended approach that taps recent insights from the field of behavioral decision research.

"The hope is that whatever choices people end up making are a truer reflection of what really matters to them, as opposed to giving them information and hoping they consider everything," he said, "and taking a leap of faith that researchers and policymakers really have a handle on what people care about."

"This is all in the realm of international development, where, at least historically, it has been sort of expert-driven -- where we want to encourage farmers to behave in this certain way," added project collaborator Robert Richardson, a CARRS colleague of Arvai.

Decisions likely to confront poor farmers might include whether to seek payment for environmental services in an international climate change mitigation program.

"The question is, is the narrow (survey) approach capturing people?s full willingness to make tradeoffs?" Richardson said.

Doctoral student Delanie Kellon is working with the group, doing research field work in Costa Rica in cooperation with EARTH University there. John Kerr, another CARRS faculty member, also is participating and hopes to incorporate similar research conducted recently by some of his doctoral candidate students in Tanzania.

"There is a lot of discussion about the role of people in tropical countries in protecting forests to help limit global warming, since tropical forests store carbon and cutting them releases carbon dioxide," Kerr said. "Many programs exist to reduce tropical deforestation, but it's hard to find success stories. A better understanding of local people's perceptions of tradeoffs could help in the design of programs to reduce deforestation."

The two-year project is funded with a $394,753 grant from the National Science Foundation using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds.

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