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Center for Conservation Social Sciences explores human role in nature

The re-named and re-envisioned Center for Conservation Social Sciences conducts innovative research into how people interrelate with nature. Above, agroecology in the Alta Verapaz highlands of Guatemala. Provided. 

In the 1970s, when Cornell researchers began studying how human behavior affects natural resource management, they were on the cutting-edge of what is now a widely accepted truth: Managing nature requires understanding humans, too.

“Historically, natural resource management was based on an understanding of natural sciences and ecology,” said Bruce Lauber, director of the Human Dimensions Research Unit in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – which this week is being renamed and re-envisioned as the Center for Conservation Social Sciences (CCSS). “Our role is really to understand people and society. How do people behave and make decisions as individuals and groups, how do larger social forces influence these behaviors, and how do those behaviors influence natural resources?”

Housed in the Department of Natural Resources, CCSS works with affiliated researchers across academic departments at Cornell and in disciplines including development sociology, communication, economics and social psychology. The name change reflects the breadth of its work, and is more understandable to people outside the natural resources discipline.

When it was created in the early 1970s, the unit focused on topics such as deer hunting and deer management. White-tail deer populations were beginning to grow, as they have continued to, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation tapped the researchers to understand farmers’ experiences with deer damage, using that information to make decisions about hunting regulations that would sustain agriculture. This type of research was novel at the time and began to make decision makers aware of the many ways that social science research could support conservation.

The new logo for the Center for Conservation Social Sciences.

More recently, as the unit grew with the addition of more core faculty, its research agenda broadened to include a wider array of questions about how people interrelate with nature. “Our breadth has positioned us to do research that helps society respond to a variety of environmental problems in a time of rapid change,” said Barbara Knuth, associate director.

Starting in the 1980s, Knuth, professor of natural resource policy and management and dean of the Graduate School, brought to the program a strong emphasis on fisheries and how to encourage safe fish consumption. When professors Richard Stedman and Shorna Allred joined the unit in 2007, they began research in topics ranging from how resource-dependent communities coped with a changing world to conservation behaviors of private landowners. The unit now studies a range of natural resources issues and their impact on human systems, from invasive species to gas exploration and how society views conservation.

A project led by Lauber and Stedman is examining the potential impact of invasive Asian carp entering the Great Lakes watershed from the Mississippi River. In the Mississippi watershed, the carp outcompete native fish, feeding voraciously on plankton, which other species rely on for food. The unit has worked with a team of ecologists and economists in interdisciplinary research to understand this problem. They estimate how Asian carp and other invasive species could affect fish populations and recreational fishing in the Great Lakes – and how that could affect the economic value of fishing.

Stedman also has directed multiple projects looking at societal “energy transitions” and their costs and benefits. One strand of this work has involved assessing community support/opposition to and impacts of horizontal shale gas drilling, known as fracking. Working with collaborators in the U.S. and Europe, Stedman has revealed distinct policy-relevant patterns of response and impact. “In some contexts, energy development has not yet been such a game-changer for local communities as commonly promoted by industry,” said Stedman. One study of landowners who have leased their property for fracking suggests that both the economic benefits and the environmental costs may be much more modest than commonly discussed. “This work is now moving into studies of smart grids and large-scale renewables,” he said.

Professor Shorna Allred participates in fieldwork on indigenous cultural resilience research with Penan tribe of Borneo. Provided.

Allred is working to understand conservation behavior and decision-making in our changing world. Conservation-enhancing behavior is not the default mode for many, yet the behavior of individuals, organizations and communities impacts the environment. This is evident for forest landowners who control the majority of forestland in the United States and New York state; their actions influence water quality and quantity, carbon sequestration, recreational opportunity, habitat and more.

“To gain a better understanding of conservation behavior my research is not just examining individual decision-making but theorizing how the social and environmental context, including the role of information, organizations and ecological conditions, work together with individual level factors to influence behavior,” said Allred.

“Natural resource managers are looking for options that will help people cope with changes in their environment, and our work can help them understand the human costs and benefits of their decisions,” Lauber said. “That’s the underlying theme of all the work we do here: to provide context on how humans can impact, and be impacted by, natural resource management decisions.”

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.