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Social subgroups key to environmental preservation

Social subgroups are key to environmental preservation, new study shows

Upon first thought, it may seem logical that societies succeed best with complete cohesiveness and unification. But recent research suggests that the formation of social subgroups is crucial to key evolutionary movements, especially environmental conservation.

A team of researchers at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) set out to analyze how societies with differing social structures manage their resources. The team created a mathematical model indicating societies that over-exploited their natural resources ultimately went extinct, while those that kept a careful eye on their consumption and resources fared much better.

The team then wanted to define which factors play the most important roles in determining how environmental resources are conserved. The model showed that the formation of social subgroups made a society four times more likely to conserve their resources and survive than societies with no subgroups – no surprise to risk and complexity analysts who have said the same for decades, calling out many social researchers for their assumptions to the contrary.

Tim Waring, lead author of the study and associate professor at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and the School of Economics at the University of Maine, explained that those societies that broke up into social subgroups evolved better methods of conservation because each subgroup could essentially divide and conquer. With each group focusing on a different specialization, they could learn and benefit from each other.

“Usually, we assume that everyone has to cooperate to save environmental resources, but what we found was that sustainable use of resources emerged more when societies were broken up into multiple groups, like states in the United States, or countries in Europe,” said Waring. “This between-group learning means that behaviors and institutions that help groups survive can spread among groups.”

As an example, Waring referenced the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the first climate change talks held by the United Nations. The conference took a top-down approach and was ultimately unsuccessful. But the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris was generated by the efforts of smaller, grassroots movements. As such, it yielded the Paris Agreement, a massive global agreement containing specific steps meant to reduce climate change.

According to Waring, it all comes down to the ways in which humans organize and collaborate. “Part of the problem is that cooperation is harder to grow in larger groups,” he said. “But when smaller groups learn to cooperate and be sustainable, their practices can spread.”

By Olivia Harvey, Staff Writer

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