When Mai was in Thailand working on her PhD on the impact of tourism development on shorebirds, a hitman murdered her friend, a local environmental activist in the tiny fishing village they lived in. He had been fighting to prevent industrial shrimp farming and a coal power plant from encroaching on their coast. Mai’s supervisor told her it happened a lot to silence dissenting voices. The financial incentive could outweigh anything else.
Until this point, Mai’s research had involved documenting the precise decline of wildlife populations. But was this helpful? She recognized that the barrier to conserving species wasn’t biological data or knowledge—the real challenge was in designing social systems that prioritized conservation. She started asking questions like, How do you design systems so that people are autonomously motivated to engage in conservation? And, How do you make the incentive to conserve bigger than monetary incentives?
She was also asking herself, What am I going to do with my life now?
After going through such a life-changing event, what did you do?
I started taking mini-steps towards a career change—one that would shift my research to the psychology of how to motivate people to conserve natural habitats. I needed to find a place that would let me work in social sciences and hold on to my NSERC grant in natural sciences. That’s why I joined Project Seahorse at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. There I examined the social, ecological and economic impacts of community-based marine reserves in the Philippines. These marine reserves are managed by small-scale fishing villages.
The people there were so on board to conserve, without an obvious incentive of economic gain. We often think that in conservation, people who don’t have a lot of money are only motivated by money…but that is super simplistic. Because of course they are motivated by a wide range of values. These values include friendships, environmental ethics, hope, empowerment and social capital.
I also recently studied inter-generational farmers in Tasmania, an island state of Australia. I explored what motivated landowners to engage in conservation even if it meant incurring significant personal financial costs.
How does all this relate to your teaching?
In Communities and Conservation, we look at how to engage small communities, like fishers or farmers, in conservation. Or if they are already engaging in conservation, how to not get in their way or unintentionally thwart their autonomous motivation.
Better understanding and solving conservation challenges is all about taking an interdisciplinary approach—wildlife management is really about managing people. This includes the role of the government in both encouraging conservation and not suppressing it.
I also teach a Field Course in Brooks Peninsula called Exploring the Ecological Self, where we study some of the psychological impacts of spending time in nature. Students spend 12 days on the beach immersed in contemporary scientific papers about what’s happening to their minds.
What’s your pedagogic approach?
I ask students to critically examine their own values and beliefs, and to try to see their own blind-spots. We roleplay and I cast them in characters with very different world views and experiences than they might be used to. We talk about various scenarios and weigh the ecological or social impacts of management decisions. For instance, a dentist kills a rhino for sport, but the hunting fees pay for conservation in the area. Or what about putting a casino in a park? What if it’s run by the Indigenous community? We likely have visceral reactions to some of these things, but we need to ask ourselves where that comes from rather than having a black and white perspective about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Perhaps these exercises help students have a more nuanced perspective.
Emotionally engaging students is key. If they are having a full body experience—if they are frustrated, sad, stressed or laughing—they will learn more, change more.
I hope they learn to see complexity, to doubt their own perspective, and to really listen to other people.